Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great Outdoors Vital to Children's Health and Education

As a city-mom shopping around for preschools, I've noticed several programs touting the kids' regular access to several acres of wilderness. One nursery school's website even features a large, colorful photograph of children running full force through a field dotted with mature trees and strewn with freshly-fallen leaves.

This emphasis on the importance of free play in nature has inspired my curiosity. Is there any hard evidence that children benefit more from playing in forest and field opposed to gym or playground? If so, what are those benefits?

One seemingly obvious benefit is to physical fitness. Indeed, there are great benefits to be had with certain types of video games, websites, board games, and many other indoor activities. But they are mostly sedentary activities. Simply being outside where there is much more space to move around in, and in nature where there tends to be more space in between points of interest compels a person to get more exercise.

In a couple of her articles on babycenter.com, anthropologist Gwen Dewar cites a few studies and provides some analysis of a potential connection between health and time spent in the great outdoors. In Kids outdoors: Beyond team spots and PE, she writes about how children in Amish and Mennoite communities tend to be leaner and stronger, and she suggests this is because of physically-engaging chores such as hauling water and chopping wood. Although Dewar is quick to point out that American children who merely live in more rural areas do not tend to be more physically fit. The idea, she insists, is to just get them outside doing anything, such as biking or hiking, rather than exclusively depending on organized sports or physical education classes to keep kids in shape. And in her article Parents stifle kids' active, outdoor play, Dewar discusses studies which suggest that more formal, adult-guided activities (opposed to free play with peers) results in kids being less active.

Much has been written about how adults in cities tend to be more active than their suburban counterparts. The simple fact that city folks have access to public transit or live within walking distance to many stores, banks, post offices, and such means that they at least walk more average steps in a day. When Morgan Spurlock went on his McDonald's diet for a month for the film Supersize Me, he also restricted his movement to that of the average American, and living in the city that meant often taking cabs where normally he would have done a combination of walking and public transit. However, does this mean city kids are also more active than rural and suburban kids? One study suggests that the opposite is true. As reported in this article:

The report, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, used data from a 2006 survey of school-aged children from grades 6 through 10 (ages 11 to 15). It looked at the physical activity patterns of 8,535 students from 180 schools across Canada, and then compared it to the 5-kilometre area surrounding each school. 
The study found that youth in the neighbourhoods of highest density and most connectivity between streets were less likely to be physically active outside school.
The problem is that, especially for younger children, adequate adult supervision in densely packed, narrow streets with numerous moving vehicles is difficult. Indeed, raising my toddler in the city I've found that I am not comfortable even walking a couple blocks to the pharmacy without putting her in a harness to prevent her from suddenly dashing into a busy road. (I get some funny looks doing so, but I'll take that over her getting hit by a car because I wasn't fast enough to grab her in time.) Children in suburbs and more rural areas tend to have large yards and can more safely take over quiet cul-de-sacs for biking, roller skating, and casual games of soccer. 
Beyond exercise, what other benefits could there be to children spending more time in nature? Recently a report in Scotland indicated that the creation of "Urban Jungles" (trees, boulders, and tunnels, opposed to more traditional playground equiptment) resulted in not only increased physical activity of the children, but less accidents and less bullying. 
Over a two week period in 2009 there were 76 accidents, one incident of bullying and 53 other incidents, which include pushing, hitting and slipping. 
A follow-up study in 2011 recorded six accidents and two cases of bullying. Both cases of bullying occurred when the natural play space was closed. 
Others are raising concerns that an increasing disconnect with nature leaves serious gaps in children's education that might diminish their ability to understand many concepts in science and environmental concerns.  One professor in West Australia has spoken out against the problem, particularly for city children

Dr How, who is also an adjunct professor at the school of anatomy and human biology at the University of WA, said the issue was a significant challenge to biodiversity education. 
He said this held serious consequences for children's health but also environmental conservation because the next generation could not protect and appreciate what they did not understand.  

There the State Government is spending two million dollars on a "Nature Play" program to encourage children to experience and learn about the outdoors. 

Recently, Michael D. Barton expressed many of the same concerns in guest article for the Foundation Beyond Belief's blog, titled Humanist Perspectives: Connecting Children to Nature. Barton writes about his concerns that education about evolution, the environment, and developing a personal connection to nature through first hand experience is lacking in public schools, and that as a parent he feels it is his responsibility to supplement his child's education in those areas. He does this not only by having lots of relevant books about, but by taking advantage of local parks and trails as well as nature programming at libraries and museums. He writes: 
To feel that we are a part of nature is crucial in thinking about how we want to treat this planet. 
It begs the question, can we learn all we need to know about the natural sciences from books, or is some amount of direct experience necessary? It is one thing to know something in theory. It is another to have experienced it. This is why we have children conduct hands-on experiments, dissect frogs and turn celery stalks funny colors by immersing them in cups of dyed water. Direct experience provides visuals, tactile sensations, sounds, smells, and tastes that allow us to more personally engage with the information we are taking in. These experiences also leave us with a more vivid memory. 

The more I read, the more I'm drawn to that preschool where the teachers and administrators brag about how the children go outside to freely roam the grounds every day, regardless of rain or snow. I love the city, and I'm proud and enthusiastic about raising my children in a place with so much culture, diversity, and sense of community. But I also want my kids to regard physical activity as something spontaneous and joyful, not only as scheduled, formal activities. I want them to know what it is to catch a fish or swim in a lake. When I teach them about Darwin and his theory of natural selection, I want them to be able to easily imagine the experiences that lead to the ideas, such as obsessively collecting beetles, and comparatively examining finches and tortoise shells on the Galapogos Islands. And I want my kids to experience the unique sense of awe and humility that comes with staring up at a sky full of stars, or standing in a forest of tall trees, or witnessing a gorgeous sunset, or gazing out at the endless blue of an immense body of water. I want them to love this earth with a deep and honest passion, so that acting to preserve our planet in its current state is not only rational, it's personal. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On the Film "Forks Over Knives" and Plant-Based Diet Advocacy

With Thanksgiving, a holiday centered around food coming up, it seemed most appropriate to write about Forks Over Knives, one of the latest of many documentaries (not to mention books) about the role of diet in health.

This film advocates for a heavily plant-based diet. At least mostly vegetarian (using meat and other animal products very sparingly as flavoring, and big increases the whole grains, legumes, fruits, and veggies), and ideally strict vegetarian (no meat, dairy, or eggs.) Normally I have avoided films and books that have advocated for vegetarianism, especially strict vegetarian (vegan) diets.

A recent speaker advocating such a diet at one of my local humanist group's program meeting reminded me why. Too often, advocates of vegetarianism, especially veganism, support their message with a bunch of self-righteous moralizing about a level of animal rights that simply doesn't jive with my (or most people's) moral compass. I would happily stab a thousand cows in the face if it would cure a loved-one of cancer. And while I am concerned about the inhumane conditions of much factory farming, there are alternatives of buying and consuming meat from local farmers, and these are becoming more and more accessible. The animal rights approach swiftly dismisses the cultural, psychological, and practical hurtles many must overcome to be vegan, and likens even the occasional meat-eater to puppy torturers. The lecture I recently heard definitely took this approach, and I left the meeting highly annoyed and desiring a cheeseburger just out of spite.

Forks Over Knives does NOT take this approach. Animals rights aren't even mentioned. In fact, the term "vegan" seems to be deliberately avoided in exchange for the phrase "plant-based diet", presumably to distance itself from the association with groups like PETA. Instead, the film focuses on the personal health benefits of a plant-based diet, particular a whole foods, plant-based diet. And it backs its claims up mainly by profiling the research and conclusions of two doctors: T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn. Campbell is a biochemist and one of the lead researchers in the China-Oxford Cornell study that looked at nutrition and disease in 65 rural counties in China over two decades. Campbell wrote about his research and findings in a best selling book The China Study, published in 2006.  Esselstyn is a physician at the Cleveland Clinic who had success treating heart disease patients through diet and wrote about it in Prevent and Reserve Heart Disease, published in 2008. I had previously read both of these doctors' books and had been heavily persuaded by them, while maintaining a few grains of skepticism. After all, the role of nutrition in health is incredibly complex and difficult to study, and both Campbell and Esselstyn make some pretty far-reaching claims about how well a plant-based diet can eliminate many "diseases of affluence" (as Campbell puts it in his book), in particular heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

After reading the books in 2008, I attempted to eat a diet that was mostly in-line with what they advocated. Indeed, I felt good, still enjoyed food, and combined with regular exercise I dropped 25 pounds over 6 months.

