On Peanuts, Truth, and Other Stuff

Earlier this month, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (say that three times fast) released new guidelines for prevention of peanut allergy in children. These guidelines were rather surprising for many people, because they were a complete reversal of the previous ones. Whereas previously the official scientific advice had been to avoid feeding peanuts to allergy-prone children until the age of three, parents are now urged to begin introducing it “before they are 6 months old,” as a preventative measure.

Needless to say, the press release introducing the new position, and the flurry of news coverage that followed, led to much consternation on social media. Many parents, rightfully concerned for the health of their kids, expressed fear and distrust of what appears to be a dramatic turnaround in scientific thought around the issue. A lot of questions were asked about why we should trust the new results when we clearly could not trust the old ones. If scientific research is supposed to give us answers about life or death issues, why does it seem so unreliable?

As far as social media controversies go, the peanut allergy studies are somewhere in the middle. Much more contentious has been the continuing debate over the safety of vaccines: on the one hand, concerned parents who mostly don’t want their kids to get sick are accused of endangering everyone around them. On the other, the lingering suspicion of a link between vaccines and autism (a link that has been strongly–and repeatedly–debunked by several studies).

Not so controversial, but certainly as high-stakes, is the changing advice on how to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Late last year new recommendations included letting children sleep in the same room as parents, and taking away blankets and soft toys.

As someone who does research-based work with families, I try to keep up with new studies, and I like to be able to present parents with the context behind my advice other than “because I said so.” Parents want to do the best thing for their kids, especially when it comes to their health and safety. When the science gives ambiguous or seemingly controversial advice (though really, sudden reversals such as the one about peanuts are pretty rare), the guilt we feel about our decisions may shade into suspicion. How do we know what information to trust?

When I “asked” this question online, nearly everything I found was from academic websites. If you’re writing a research paper (and I’ve taught a few of those classes), you want to be sure your sources are sound and reliable. When it comes to the news and the kind of information we rely on, like medical advice, it is just as important (maybe more: more important than research papers!) to distinguish the solid stuff from the shaky.

The articles I have linked to in this post are from major publications. Major newspapers and newsmagazines have editorial boards and fleets of fact-checkers. They don’t want to be sued for slander. When they make a mistake, they quickly publish a correction and add it to the bottom of the piece. All three name authors and include dates and other identifying information. They link to the studies they discuss (presented by the organizations in question), so that we can see them for ourselves.

When it comes to parenting (or really, health in general), the internet is not the best place to get our information. Pediatricians, clinics and public health agencies contain real, verifiable people who can confirm or deny when needed.

Practicing this kind of discernment is more important now than ever (and I’m not even going to use the words “fake news.” Oops). Regardless of the anxiety we may feel as parents over keeping our kids safe and healthy, if we know how to pay attention we’re doing the right thing.

The Food Post

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If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

Exciting Conclusion (Family Rules, Part 4)

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This week we come around full circle on creating Family Rules. In Part 1, I wrote about the importance of knowing what the rules are, and the consequences of not making them explicit. In Part 2, we discussed Values and Morals and how we express them, whether we intend it or not. And in Part 3, I compared the family to a team (by the way, our softball team played its first game last night. It was a lot of fun, thank you).

Throughout this series of posts, I have been stuck trying to figure out what our Family Rules actually are. I couldn’t say, and neither could the various parents and parenting educators I had talked to. So finally I did what I probably should have done in the first place, and asked my kids. They did not hesitate. Below are some of the Rules for my family, and questions and answers about them.

First of all, some FAQ I just made up.

Q: Are your Family Rules written down?

A: No. Turns out they don’t have to be. Though it is recommended in Nurturing Parenting that they are actually written and ideally posted on the wall somewhere, our Rules have been instilled through sheer repetition over the years. My girls know them well enough that I have to ask that they not constantly recite them to each other.

Q: Are your Family Rules connected to your Values and Morals?

A: I think so. At least, I could comfortably make that argument. But really, they mostly arose from situations in which my wife and I felt them just come up.

Q: Do my Family Rules need to look like yours?

A: No. It’s your family.

 

With this in mind, here are some of mine:

 

Eat What You Like, and Leave the Rest.

This is the cardinal food-related Rule, though my kids were able to come up with several corollaries, among them “Finish What is on Your Plate Before Taking More,” “Ask if Anyone Else Wants More,” “Wait Until Everyone Has Finished Their Firsts,” and “There Will Be More Food at the Next Meal.”

 

Use Your Words.