But then I got pregnant. (Indeed, the reason I was trying to get all healthy was in anticipation of pregnancy.) It was amazing how much months of persistent nausea and vomiting, as well as hormone-induced cravings for ham salad, cheeseburgers, ice cream, and a total disgust for all things vegetable quickly converted me back to my old way of eating. Actually, much worse than my old way of eating. Things improved a bit after the first trimester, and after having my baby, my love of vegetables returned and I started replacing processed foods, meat, and cheese, with more fresh fruits, veggies, and legumes. But while breastfeeding and eventually introducing a baby to solid foods, I also kept butter, milk, and eggs in the fridge at all times, and made meals with meat at least once or twice a week.

I read Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food, which can be summed up in his mantra "Eat food (as in not overly-processed Frankenfoods). Not too much. Mostly plants." And I was feeling pretty darn good about my family's diet. Then comes along "Forks Over Knives" to remind me of all that stuff I read and started to believe 3 years ago, and I started questioning whether I should be buying a dozen eggs and some sort of free range meat or fish every week.

After watching the film, I poked around the Internet looking for criticisms. I am automatically skeptical of these sorts of documentaries that heavily push a particular political, social, or philosophical point of view. They have a tendency to gloss over important criticisms and utilize a good number of fallacious arguments. And indeed, I found this lengthy but humorous, even-handed, yet heavy critique of the film's scientific claims. The author, Denise Minger, is a young person without any academic credentials in a related field. However, her research and arguments are rather thorough and startling, and I found them quite persuasive. Once again I'm feeling pretty good about allowing my daughter her meatballs and "eggie pie" (quiche) a couple times a week since, after all, she eats just as much beans and brown rice, oatmeal, a wide variety of steamed vegetables, and whole fruits on a daily basis.

For this Thanksgiving I have pre-ordered a free range, local turkey. As a couple of my guests are vegan, it will be accompanied by a wide assortment of plant-based side dishes including strictly vegetarian green bean casserole, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, sweet potato casserole, cranberry salad, and pumpkin pie - all made with fresh ingredients.

But I gotta say, I'm looking forward to that bird.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Highest form of art"? I don't think so.

This is an addendum to my last post about Marni Kotak's performance art piece The Birth of Baby X. The artist successfully gave birth to a baby boy in the gallery this morning to an audience of maybe 15 people. I'm not sure why this is news. Most of us have known or will know people who are pregnant. A huge number of us women will some day be pregnant and experience birth. A huge number of men will have a partner who gives birth and be able to play a supporting role in the birth process. People can read about it, find books and videos that show all the details. Those who want to have a more intimate understanding of the process of birth can discover and attend gatherings of women who tell their "birth stories". This isn't exactly something shrouded in mystery anymore, as some would like to pretend. Which probably explains Kotak's small audience.

Really, what was the point here?
Rhetoric that attempts (and fails) to give higher meaning to this performance abounds. One spectator was quoted saying,
I feel like the entire audience accomplished this together with Marni, using the commonly created positive energy. 
Obviously the artist would have accomplished giving birth whether the audience was there or not, so I'm not sure what their supposed "positive energy" contributed.

The artist herself contributed more empty blather:
Kotak has said she hopes people will see that giving birth is what she calls "the highest form of art."
Forget Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel ceiling, the compositions of Mozart, the plays of Shakespeare. Doing something that only women can do, but which requires simply a fully functioning reproductive system and being sexual active is not just art, but the "highest form" of art. Huzzah for womanhood! Who knew surpassing Picasso could be so easy!

Forget the caves at Lascaux and the creative explosion, a time when modern humans evolved beyond all other species in a flurry of creative activity never seen before on earth. According to Marni Kotak, there is nothing that special about us humans. Apparently, something that just about every female of every sexually reproducing species on the planet, including roaches, rats, and worms can do is not just art, but the "highest form" of art.

No. Art is a response to our life experiences, not the experiences themselves, and not the mere documentation or witnessing of those experience. Art is creative. It transcends our experiences, gives them meaning.

As far as I can tell, all this performance was made up of was the artist documenting and engaging in aspects of her regular life on display for an audience. Maybe that would have been cutting edge stuff that pushed the boundaries of what is considered art many decades ago, but these days, who cares? What profound meaning comes out of this that didn't already exist without it?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bad Art: Marni Kotak's "The Birth of Baby X"

Majoring in fine art and having to form an opinion about it, I long ago concluded that anything presented as "art" is appropriately categorized as such. Found objects such as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (literally a urinal) or the rock and driftwood sculptures on view at Mokseogwon on Jeju Island: art. Chris Burden crucified on a Volkswagen, Marina Abramovic starring silently across a table at total strangers for over 700 hours: art. The scribblings and clumsy drawings of millions of children hanging on countless refrigerators: art.

Not to say all (or even most) art is good art. Just that it is art.   

So now that I have that out of the way, I can write about some crappy art. Specifically, artist Marni Kotak's latest performance piece: The Birth of Baby X. For this piece, the artist has transformed Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn into a sort of home-birth space to give birth to her baby in view of the public. 

Women turning aspects of their births into public affairs is nothing new. Numerous women have allowed video footage of the birthing process to be used in documentaries and educational films, viewed by high school students in biology classes and couples in birth classes around the world. The "Feminist Breeder" Gina Crosley-Corcoran turned her birth into a live blogging event with updates, photos, sound clips, and more. Chiropractor Nancy Salgueiro recently invited the public to view the live stream of her giving birth. For anyone interested in the progression of the natural childbirth movement, a performance such as Marni Kotak's is hardly ground-breaking. On the contrary, it was inevitable.   

While Kotak cites established performance artists such as Vito Acconci and Carolee Schneemann as her inspirations, her work is not nearly as creative or provocative.  In an interview with The Village Voice, Kotak says, 
I am driven to hold onto an authentic personal experience in a world that has essentially become consumed by an unreal hyper-reality.
But the performances of Acconci, Schneemann, Burden, and Abramovic aren't public displays of their real, day-to-day lives. They are creatively tailored. Certainly both the artist and the participating audience have an "authentic personal experience", but so does an actor playing Hamlet on stage, or a theater goer moved to tears by his performance. From what I can tell, there is as little creativity as possible in Kotak's performance. Instead, in her attempts to make the piece as "authentic" as she can, she has turned it into little more than a live documentary. 

The Birth of Baby X seems to be more an extension of the natural childbirth movement than the performance art of her claimed inspirations. In The Village Voice interview she also states:  
In "The Birth of Baby X," I will be completely engrossed in the act of giving birth before a live audience. I will be focused on delivering my child into the world in the healthiest manner possible, rather than on how I look or what the audience may think. Everything I have learned about the birth process is that the more you surrender your mind and don't try to control the event, but let your body do what it naturally knows how to do, the better your labor progresses. 
Here Kotak seems to be taken in by some of the unscientific claims and rhetoric of the natural childbirth movement. There is no evidence that surrendering your mind results in a better labor process. Letting your body do what it naturally does will not prevent abnormalities in the size or position of the baby or in the pelvis or structures that support it. It will not help if the cord is wrapped around the baby's neck or if the placenta does not have enough oxygen stored to supply the baby during labor. It won't prevent infections that pose a danger to the child. Women surrendering to their bodies isn't what has drastically reduced the number of women and babies who die in childbirth. Indeed, the places in the world where access to modern medicine is limited, women and babies continue to be at great risk.   

The more I read about Kotak's motivations, the more it seems to be a self-aggrandizing political stunt rather than a challenging or transcendent work of art. In an article published in Hyperallergic, we see more typical pro-natural childbirth rhetoric: 
Childbirth is treated like an illness,” Kotak said. Hospitals are often a sterile place to have a child, with multiple rules and regulations forbidding visitors. “You get the sense that people are afraid of birth and female sexuality.” In other cultures outside of the United States, having a baby is more integrated into the culture and having supportive friends and family around is the norm.
The natural childbirth movement began in reaction to conventional practices in medicine that often were sexist and which typically did make the process of childbirth more stressful and isolating for women. However, it isn't the 1960's anymore. Today, a growing number of obstetricians are women, certified nurse midwives working in hospitals are on the rise, partners play an active role, and breastfeeding is encouraged. Not to mention the countless books written to educate women on childbirth and the ample Internet resources available at the click of a mouse. 