Often alternated with the question, “Did You Want to Ask for Something?” with the implication “Because I Didn’t Hear You Do That.”

 

No Means No.

This is fairly self-explanatory. And since I have daughters, I pay a lot of attention to this one.

 

There Are No Mistakes in Art.

My nine year-old, who is a very talented artist, disputes this Rule. But she is not writing this post.

 

So, there you go. This is my Family, so these are our Rules. I hope that this helps you to articulate your own. If that doesn’t work, maybe you could ask your kids.

The Good Stuff

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As adult parents, we tend to expend a lot of thought and energy on the way our parents raised us, and much of this is focused on the negative. We are determined to do things differently with our children, to avoid the mistakes our parents made with us. Of course our parents made mistakes, assuming they were human (we’ll go with that assumption). And of course we are making our own mistakes. Sometimes we’re okay with that as long as they’re different mistakes.

I know that I do this. That’s why I wanted to take some time to focus on some of the things my parents did right, and that I am glad to pass along to my own children (keeping in mind that those right things may or may not have come about any more deliberately than the things that didn’t work. After all, if parenting is a science it’s certainly not an exact one).

Here are some things I appreciated and remembered from my own experience as a child, and that I hope to honor by passing along.

You’re welcome to eat what is being served. That’s really up to you. The sticking point with me was onions. They appeared in spaghetti sauce, they featured in meatloaf. When we ordered pizza, they were practically the star. Given that I loved all of those items, I learned to make peace with them, or do the work of moving them out of the way. This can also be translated as “not every meal can be your favorite.” After all, we know there will always be food next time.

Go play outside. Really. Spend a lot of time outside. Have fun. I’ll call you in for supper.

Let ‘em read. He seems to be really into that book. And he’s quiet, and not destroying anything. And yes, we’ll go to the library today. And yes, you obviously can’t live without your 37th Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s not up to me to be a critic.

Wash your feet.

Here is something my dad actually said: “Whatever you do with your life, make sure that it’s something you love to do.”

And here’s something my mom told me, or at least this is how I remember it: “I worry about things a lot too. But if there’s something I can do about it, I know I’ll find a solution. And if there’s nothing I can do, there’s no point in worrying.”

And: “I love you.”

Deliciousness

 

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I’m going to let you in on a secret family recipe. We call it cheesy egg toast, or egg and cheese toast, or sometimes just deliciousness (as in, “What’s for breakfast?” “Deliciousness.” “I know what that is,” etc).

There are a variety of reasons why it is so successful. For one thing, it’s incredible fast and easy. For another, it’s a great way for me to get a certain daughter to eat eggs without complaining (she knows who she is).

But most of all, it’s the perfect meal in whose preparation everyone can take part. The little ones can do the toasting and buttering; the eight year-old can grate the cheese (generally, they all taste some to make sure it’s okay); the eldest can scramble the eggs and take it out of the oven. Sometimes keeping the kids occupied during this time is of paramount importance. Am I right?

 

Deliciousness

Some bread

Some butter

Some eggs

Some cheese

 

  • Toast bread. Butter it.
  • Turn broiler on low.
  • Scramble eggs. Grate cheese.
  • Place toast on a cookie sheet. Scoop a portion of eggs onto each piece (we use an ice cream scoop because why not). Sprinkle cheese on top.
  • Place cookie sheet under broiler until cheese melts. Serve.

The One About Breakfast

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Breakfast is important for kids. Right? Are we on the same page? As the parent who gets up early with the kids, it is my job, post-coffee, to make breakfast.

If they are going to school, especially, protein is what they need to boost brain function. I am a cook of (to put it generously) limited ability. Thus, I try to get some protein in there and call it good. As much as I would like to just throw cheese or bacon on top of whatever we have lying around, I have come up with a bit of a repertoire:

  • Eggs (only two of my four children like them scrambled, so I usually boil them).
  • Granola, with yogurt or milk.
  • Oatmeal, with butter (real butter) and milk (whole milk, or cream if we have it); brown sugar, honey or maple syrup. With nuts and/or diced apple on the side.
  • Toast with butter (we like butter) and almond butter.
  • Rice pudding (leftover rice with milk, ¼ cup sugar and a teaspoon or two of vanilla). With sausage if we’re feeling lucky).

A favorite in our family is the alarmingly named dutch baby. It is a bit sweet, in the way of pancakes or crepes, but it also cleverly contains no less than six eggs. It’s, like, real food. I used to bake it in a large cast iron pan, though we were recently given six tiny ones, and the recipe divides neatly among them (I put the little pans on a cookie sheet when I stick them in the oven). Enjoy!