In popular television shows and movies, hospital birth is most typically presented as painful, but endurable, safe, and resulting in a sweaty-but-smiling woman holding a healthy newborn in her arms moments afterward. Such was the case in one of the latest episodes of the television drama Parenthood when the character Kristina Braverman gives birth to her daughter Nora. Unable to get a hold of her husband, a nurse takes charge and is the one to pressure her brother-in-law to stay in the room with her to provide a supporting role. Meanwhile, the rest of the extended family soon gathers outside to congratulate her and welcome the new child into the world. I don't really know how the experience of childbirth could be painted in a more positive light without glossing over the very real physical pain, exhaustion, and perfectly realistic fears parents have about complications that routinely occur in a minority of cases. 

Kotak claims that "... the ultimate creation of this life performance will be a living being!" No. The ultimate creation of this life performance will be a bump to the artist's career and ego, and further dissemination of some more foolish sentiments of the natural childbirth movement. The living being will be the result of a biological function that most human women are capable of for most of their adult lives. 

The most authentic experience is not a performance of any kind. When real life is presented to an audience as art, both the viewers and performers end up having an experience that is mitigated by the self awareness and analysis invited by it also being a performance. The performance aspect does not elevate the experience. Rather, it cheapens and objectifies it. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review of Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker

This isn't a book about parenting or even necessarily for parents. It is a book written by a professional science writer, for the layman, about a recently developed and controversial hypothesis: that the earth can become, and has at least once frozen over completely, and that one such "snowball" likely played a role in the development of complex life on earth.

I see this book (and books like it) as relevant to humanist parenting in that this is the sort of book that has the potential to intensely pique the interest of how science works for any teenager or child old enough to read it, as well as, of course, adults. Unlike textbooks, in addition to giving all the relevant and hard scientific details, it tells a story, complete with dramatic build up and fully fleshed-out characters. As I read, I often found myself laughing out loud, tearing up, felt my muscles tighten with suspense, or experienced that sinking feeling we all have during times of despair.

Gabrielle Walker did extensive interviews with all the living players in this true-to-life drama, and in some cases seems to have developed a deep personal relationship with them. She refers to them by their first names, "Paul", "Brian", "Joe" etc.  Each is introduced to the reader through physical descriptions and anecdotes from their lives that give us a sense of their overall personalities. Geologist Paul Hoffman, an "obsessive man espousing an extreme theory" is the obvious hero of the story. The book begins with a novelesque telling of his running the Boston Marathon as a young man, a tale which - at least the way Walker tells it - reveals all his basic characteristics which would later become necessary to his development and championing of the Snowball Earth hypothesis.

The scientists in the story are real people with varying amounts of ego and ambition, unique senses of humor, specific sensitivities, and lenses through which they view the world. We see how these men's biases shape their initial conclusions or responses to the ideas of others in their field. For example, in the 1830's, Swiss researcher Louis Agassiz became the first to champion the idea of widespread ice, though he has a religious reason for doing so: he believed the ice was God's chosen mechanism for clearing the stage for humanity's occupation of earth. Sometimes the craziest ideas pan out, or the most passionate critics end up providing additional evidence for the very idea they intended to refute. What moves the process along, what ultimately brings everyone together, the universality, the objectivity of the scientific method. As Walker puts it:

"What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is not whether your theory originated with some particular conviction about how the world works, or whether you feel an emotional attachment to it. What matters is the evidence you find to support it, and whether you are ultimately prepared to accept that it could be wrong." 

And so, among scientists, there should be no shame in feeling great passion or excitement for particular ideas, and imagination and rebelliousness can be great assets. So long as at the end of the day, they follow the science.

Walker also paints an incredibly vivid picture of the remote geological locations where these hardy geologists find and study the rocks and fossils to develop and then support their ideas. This is partially because she has traveled to most of these places herself, from Africa to the South Pole, just so she, and by extension her readers, can get a real feel for the heat or chills, the light, biting insects, or hazardous snakes and elephants that are part of a typical day in the field.

Too often scientists are stereotyped as dispassionate oddballs hiding away in labs and offices. In this book, the reader is brought to realize the most heroic unique personal characteristics necessary to become a geologist in the first place, and which inevitably shape the culture, and at time the politics, of their profession.  These realizations hopefully establish an admiration for geology that is based in more than a general respect for all hard sciences, but also extends to geologists' passion, perseverance, and intimate connection to the earth, especially the particular areas of land they as individuals examine and excavate.

In summary, books like this make the work of science riveting, and perhaps that is the best approach for spreading its popularity among our children, ourselves, and in the mainstream population.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A New Response to an Old Argument of Anti-gay Bigots

I do not throw words like "bigotry" around lightly. If someone is personally squeamish or morally against something, but keeps that to themselves, their own home, their own religious community, and doesn't advocate for laws that actively discriminate against others, I would never call him or her a bigot. Misguided, perhaps misinformed, and just plain wrong, sure. But not bigots.

Bigots are the people who want to prevent gay couples from getting legally married. Bigots are people who think it is fine when employers refuse to hire someone, or think it is fine to fire someone because they are gay. Bigots are people who want to prevent gay couples from adopting and fostering children. And sadly, surveys show that America is full of bigots.

Over the years I've encountered a number of (stupid and often cruel) arguments against equal rights for homosexuals. One that recently came up on a discussion forum I frequent was the old line about how nature (read: God) clearly "intended" a man and woman to raise children since only one man and one woman can biologically bring a child into the world. I can't say how many times I've heard/read variations of this argument over the years, some worded more crassly ("You can't fit a square peg in a round hole"), and some of which attempt to sound more philosophically profound.

They all ignore the fact that there have been numerous studies, and yet still no evidence that gay parents do a worse job than any adoptive parents (although there is evidence that their kids can be hurt by discrimination and homophobia.)

They all ignore the fact that the nuclear family is a relatively modern cultural construct, and that in most traditional societies children have been raised by a whole extended family.

They all ignore the fact that before the dawn of modern medicine, many mothers died in childbirth, meaning scores of children in history have been raised without their biological mothers.

They all ignore the fact that single women can and regularly do have children, and that without a test, paternity isn't obvious, and men can die young too, so scores of children in history have been raised without their biological fathers.

In short, to anyone with a brain and a little curiosity and compassion, arguing that gay couples shouldn't raise children just because they can't biologically produce children (with each other - obviously gay individuals have biological children using surrogacy and donor insemination, or from a previous heterosexual relationship) is a stupid and heartless argument.

That said, soon, the argument will also be just plain false. Think homosexual couples can't biologically reproduce with each other? Think again.

The last twenty years have seen incredible developments in reproductive technologies, not just for heterosexual couples, but both gay men and lesbian couples. Specifically, technologies which can be used to create female sperm and male eggs, which can then be used to conceive a child with two biological mothers or two biological fathers. The technology is far enough that young gay men and lesbians who expect to be affluent enough to pay for expensive procedures (as many well-to-do straight couples with reproductive difficulty already do) are talking up hopes and plans for their future family planning.

In a few, short years, that tired old line "gay couples can never have their own kids" will be obsolete, and people who say it as if it is something profound to base public policy on, will continue their steady march toward being seen for the bigots they truly are.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Evaluating Homeschooling Options in America

With the quality of public schools ranging widely, especially between more and less affluent communities, and rising cost of living and stagnating wages putting private schooling out of reach for many parents, the option of homeschooling has become quite attractive. After all, the Internet has made free and affordable resources for homeschooling families prevalent, and studies comparing the test scores of homeschooled kids to traditionally schooled kids show that homeschoolers may even have an edge.

Many in the Humanist community have developed concerns about homeschooling since the movement is mostly driven by fundamentalist Christian parents who seek to shield their children from the influence of secular culture. However, a significant minority of homeschoolers are highly educated liberals with secular humanist values. It is among this group that the unique subset of homeschoolers, self-dubbed "unschoolers" has arisen.

The unschooling approach is very different from structured homeschooling, which typically includes a set curriculum similar to that of traditional schools. Unschooled kids are expected to be responsible for their own education. Children decide what and how they want to learn, and parents serve as facilitators who provide a great deal of opportunity and intellectual stimulation, but never push anything on a reluctant child. Advocates of unschooling argue that traditional education stifles children's creativity, critical thinking ability, and natural desire and inclination to learn everything they need to know through everyday play and other activities. They claim that the requirements of school force children to memorize information unconnected to anything in their lives, which they promptly forget soon after testing. Even worse, children come to have an adverse reaction to any formal education. Critics of unschooling claim that without set requirements, most children will have significant gaps in their education and also give up on subjects which interest them when those subjects become difficult. Critics also have concerns that certain subjects become more difficult to learn as a child ages, and that lacking a firm foundation in early childhood puts the child at a disadvantage when they finally become interested in those subjects at an older age. Both sides make claims that sound reasonable, but which is closer to real-life outcomes?

Sadly, there isn't much hard data that measures the quality of unschooling, or homeschooling in general. This is become most of the studies that have been done involved volunteer rather than randomly selected subjects. Also, while some homeschoolers are willing to subject their children to standardized tests, many aren't, especially if their children are unschooled, and this creates further bias. Gwen Dewar has just written on her blog about a new study which attempt to eliminate some of these biases. The results were that according to standardized tests, structured homeschoolers have a bit of an advantage over public school children, while unschoolers do a bit worse. Certainly this tells us something, but it is only one study, and one must wonder how good are standardized tests an indicator of future, overall success and satisfaction in adult life?

In my own perusals of unschooling communities I have noted some consistent characteristics. In general, advocates and practitioners of unschooling include artists of various stripes and academics in the humanities or soft sciences, especially psychology. It is difficult, however, to find any scientists, engineers, or medical doctors. Is this an indication that math skills and the academic discipline necessary for certain careers is lacking among unschoolers? I can't be sure, but it is disconcerting.

Two other common characteristics found within unschooling communities just as disconcerting are the rather self-righteous tone and evangelical zeal.  The author of the blog The Chatelaine's Keys also noticed these annoying tendencies and wrote about in this post. Sharon writes:

I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers – anyone who needs to describe all other methods of parenting and educating with the language of violence using words like “force” and “coercion” to describe loving parenting relations that are different from your own choices deserves some real scrutiny – why is it necessary to then demean all other kinds of parenting or education?  I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off – implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

Sharon also expresses my same concern regarding the sciences, questioning whether an older unschooled child who suddenly desires to become a rocket scientist could just quickly play catch-up on learning higher math. Indeed, given that we know that, for instance, foreign languages are much more easily learned from a very early age, it seems foolish to not take advantage of this special ability during early childhood education. We also know that certain athletic and other physical pursuits must be started at an early age if future professional goals are ever to be obtained. A four-year-old child might express an interest in ballet lessons, but will he or she actually practice enough entirely on his or her own at that age to have career potential? Of course most children will never have the potential to be a professional ballet dancer or rocket scientist just because their parents forced them to practice/study from a young age. However, it is doubtful that a child who starts ballet or higher math education at the age of sixteen could ever achieve professional status.

Of course we parents have to play a lot by ear and be careful not to force our children into hours and hours of excessive study into a subject that they never did and never will enjoy. That's just a recipe for years of resentment and therapy. But is the opposite extreme really any better? I for one am grateful for many things my parents made me do, such as practicing piano, running in track metes, and taking language and culture courses in Mexico one summer. Also, in my teens and early twenties, most of the disciplined study habits I developed - which have served me well in many aspects of my adult life - were achieved by the desire for good grades and high test scores rather than sheer love of knowledge.

As a freelance fine artist, it is a constant internal battle to maintain a regular studio practice, and it is such a weight off my shoulders when a scheduled exhibition or project provides an external deadline with external consequences and rewards. Sure we all need to be able to do some things out of personal motivation, but it is also part of life and the human condition to do some things just because others expect it. This is not a burden. We gain a great deal of satisfaction from fulfilling outside obligations and tasks. We take pride in prestigious job titles, impressive lines on our resumes, or letters after our names. To some degree we're playing a game within an artificial system, but flaws aside, things get done, and playing a role gets us outside of our own heads and connects us with the larger society.

Every parent has to decide what course is best for their children's education, taking into account their own situation, values, and abilities. We are fortunate in the United States to have a great number of options, although sometimes the wide range of choices and limited information on what will work best for our kids can be frustrating. Given what I've learned so far, and the importance I place on math, science, and multicultural awareness, whether I sent my kids to school or educate them at home, they're going to be studying age-appropriate math and foreign language, whether they want to or not. If they want to join the circus when they grow up, great! I just want to make sure they have options.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review of "How to Talk to Your New Age Relative"

I don't actually have a New Age relative. Well, at least not any that has gone so far off the deep end that they are in conflict with me or anyone else in my family. I have, however, had to deal with close friends of the family and people in community groups with beliefs that fit this guide's description of the "New Age". Also, I certainly do have certain outspoken relatives who have beliefs in conflict with my secular humanism, and much of the advice in this guide could be applied to speaking with a relative with any beliefs different from one's own. I have also had relatives who have involved themselves in financial cons and attempted to involve me or other relatives, and this guide also touches on those scenarios as they relate to New Age hucksters.

How to Talk to Your New Age Relative describes itself as "at time light-hearted and humorous", and I would agree. It is a sensibly-organized, quick read (about 25 pages) with a pleasant tone. And a light tone can be necessary when speaking about emotionally-charged issues such as how to deal with a cousin informing you that your dead mother spoke to him in a dream or that your son's cancer is merely a manifestation his inner state of mind.

There are some psychological explanations of "New Age" belief, such as trauma from childhood, that I felt were mere speculation and the guide would have been stronger without them. However, they are mentioned infrequently and as mere possible explanations for some, not all.

Most importantly, all of the advice is rather sound. Probably the best of it for people with strong opposing opinions (like us secular humanists) is the "classic switch-out" (changing the subject) since one of the dumbest thing I've certainly done with relatives and friends is get into a long, exhausting, and fruitless argument over philosophical differences.

This is the sort of common sense advice a mother or wise aunt gives because she knows how important it is for family to get along. The kind of advice that rings true, even obvious, when you consider it from a calm frame of mind, but which is easy to forget when you are taken off-guard, distressed, or pissed off. That's why it's good to have re-iterated and re-enforced, be it through a conversation with a wise friend or a guide written by a wise stranger.

Indeed, when someone we care about upsets us, it is easy to forget that how we respond can damage that relationship even more, or open it to ongoing future conflicts. This guides tells or reminds us how to diffuse and put a (hopefully) final end to conflicts as carefully as possible. And indeed it is painful to watch a loved-one venture into a worldview we do not share, and may in fact despise and deem harmful. This guide tells or reminds us that we can't change people, no matter how much we want to or how sincere our efforts. However, it also points out that we are more than our philosophical beliefs, and we can maintain healthy relationships with our New Age relatives based on what we do have in common.

In summary, I recommend this guide to anyone experiencing conflict or frustration over a relative or close friend with "New Age" beliefs, and who is seeking advice on how to cope. I think such readers will find it both useful and comforting.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Day Care Should Be Free

In honor of Labor Day, I've decided to write about an issue that has bothered me since the birth of my daughter two years ago. Although it should have bothered me long before that. The only reason it didn't is because, until I had my own child, it never occurred to me.

We should have free, public day care in the United States. Just as we have public schools and public libraries, the services of firefighters and police, day care should be free to the public and funded by tax dollars. And we should have this because it is fair and in the interest of not only parents, but our society at large.

Consider these facts:

According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, the average cost of day care for a single child over one year is $11,666.

According to the 2008 Census, average household income is around $52,000. Single custodial parents (who care for 26% of America's children) are obviously earning less than that, although the majority of them still do not qualify for or take advantage of social services such as food stamps, rent subsidy, or Medicaid.

According to analysis of 2008 data by Emmanual Saez at the University of California-Berkley, the bottom 90% of American household's average income is just over $31,000.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers average around $20,000 annually, with the highest paid still barely reaching $30,000. (So basically, those workers - mostly women - can't afford to send even one of their own kids to the very facility they work at caring for other peoples' kids.)

As of 2006 the average full time Walmart employee (working about 34 hours per week at just over $10. per hour) earns $17,874 per year.

The typical working parents of young children are just barely getting by financially, many in the gap where they aren't quite poor enough to qualify for aid, but also aren't earning enough to save for emergencies, retirement, or their children's college funds, much less for well-deserved and psychologically-needed vacations. They are literally on the edge of poverty, and face rapidly rising costs of medical care and insurance, food, gas, and higher education, while wages stagnate.