 

Dutch Baby

2 tbsp butter

6 eggs

1 and ½ cups milk

1 cup flour (we use a gluten-free baking mix, sometimes split with almond flour)

¼ cup sugar

½ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

 

Preheat oven to 425.

Melt butter in a cast iron pan.

In a mixing bowl, combine other ingredients and mix well. Spoon mixture into the pan and place in the oven; bake for 20 minutes. Serves six.

Out of the Ordinary

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines. We try to make the events of the day—meals and snack times, transitions, chores, bedtimes—as regular and predictable as possible. The more things kids can rely on, the more secure they will feel when things happen that are out of the ordinary. After all, the best way to tell if routines are working is when something happens to disrupt them.

A lot of things are different this week. My wife is away at a weeklong homeschooling conference. The four girls are with my mother-in-law in Newport for a few days; I will be home with them for the rest of the week. This is kind of a big deal for all of us. I am especially a stickler about bedtimes, if only because it’s such a cornerstone of our home life and because we have put so much time and effort into finding a way to do it that works most of the time (though I’m sure there are some control issues at play in there as well).

We sent along a rough schedule of a typical day’s events and hoped that the spirit of it, if not the letter, would be followed. Here are some excerpts:

  • Morning activity: We usually stay close to home during this time, go for walks or do arts and crafts. They will need a morning snack.
  • Afternoon activity: This is usually our going out time. They will need a snack!

As you can see, there is emphasis on regular feeding. At home we have breakfast, then a morning “tea” (sometimes known, hobbit-style, as “second breakfast”), lunch, afternoon “tea” and dinner. That’s food being offered just about every 2-3 hours, with quick snacks in between if needed. I am pretty sure that if my mother-in-law varies the rhythm of the day—with periods of activity followed by periods of rest—then any other problems can be solved by throwing food at them.

They are going to have fun. They will take trips to the beach, the lighthouse and the aquarium. They will go to the park and the toy store (they enjoy hanging out in toy stores, and don’t expect to walk out with anything. If I knew how this was accomplished, believe me, I would tell you). They will sleep as well as they will sleep, and I understand that I have no control over this. I never do. Working on letting it go.

What I do know is that when I bring them back home, they will have had several days of new and unfamiliar rhythms, and they will be…off. And though there are some things we will need to get done, including swim lessons and grocery shopping, we will be spending the next few days just trying to get back into those familiar routines. I expect anything, up to and including tantrums, large-scale meltdowns, and general low-level crankiness. What they need is a slow and gentle shifting of gears. Luckily we will have some time to do that.

Also, snacks. Lots of snacks.

Freedom From Choice

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In our culture, we associate freedom with choice. In many cases, freedom of choice has turned into freedom as choice. But this freedom can become overwhelming; in fact, it can come to feel like the opposite of freedom.

As a music fan, I actually miss having read about some elusive album and feeling the excitement of coming across it years later in the used bin at a record store. Now, of course, I can find pretty much anything I have ever heard of online, and download it instantly. It’s just not as much fun. The sense of anticipation and mystery has been replaced by a sense of…shopping. In a similar way, I often feel paralyzed scrolling through my list of movies to stream on Netflix and coming away with nothing to watch.

This is a thing, and it’s called decision fatigue. As adults, we can cope with the increasing array of choices by working to limit the number of things we have to choose. In order to live a more efficient and healthy life, we have to hold on to priorities and consciously set aside a large number of choices.

Now imagine that you’re a toddler, and you’re expected to choose what to wear today.

Something I still struggle with as a parent is presenting expectations as questions: “Do you want to wear a skirt or a dress?” “Are you ready to brush your teeth?” “Do you want to play outside?” Children of any age, up to and including teenagers, are not equipped to make the number of choices with which they are presented on a daily basis. They are not ready to engage in the sifting and prioritizing that we as adults take for granted (and which can sometimes still be a struggle).

Children need our help. And we can help by knowing when to give them a choice and when to make one for them.

This goes along with the routines and rhythms that are so important to the daily life of a child, and can free up the energy for them to learn and grow in a way that is more appropriate for young brains.

It starts with the basics: limit the number of choices by limiting the number of things from which to choose.