Obviously huge numbers of Americans simply can't afford professional child care. Even the crappy little one-room day cares loaded with crying infants, where the TV is blaring all day long, and exhausted caretakers are overworked and underpaid are too expensive for most American households. A single mother working a job making $30,000 a year simply cannot afford full time professional day care, but she must work in order to provide housing, food, and medical insurance for her family. So who exactly is taking care of the kids?

Retired and unemployed relatives and friends is one answer. And is that a good solution? I question the quality of care children receive by people who might be alone with them for 40+ hours a week, and whose only qualification may be that they happen to be around and have been pressured into it by a sense of family or friendly obligation. I also question how fair it is to older relatives, usually grandparents, who may not be in the best health, and after earning their retirement now have to go back to work full time doing the highly stressful job of caring for babies and toddlers.  

Then there are the parents who sacrifice earnings and career to care for kids. Many highly educated, productive working mothers (and some fathers) are leaving their careers or at least cutting back heavily on work to raise children, and then finding themselves at a huge disadvantage when they return to their career. Women are especially at a disadvantage if their marriage ends in divorce. Society is losing out on the benefits of these peoples' work.

There is obviously a problem here.

But if I bring this issue up to my middle class, liberal friends, they mostly just sort of shrug their shoulders and say something like, "Well, yeah, it probably should be made a little more affordable for some people."

Bullshit, I say. This is outrageous! The cost of just about everything is outpacing wages too quickly. Children are not a luxury or accessory. They are members of our society who need to be cared for until they mature, and we as a society have a responsibility to them and to the parents and guardians who raise them. Day care should be a free, public service. And it should be as simple and easy as enrolling a kid in public school.

Happy Labor Day, folks.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Review of 101 Reasons Why I'm an Unschooler by PS Pirro

In the United States, parents of means have a great deal of freedom regarding what type of education to choose for their children. I stress parents of means because it is important to acknowledge that the economic (and cultural) restraints of living in poverty severely limit choices which others take for granted. But more on that later.

PS Pirro is a blogger, self-published writer, and unschooling mom living in the midwest. If you don't know what unschooling is, you can find a decent explanation on Wikipedia. In 101 Reasons Why I'm An Unschooler: a manifesto for living and learning in the real world, Pirro begins with a disclaimer:

"While this book in its new configuration is a little more polished, it remains a personal manifesto. Not every point will resonate with everyone. That's why the title is 101 Reasons Why I'm an Unschooler, and not 101 Reasons Why You Should Be an Unschooler."

And it's a good thing she writes this from the get-go, because the language of the rest of the book is so strident and provocative, it is hard to believe she isn't advocating unschooling as a glorious solution to our current public education woes.

Pirro compares schools to prisons and even slavery. It doesn't get more inflammatory than that, and it bothers me that the term "slavery" is pulled out so often in emotionally-charged discussions of social issues. Slavery was people in Africa forcibly rounded up, thrown on ships in chains where many died and were tossed into the sea like garbage, then auctioned off in a foreign land as if they were cattle. Slavery, even today, is young girls ripped from their families and forced to have sex with grown men while their pimp-captors collect the fees. Slavery, even today, is farm workers in Florida who are chained, beaten, shot and otherwise physically forced to work in dangerous and unsanitary conditions despite illness, pregnancy, or desire to escape. I am not persuaded when someone diminishes the horrors of real slavery by comparing it to compulsory education. Indeed the title of the second half of the book is "Free the Children". The book is full of such all-inclusive language, such as "Imagine a whole generation of them (unschooled kids), and imagine what a world they could build if given the chance." If this is merely a personal manifesto, then why is the language not that of a memoir? Instead, it is general and has the tone of someone trying to start a revolution. Pirro is really talking out of both sides of her mouth.

Whenever someone is so outspoken and adamant about a personal choice, I must wonder what has brought on such fiery need for public justification. On this subject, I'm drawn to the conclusion that how parents raise and choose to educate their children is apparently too emotionally charged a subject for many people to engage in calm debate. People who make a choice viewed as rare and radical by the mainstream are targets of a great deal of criticism and even ridicule, even when what they are doing is perfectly healthy. Indeed, despite the fact that unschooled (and homeschooled in general) children tend to do just fine academically and professional compared with their traditionally school peers - in fact many end up attending Ivy League colleges and going on to impressive professional careers - the response I get when I bring up the topic of unschooling to people who have never heard of it is typically "That's just ridiculous. A kid will never learn everything they need to know that way." I suggest that Pirro is being most honest in her introduction. She isn't advocating unschooling as something for everyone. Instead, along with giving her personal reasons for unschooling, she's using inflammatory and generalized language to emotionally vent the frustration she feels from being criticized by people who misunderstand her choice. This doens't excuse Pirro from using such language since it makes for a confusing message and serves as a barrier to constructive discussion. Of course the people who hastily voice their assumptions that unschooling will produce illiterate, spoiled, lazy children are equally creating a barrier to those discussions. Given the importance that upbringing and education play in the lives of children, it is a shame people can't just calm down and stop laying judgment before they have enough information.

Pirro spends much of the book lamenting the damage school does to children's natural curiosity, love of learning, sense of self worth and accomplishment. But all of these contentions are vague and speculative. The book is little more than her own personal ruminations. Instead of offering a unique personal perspective, stories, and experiences, the book amounts to a feel-good read for unschoolers who want to feel superior about their choice.

Many points which have the potential of provocative food for thought are ruined by exaggeration or poor reasoning. For example:

In reason #7 Pirro goes on to talk about teenagers encouraged to be consumers and not producers and to take on debt before they even have their first job, and points out that labor laws prevent kids from taking on jobs which have the potential to teach them a lot without putting them in harms way. These are good points, but she doesn't go into any detail and then dillutes the point with nostalgic harking back to the good ol' days that just don't apply to modern society:

"In the not-too-distant past, people were considered adults after passing through puberty, at which time they were thought to be old enough and able enough to take on adult responsibilities like work and marriage and guarding the king."

Facts of modern society, such as that the divorce rate is higher for people who marry younger or that high school dropouts are more likely to end up in prison and earn considerably less money at more menial jobs, or that the rates of teens being victims or perpetrators of crimes in urban areas is higher after school, on weekends, and in the summer, go unmentioned. Our social ills connected with teenagers go much deeper and are far more complex than Pirro is willing to understand.

In many of her reasons, Pirro suggests that compulsory education is the reason for widespread drug use (both prescription and recreational), mental disorders, learning disorders, debt, and mass consumption. She provides no details and no evidence for any of this. That these problems in our society exist is apparent. That an individual is somehow safe-guarded from them by being unschooled is not.

In reason #21 Pirro claims, "Life may reward the innovator and the inventor, but school rewards the conformist." Whether life or school rewards an innovation or invention depends on what it is. Vincent Van Gough's innovations in painting went unappreciated until after his death, and he suffered both in status and financially, like many other nonconformist artists and writers in history. Plenty of inventors and other creative types in history were taken advantage of by savvy entrepreneurs who manage to make heaping profits while the creator collects pennies. For example, the story of Thomas Edison taking advantage of Nikola Tesla. On the flip side, even in these days of standardized tests and reduced funding for the arts and extra curriculars, students are still assigned projects and papers that encourage creativity. If anything, the problem lies not with schools in general, but rather, in under-funding for certain schools, particularly those in neighborhoods suffering from a myriad of other economic woes that impacts the culture of the entire community, including the schools.

Pirro speaks of "false choices" that adults often give children, as if the only valuable choices are the ones children make entirely for themselves. She claims that when a student is offered a choice between this and that, it is not a real choice because they cannot refuse either. Again, this rings false based on my own experience. For example, for senior AP English my class was given the choice between reading Pride and Prejudice and The Brother Karamazov. I chose the latter because it sounded more interesting to me, though I never would have chosen to read it on my own. I was so enthralled by it that I later went on to read other books by Dostoyevski, and took Russian literature in college just for the enjoyment. Russian literature has shaped my perspective on history, human psychology, and ethics. I am deeply grateful for that "false" choice.

In reason #24 Pirro criticizes school for forcing families to arrange their lives around schools schedules, but do families not already arrange their lives around work schedules? Also, presumably an unschooled child with a great number of interests involving trips, lessons, teams, etc. needs parents able and willing to arrange their lives around those activities. No matter what it is, families will be arranging and compromising their schedules to accommodate each other. That is simply the nature of family.

From reason #66: "Conventional, compulsory schooling does not produce mathematical wizards or scientific geniuses, and can actually undermine a fledgling interest in math and science through its relentless drills and cafeteria approach to studies: a dab of biology, a cup of chemistry, a spoonful of physics, whether one wants it or not."

Pirro provides nothing to back up her assertions. The American education system is hardly known for its drilling kids in math and science. China, however, is known for approaching education in all the ways Pirro criticizes, and yet it dominates the top scores for math according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (of which the United States lags far behind in math.) Sure one can challenge test results, but while not all abilities are easy to test for, math comprehension is one of those subjects which is relatively easy to measure. Asians in general are known for pressuring kids to conform to conventional standards of achievement and to succeed in traditional school settings, and surprise surprise, they are disproportionately represented in medical and technical fields which require a great deal of math and science education. Are we to just ignore these facts and take Pirro at her word?

Reason #86 gives a laundry list of famous figures in history who received little formal education and then claims this to be proof that formal education is unnecessary. Since every example she gives is a historical figure, Pirro is making an incredibly absurd comparison given that she doesn't take into account huge cultural differences between then and now in how children were reared at home and how society was structured.

In reason #51, PS Pirro ventures into totally unfounded speculation, writing:

"Kids learn like crazy for the first five years or so of their lives, when their primary source of information comes from direct experience with the world. Then they go to school, where everything is mediated, and within a few years their learning curve flattens out.

"...But maybe it's not all - or even mostly - physiological. Maybe there's a something deadening about the whole school experience, something that undermines learning, interferes with what is a natural process and replaces opportunity and desire with limits and demands.

"Maybe the longer kids maintain their direct experience with the world, the longer the period of learning like crazy will last."

She doesn't elaborate on what she means by "learn like crazy" or where she obtained her information about how and how much children learn during the first five years and afterward. She doesn't elaborate on the importance of "opportunity", in other words, the environment the child is immersed in during various stages of development. Nor does she bother to acknowledge the huge differences between schools in poor and affluent neighborhoods, private, public, and homeschools, rural and urban areas. Nothing but vague speculation with weighty implications.

The book downplays the fundamental differences between children and adults. In all her talk of freeing the children, she ignores that children are necessarily limited by immaturity and reliance on caretakers. No matter how much freedom a child is given, they will never be allowed to do everything an adult can choose to do. Regardless of how a child is raised, childhood is a time of development and preparation for adulthood. It is not and cannot be identical to adulthood. So in a sense, there will always be some things which are artificial or trial-runs compared to the "real world."

That said, children are more free than adults in the sense that they are free from adult responsibilities. If an eight-year-old gets drunk on dad's beer, dad is the one held accountable. In reason #53, Pirro writes:

"But most things in life aren't school. Most thing in life are nothing like school. To attempt to learn how to live one's life by going to school is like trying to understand the life of a wild creature by studying it in a cage.

"Unschoolers already live in the real world. We spend our days absorbed by and engaged with the real world. We are free of the systemic constraints and artificial timetables imposed by school, and instead draw our inspiration from everything else."

Such a utopian description might apply to a minority of people who are independently wealthy or lucky enough to have careers with an incredible amount of autonomy and ability to create one's own schedule, but most adults have to work 25-40 hours per week (many even more just to make ends meet), and most jobs, from minority wage service industry positions to highly professional careers in medicine, law, and business, involve "systemic constraints" and "artificial timetables" imposed by employers and clients.

And this brings me to what bothers me the most about PS Pirro's book: its disregard for the role economic factors play in the "real world." No where does she even hint at the huge advantages families of means have over poor families who live in low-income neighborhoods. She speaks of unschooling as if it were an option for anyone, despite the huge number of single mothers under the poverty line; the fact that even in most two-parent households, both parents must work just to make ends meet; the fact that more and more people on the lower end of the economic spectrum must continue working well into their 70's. Who exactly is going to stay at home to facilitate this oh-so-amazing unschooled experience for the children? With cuts to public libraries, recreation centers, and other cultural institutions, particularly in poor areas, who is going to provide the resources to feed the hungry minds of these budding geniuses? In his book Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard Nisbett cites studies which show that even when poor kids keep up academically with middle class kids during the school year, they fall behind in the summer, and this disadvantage builds up over time, resulting in less success in family life and careers in the future. The implication is that middle class kids have the advantage of summer camps and trips, stimulating toys and games and adult interaction at home. All the wonderful sorts of things Pirro celebrates in her book, that help them stay intellectual sharp. If poor kids fall behind academically, and at least in urban areas become more likely to be victimized by or perpetrate crimes in the summer, what would the endless summer of unschooling mean for them? It's easy to choose unschooling when a parent has the freedom to stay at home, to dilly dally, to surround themselves with all sorts of stimulating books and activities, and can romp off any time to museums and parks. What a luxury.

Pirro rightly complains about the near worthlessness of a high school diploma for securing a fulfilling and lucrative career, and the growing need for people to take on heavy loads of debt seeking higher education just to achieve any kind of job security, much less job satisfaction. (She calls debt slavery, too. *sigh*) But she blames schools for what are much more widespread and mainly economic and often race problems, and she offer no practical solutions for the kids most hurt by a dysfunctional system. Unschooled kids succeed in various facets of life for the same reason almost all middle class kids succeed: they are children of privilege. As the comedian Louis C.K. bluntly put it when Jay Leno asked him about his daughters, "...two white girls in America. They're doing great."

It is interesting that many of the serious problems with Pirro's book - that it is vague and incomplete, highly speculative, makes numerous appeals to common sense but little to hard data and evidence - mirror concerns and criticisms about the type of education an unschooler is likely to receive. With the writing of this book, Pirro seems to reinforce the idea that unschoolers will only maintain interest in a subject until it gets difficult and then move onto something else; that they will be self-absorbed; that there will be significant gaps in their knowledge, particularly with regards to math and science. It is tempting to judge the unschooling approach harshly using this book as evidence of unschooling's shortcomings. However, I suspect that such a judgment would be hasty, given how many people who attended traditional school express selfish attitudes and behaviors, and fail to adequately understand complicated statistics and economics, or distinguish pseudo-science from real science. I also suspect certain aspects of the unschooling approach (many of which are incorporated into progressive education schools) are superior to approaches used in mainstream schools.

While it is definitely a virtue to question convention, it is not a virtue to outright reject all convention. Regulations and industry standards are never perfect, but we have them for many good reasons. We can't all live in a bubble of personal exploration, constantly re-inventing the wheel and having to spend endless hours investigating everything from whether our drinking water is safe to whether our family doctor is competent. When they work right, conventions free up a lot of our time by allowing us take some things for granted. Pirro seems to assert her individualism and independence to an extreme, even down to self publishing this book. I have read many self-published books, and have come to the conclusion that while there are some goodies out there, their overall poor reputation is warranted.

Does PS Pirro's rant offer anything meaningful to the conversation or body of information about the unschooling approach? For the reader who is curious about the unschooling mentality, who can get past the vitriol and condescension (From reason #95: "Unschooling is not for everyone, but neither is freedom. If it were, we wouldn't be so quick to trade ours away.") and keep an open mind (but not so open that his or her brain falls out) this book can encourage us to question many assumptions we as a society tend to make about how children learn and how they are best prepared for adulthood. It isn't much of a resource, but at least it is a very quick read and can be a springboard for further inquiry.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Five Favorite Bedtime Books for Toddlers

At this point it is common knowledge that daily reading to children has many benefits. Like many parents, I include reading in the bedtime ritual (although we do read at other times of the day, too.) Now that my daughter is approaching her 2nd birthday, we've amassed quite a collection of board books, not to mention the ones we've borrowed from the library. I've spent countless hours reading many of the same books over and over again, and I've found there are certain ones that, in addition to being favorites for my daughter, I also don't mind reading for the 100th time. Thus, I present my five favorite bedtime books for toddlers:

1.) Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang

Admittedly, I first bought this book because a black cat is cleverly worked into most of the illustrations, I have such a cat, and my daughter adores cats. But the book has become one of my favorites for many reasons. First the obvious: it's educational, since each consecutive page features a certain number of objects, counting down from ten to one. The scenes are illustrated beautifully, with complex, naturalistic compositions, an array of intricate patterns and textures, and bursting with vivid, complimentary colors. And then, of course, there is the story: a little girl with huge eyes, wearing an oversized, yellow nightgown and clutching an even more oversized white teddy bear, being put to bed by her loving daddy. Melts the heart.