  • Have only a few items of clothing available, according to the needs of the season, and store the rest. Kids who are old enough to get dressed on their own will appreciate having a reliable outfit for the occasion.
  • Keep toys in bins and rotate them out. Play is important for child development, and a child that is surrounded by toys will just be confused and frustrated. The effect on attention spans and behavior is pretty easy to see.
  • Come up with a limited menu and rotate meals. We all look forward to Meatball Monday and Taco Tuesday, and they are events in themselves. Of course it’s important to introduce new foods on a regular basis, and these can be slipped in to the routine. And you can set a day of the week aside for trying something different.

The great thing about this deliberate limiting of choices is that it is compatible with not having a lot of money. Definitely a bonus.

Winter Is Coming

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Parenting is hard. It’s difficult enough without having to worry about getting by.

And yet: it’s getting colder, utility bills are mounting, and our children need warm clothes. The economy could be recovering faster. Do you know where to look for help?

The Holiday Resource Guide on the Parenting Success Network site is a great place to start. I want to highlight some of the other organizations in our area that can help get your family through the Winter.

Services offered by CSC include the Linn-Benton Food Share program and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides financial help with utilities as well as free education on weatherization and energy conservation in the home.

“As your state-designated community action agency, CSC is here to help. We offer a number of services in Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties. These services focus on essential day-to-day survival, such as food and housing, as well as developing new skills that lead to independence through education, training, and work.”

Fish of Albany provides emergency services including food, clothing, school supplies, rent and utility assistance, and help with transportation.

“Fish of Albany, Inc. is a cooperative effort begun in 1972 by civic leaders and churches to fill crisis needs for food. Incorporated in 1973, Fish has evolved to address changing community needs. It is run by 6 staff and over 30 volunteers and is funded by local churches, private donations and gifts from United Way and foundations. Annually, Fish volunteers and staff provide services to well over 22, 500 people. “

211 info is a phone-based resource that can connect you with a variety of local programs.

“Last year more than 425,000 people contacted us by dialing 211, searching for resources on 211info.org, texting their zip code to 898211 or emailing us — all toll-free and confidential. We also have bilingual staff who can take calls in Spanish; all staff have access to an interpreter service with more than 140 languages. We’re everyone’s front door to nonprofit, government and faith-based programs. There are roughly 3,000 agencies in our database providing over 50,000 programs to people throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington.”

I refer these and other services regularly to my clients at work, and I have found that they are helpful, friendly and willing to tell you about other services if they are not able to provide exactly what you need. I have also used them myself. Working full-time and supporting four children and a stay-at-home spouse, I have taken advantage of Community Service Consortium’s Utility Assistance Program at the start of each year.

No one has to do this alone. Seeking out local resources can help us place the focus where it should be: taking care of our families.

Stay warm out there.

A Kitchen of Their Own

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Everybody eats.

That’s why a play kitchen is a crucial part of our childrens’ education at home. Through playing at cooking and serving food, our kids can practice the skills they will need as they get older. They can learn about nutrition, how to prepare a balanced meal, and how to interact with others around food. Kids like to imitate the work we do around the house, and a play kitchen can provide an entry into helping grownups in the “real” kitchen.

Who can benefit from a play kitchen? It is traditionally thought of as a toy for girls, but given that everybody eats, and everybody can prepare food, it is just as important and just as valuable for boys.

You can spend as much or as little money as you wish. We have a simple wooden kitchen with a stovetop, a sink, some cabinets and an oven. Most toy stores carry more elaborate models with a microwave, a kitchen clock, and various dials and thingamajigs. But you can use most anything to make a play kitchen, and the kids will be glad to help. A cardboard box, with circles drawn on top for burners, works just dandy.

There’s no need to buy play food, either. My girls recently stocked their pantry with food they made from clay and painted; they frequently use wooden blocks, paper cutouts, water, dry rice and beans, mud (preferably while outside, though this is not always the case) and pure, all-natural imagination. They love to play with empty containers such as butter boxes, yogurt cartons, and cupcake holders. We often “hand down” old utensils, plates and cups.

Kids love to help out with food preparation. Even toddlers can stir batter, combine ingredients, chop vegetables, fruit or, say, cheese sticks (closely supervised, of course, with a butter knife or crinkle cutter: safety first!). My nine year-old daughter has mastered baking from a recipe, and can scramble eggs like a champ.

Involving kids in kitchen work is a great way to introduce math concepts through measuring and timing; to show them where ingredients come from and how they work together to make a meal; and to model cooperation and sharing work with others. The added responsibilities will make them feel proud and useful. Best of all, if kids are picky eaters they are much more likely to try, and enjoy, foods they had a hand in making. Inevitably, they practice these skills in the play kitchen as well.