2.) The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton

I love almost all of Sandra Boynton's books for toddlers. They are full of rhythmic rhymes, cute illustrations of animal characters, and lots of good old silliness. Boynton is why my daughter loves hippos. This book features a motley crowd of beasts aboard a cruise ship, preparing for bedtime. They put on jammies, take a bubble bath (all together in one, big tub) and brush their teeth. Even though I've read it at least a hundred times, I'm still amused when all the animals go up on the deck to rigorously exercise in their pajamas! (I guess they like to sleep all sweaty.) In the end, the rocking of the boat on the sea lulls them to sleep. This book balances humor and tranquility, which is perfect for bedtime. It is simply a great book to end the day.

3.) Counting Kisses by Karen Katz
This is one of those books that gets you to do something other than just read the words out loud. Namely, kiss the heck out of your kid. In the story, the baby is crying, and so the entire family (including the dog and cat) take turns placing kisses on various parts of the baby's body, counting down from ten to one. Inevitably, I end up acting out the book as we read. Sometimes my husband has joined in and we take turns kissing our daughter. Sometimes my daughter kisses me or even kisses herself instead of me kissing her. I've also read it to children I babysit, and the children have taken turns kissing each other's noses, ears, and toes. It's not a book I'd read every single night (that would get a bit tedious.) But its super fun to engage in this shower of affection about once a week.

4.) Good Night Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann

This is by far my daughter's favorite bedtime book. For months and months she continues to pull it off the shelf to read over and over again. And for good reason. It's hilarious! There are hardly any words in this book; the story is mostly told playful, colorful illustrations. Basically the gorilla (and his little friend the mouse who drags along a banana on a string) steals the zookeeper's keys and lets out several animals. They all follow the clueless zookeeper back to his house, into his bedroom, and curl up for the night. But the zookeeper's wife gets wise and returns all the animals to the zoo. Except, of course, the crafty gorilla (and his sidekick mouse) who manage to sneak out again and ultimately spend the night in the couple's bed. This book is just a very fun way to develop an understanding of pictorial narrative.

5.) Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd

An oldie, but a goodie. It features simple, repeating rhymes, lots of clearly-communicated vocabulary, and a cute, little bunny getting ready for bed. But what is best about this book is seeing how elements of the room we are in change from page to page. Slowly, the lights dim. Two kitten play in various ways before finally curling up to sleep. The old lady rabbit in the rocking chair disappears. After the stars and even the air, we run out of things to say goodnight to, and enter into soft darkness and silence. What a peaceful way to drift off to sleep.

Review of Intelligence and How To Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count by Richard E. Nisbett

The title really does describe this book. Nisbett sets out to disprove what he says is a prevailing view among intelligence researchers that intelligence is mainly the result of genes. Throughout the book he quotes researchers who have argued against any public efforts to raise the intelligence of the population (particularly the poor) since, as they argue, they would be fruitless, wasted efforts. Instead, Nisbett argues, intelligence is the result of a multitude of influences in a developing child's culture and educational environment. He expresses frustration over the limited amount of scientifically rigorous research in the area, but uses what research there is to mount a convincing argument that both parents and society as a whole have the power to make our kids smarter. I half read it as a mother desiring to raise my children to be as smart as possible, and half read it as an educator and citizen, concerned about the state of education (especially for the poor) in America. The book delivered on both ends.

This book is an interesting read for any laymen interested in intelligence in general, since Nisbett spends a good amount of time explaining different types of intelligence, various tests for intelligence, and their many advantages and flaws. He touches on the role of motivation in achievement, beyond sheer intelligence. The author knew that much of his readership, like me, would be interested for personal reasons, and so the entire last chapter is devoted to quickly and clearly outlining a variety of methods and activities that have been shown through scientific research to improve intellectual ability and performance.

Much of what Nisbett concludes and advocates would certainly be controversial in America's current, polarized political climate. A hefty portion of the book is spent explaining how the conditions of poverty result in a clear intellectual disadvantage:

"There is every reason to believe that the IQ and achievement gaps in the United States could be reduced if people of lower SES (socio-economic status) had higher incomes. Low incomes produce many problems, ranging from poorer nutrition and health, to more disruption due to moving from place to place, to lowered expectations for the rewards of education. In a vicious feedback loop, lower income brings lower academic achievement to lower-status American youth, which in turn lowers their value in the labor market, which results in continued lower SES.

"In a word, if we want the poor to be smarter, we need to find way to make them richer."

But Nisbett makes it clear that he is on the side of science, not any political agenda. Again and again he describes the lack of sufficient, rigorous research which includes proper control groups. And in talking about what works and fails in public schools, he laments that while teacher performance has been shown to make a difference (opposed to more degrees and certifications, and even experience beyond the first few years) teachers' unions have been a block to rewarding individual teachers for performance.

Toward the end, Nisbett even lays out a flat, cost-benefit conclusion regarding the benefits of social programs geared toward raising the intelligence and achievement of the poor:

"Even when benefits are calculated strictly to the taxpayer, in terms of education, welfare, and criminal justice charges saved, the costs of the most successful pre-kindergarten programs are repaid in time."

That Nisbett feels the need to lay it all this cold way further drives home the point that intelligence-is-genetic has seeped into the mentality of many, leading to real feelings of animosity toward the poor and resentment toward the programs which serve them.

Anyone sensitive to issues of race and culture will probably be at least slightly uncomfortable reading the chapters on the particular plight of African Americans and on Asian and Jewish advantages. But it is the sort of discomfort we all need to face if we are to confront the issues at hand and move forward in a direction that promotes greater equality and prosperity. Nisbett points out that taboos against discussing race and intelligence (initially in response to those who have argued that intelligence is mainly genetic) is part of what has caused research to stagnate in finding methods and developing programs that really work to remove disadvantages caused by discrimination.

While Nisbett is optimistic in his final conclusion, he doesn't sugarcoat the situation. The lack of sufficient, scientific research (and often the resistance to such research even being done in the first place!) is a serious problem, as is the complexity of the political, cultural, and social forces being dealt with. But the bottom line is clear: we can close the intelligence gaps between rich and poor, between certain minorities and the majority. We simply need the will to find out what works and what doesn't, and then carry out what does.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Natural Childbirth: Under the Skeptical Movement's Radar?

People in the skeptic movement are well acquainted with a great deal of common quackery due to articles in publications such as Skeptic Magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, bloggers such as Harriet Hall, the SkepDoc, and speakers at conferences like James Randi's Amazing Meeting. On topics of how irrational, anti-science thought impacts health, these skeptics-at-large regularly touch on homeopathy, anti-vaccine activists, chiropractic nonsense, acupuncture, detoxing, and even repressed memory.

But one rapidly growing and potentially dangerous trend in alternative medicine has largely been ignored by big name advocates of skepticism and skeptic organizations. In general, it is the natural childbirth movement, and specifically, the increasing popularity of homebirths.

Googling "natural childbirth skepticism" produces some revealing results. At the top is an article which is in fact skeptical of natural childbirth, although not published by any organization focused on the promotion of science and skeptical inquiry. It is Skepticism of the Natural Woman by Amanda Marcotte, published last year in Slate, and is a sassy, feminist counter to the idea that natural childbirth is better for women. The next two links are to articles posted in a blog called The Healthy Skeptic, which is in fact run by an acupuncturist who promotes a good deal of woo.

A search of Skeptic Magazine's archives for "natural childbirth" produced no relevant articles.

A search on skepdic.com of "natural childbirth" produced no entries on the practice and a search of "homebirth" produced only one story about a "homeopathic homebirth" buried under a number of examples of harm done by "occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs."

Nothing about Natural Childbirth made its way into Dr. Harriet Hall "the SkepDoc"'s 2009 article Top Ten Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine and a search for "natural childbirth" and "homebirth" produces no entries on her blog.

In eight seasons of Bullshit!, Penn and Teller find room for whole episodes on lawns and cheerleaders, but the closest they ever got to criticizing natural childbirth was when they reached for the low-hanging fruit of dolphin-assisted birth.

I must give credit to Skeptical Inquirer. Searching their archives online, I was able to find one article on this subject: 'Natural' Childbirth by Ben Radford, published in the March/April 2006 issue.

The absence of much attention on the natural childbirth movement and increased advocacy and demand for homebirths in skeptic circles begs the question: is this actually something to be concerned about, or does natural childbirth have a sound basis in science and are homebirths just as safe as hospital births? After all, even the Wikipedia entry on natural childbirth makes no mention of any criticisms. So is there really a problem?

I would answer, skeptics should be concerned.

In 2009 I got pregnant and had a baby. What became an epic journey began at a prestigious but humongous hospital, moved to a small birth center, and ended up back at a large hospital. At the start I had lots of fear and few opinions or knowledge of pregnancy and birth, then decided to attempt a totally natural childbirth (efforts which included 24 hours of active labor with no pain killers), then had an epidural, a pitocin drip, and finally an emergency c-section. Involved were several obstetricians and other doctors, many certified nurse midwives, a couple of doulas, a psychologist, and an army of nurses. The long version of the story isn't necessary. Sufficed to say that I experienced almost every typical aspect of childbirth in America today.

Now I'm pregnant again, and the options are more complicated since I had a previous c-section. This and all that happened in 2009 has motivated me to learn as much as I can about childbirth, and it is during these inquiries that I have become fully aware of what has been dubbed by the media as the birth wars.

The birth wars have often been simplified as doctors verses midwives. In this simplification, obstetricians are painted as scientifically brilliant and competent, but also cold, selfish, and arrogant, and midwives are viewed as experts in transforming one of the most horrible experiences for pregnant women into one of the most wonderful, but also hit-and-miss as far as medical competency goes. Of course the truth is far more complex.

First, many of the criticisms of obstetricians coming from the "other side" of the birth wars are unfounded and incredibly insulting. The contentions include that obstetricians use pitocin to induce labor for the sake of their own convenience, that they discourage or refuse to offer VBAC (vaginal birth after c-section) out of personal fears of being sued and total disregard for what is best for the patient, and generally push for unnecessary c-sections because they like doing surgery and make more money that way. These accusations and more are frequently and casually expressed by advocates on the side of natural childbirth. They were expressed in Ricki Lake's film The Business of Being Born, and they come up over and over again in literature and websites advocating natural childbirth.

Midwives come in a several stripes, and can hardly be aligned as a whole group to one side in the birth wars. Many fall somewhere in the middle of a spectrum between the two sides. There are two basic types of midwife in America. Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) are trained and certified as both nurses and midwives. They most typically work in hospitals. They are part of and have a good reputation within the medical establishment. The other type is direct-entry midwives, who gain their experience through self study, apprenticeships, or midwifery programs. They most frequently work in homebirth settings. Some direct-entry are Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs), certified by the North American Registry of Midwives. Others are merely licensed in a particular state, and still others are lay midwives. As one can imagine, direct-entry midwives level of training, experience, and competency can vary widely. Whenever horror stories of homebirths gone wrong appear in the news, the midwife involved is a Direct-entry midwife.

While most midwives tend to advocate natural childbirth to some degree, CNMs tend to be more knowledgeable and concerned with risk factors that might disqualify a woman from attempting totally natural childbirth.

For example, the Birth Center I went through will not accept clients who are VBAC, over a certain age or weight, pregnant with multiples, and many other risk factors. Women in labor had transfer to the hospital across the street if any complications ensued. Roughly 20% of the Birth Center's clients end up giving birth at the hospital, and 10% end up having a c-section. I was in that 10%.

I never had any doubts about the care I received at the Birth Center. All the midwives were experienced CNMs. I was required to have blood tests for various risks such as parvovirus B19. 24 hours after my water broke we promptly packed up and went to the hospital. After many hours of excruciatingly painful contractions, a midwife was the one to strongly recommend an epidural so that I could relax, rest, and have enough strength to push. And when it finally became apparent that a c-section was necessary, a midwife stood side by side with the doctor, explaining the process and paperwork I was required to sign. Clearly this was a competent operation where the health of mother and child are paramount. Right?

In the case of my first pregnancy, yes, the Birth Center's approach was competent, totally appropriate, and ultimately successful. Any pregnancy that ends with a healthy baby and mother is a success. So here's the problem. This time around I'm no longer a totally low-risk candidate. When I found out I was pregnant again, I immediately called the Birth Center. I found out I couldn't have my second baby there, so I asked for recommended options. I was given a short list of CNMs who work at or with hospitals, which was great.

But then the person on the phone said, "I can also give you the names of midwives who do homebirths." What!? If it isn't considered safe enough for me to attempt VBAC at a top notch Birth Center across the street from a hospital, why the hell would it be safe for me to try it in my home that is a 20 minute car ride (not accounting for traffic) from the nearest hospital? If the Birth Center is responsible enough to not take on clients with higher risks, why would they be so irresponsible as to recommend alternatives which are even less safe? This is the influence of natural childbirth, a movement that is more motivated by crackpot theories and warm-and-fuzzy feelings than science and evidence.

Dr. Amy, the Skeptical OB, is a one-woman army at war with natural childbirth pseudoscience. In her article Is Natural Childbirth a Form of Quakery? she explains one characteristic of natural childbirth that might partially explain why it has managed to fly under the larger skeptical movement's radar:

"Unlike traditional pseudosciences (homeopathy, creationism) which have always denigrated scientific research, in the last decade, natural childbirth advocates have based the validity of their philosophy on the claim that it is supported by science while modern obstetrics is not."

Dr. Amy points out that the founder of natural childbirth, Grantly Dick-Read, was a white man whose ideas about childbirth are not rooted in any science, and whose writings and work were motivated by his concern that upper class white women were not having enough children to keep up with poor, black women.

Dr. Amy also writes frequently (and harshly) about "the mother of authentic midwifery", Ina May Gaskin. An article in Salon about Gaskin mentions her total lack of formal medical training, and more startling, the story of how one of her own children died during a natural childbirth that could have been prevented had it happened in a traditional medical setting.

Quotes from both Dick-Read and Gaskin, as well as quotes from other major proponents of natural childbirth are frought with bullshit, identifiable as such to any seasoned skeptic. Consider these:

"It is important to keep in mind that our bodies must work pretty well, or their wouldn't be so many humans on the planet." - Ina May Gaskin (Yeah, let's just ignore the fact that childbirth has always been a leading cause of death for women and babies. There's billions of people on earth, therefore childbirth must be inherently safe!)

"Women's bodies have near-perfect knowledge of childbirth; it's when their brains get involved that things can go wrong." -Peggy Vincent (Silly brains, always getting in the way.)
"I have personally come to believe that childbirth is a blessing to women sent straight from God. I mean, in its purest form, birth is the most fantastic orgasm married with a miracle! What more heavenly gift could there be?" -Laurie Annis Morgan (Yes, those pesky doctors are trying to take away the best orgasm of your life. And a miracle. Those bastards.)
But, hell, if pregnant women at low-risk for complications want to think of childbirth without painkillers as some kind of earth-shattering, mega-spiritual experience, let 'em. So long as the end result is a healthy mom and baby, it's all good. The problem arises when even women with greater risk factors and their midwives are so moved by the power and importance of having a natural childbirth experience that they don't take proper precautions and take necessary actions when complications ensue, putting both the woman and child in harm's way.
Let's get to the real meat of the debate. To put it most bluntly, will more babies die during homebirths than would have had they been delivered in hospitals? Many advocates of natural childbirth mention the United States's high c-section rate and connect it with the USA's realtively high infant mortality rate. Dr. Amy argues that infant mortality is the wrong statistic:

"It is a measure of pediatric care. That's because infant mortality is deaths from birth to one year of age. It includes accidents, sudden infant death syndrome, and childhood diseases.

The correct statistic for measuring obstetric care (according to the World Health Organization) is perinatal mortality. Perinatal mortality is death from 28 weeks of pregnancy to 28 days of life. Therefore it includes late stillbirths and deaths during labor.

The US has one of the lowest rates of perinatal mortality in the world."

She further points out that the Netherlands, which has the highest percentage of homebirths in the world, also has a higher perinatal morality rate than any other European country.

If she's correct, then the rising rate of homebirths in the United States should be as alarming as the anti-vaccine crowd. After all, both put the most vulnerable in our population at risk.

Why is this not an issue regularly raised by skeptics-at-large? Could this be the result of what PZ Myers calls The Woman Problem? Or is it that the natural childbirth movement has managed to convincingly appear "evidence-based"? Whatever the reason, it seems clear to this skeptic that there needs to be more skeptical critics of the pseudoscientific and dangerous aspects of natural childbirth.