Middle School Mom Blog
Adele Brodkin, Grandmom

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, a senior child development consultant and an author for Scholastic, and the mother of two and grandmother of five.

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The Media Can’t Win!

We have a new instance of “Blame the Messenger”: this time it’s the media for frightening the public about a possible flu epidemic. But what else could the media do?  We are told that the swine flu situation is in flux.  It’s a new strain to humans, so no one can’t predict the risks entailed. How widespread will it be?  How long will it be around? How sick will its victims get? Is this just a preview of a bad situation in the next flu season? What will it leave in its wake? How prepared are we? The President tells us that his administration is taking this very seriously, monitoring it, but not panicking. We are told too that we are prepared with plenty of medication and authorities are keeping a close watch.

I personally think that the media is doing a measured and appropriate job. They are reporting the incidence in different locals, the death rate (which, so far, is very small), the symptoms, and they are even interpreting the alarming sounding numbers referring to the speed of the spread---does it approach the World Health Organization’s prediction of a Pandemic? In the U. S., it has been declared a public health emergency, so far not a pandemic.  Some schools have closed because there have been at least a few cases reported among their students. Other schools are closed to prevent the spread, even though no local cases have been reported. The media is simply reporting all of this and adding a note saying there is no need for panic. Wash hands often, cover our noses and mouths when sneezing or coughing, stay home and keep our kids home if we or they are ill.

Despite careful, accurate and measured reporting, some people are prone to great anxiety over talk about a pandemic. So the American Psychological Association and APA Practice.org are offering help to ease that anxiety. You can read, “Managing Your Anxiety about Swine Flu” at www.apahelpcenter.org.

Stay informed because this is a dynamic situation. Check the CDC web site.
Get the facts that will help with decision making; but limit the time spent watching or listening to media coverage. Then help me with my own tough decision: should I go to “Grandparents’ Day” at my granddaughter’s school in 3 days? I have had more than my share of illness this past fall and winter; but how can I disappoint her by being so extra cautious?  Advice please!

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Can We Afford The Banality of Doctors Doing Evil?

We must acknowledge the abhorrent truth of Frank Rich’s report (New York Times, April 26, 2009) that torture was “a premeditated policy approved at our government’s highest levels” during the Bush administration. What is most troubling to me about it all is the fact that “psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain”. Those individuals trained to reduce pain and suffering nevertheless did not say “no” to torture.

We are all prepared to acknowledge the sad fact that evil exists in the highest levels of even some democratic governments; but I hope I am not alone in shunning the dreadful reality that some members of the helping professions which declare they will “First Do No Harm” have stooped to a partnership in evil. Where I come from, doctors and psychologists don’t use torture for any end, no matter who calls them to duty.

There is a famous experiment designed and carried out by a social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, shortly after the 2nd world war.  Recent studies have repeated Milgram’s design, with predominately the same results: the majority of people asked to press a button to cause an innocent person to feel strong electric shock, carry out the command.  Few refuse at the risk of displeasing the person in charge. These results have been shocking to two generations of readers. Now, in my view, even more shocking is the fragility of the moral principles of some who have taken an oath to do no intentional harm.

Can we bring these facts to the table in admissions committee meetings at Medical Schools and Graduate Schools? Can we hope to give less power to arbitrary standardized tests and more to character assessment?  Can we start, in fact, in preschool, and proceed all the way through the pre-vocational years in order to restrict a caring professional identity to those who cannot be corrupted as the Bush/Cheney physicians and psychologists had been?

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Three Cheers for the Garden State

It was a very long time ago, but my memory of the incident remains crystal clear. My two young children and I were enjoying a brief vacation in Disney World. The rides were as much fun for me as they were for the kids. What artistry there was in every last detail.  And staff members (not only Mickey and Donald) connected with visitors in a welcoming way.

The incident that sticks in my mind occurred when we boarded a boat for a special ride. The Captain asked each group aboard to name its home state.  When my two proudly called out, “New Jersey”, everyone laughed and laughed even louder when the Captain offered, “Don’t feel bad. We won’t hold your New Jersey roots against you!”

My children were stunned and a little bit hurt. They were proud of their state; and no one had ever questioned their pride before. Later while sharing a tank of popcorn, I tried my best to explain why N.J. had become a national joke, mostly among people who had never gotten off the Turnpike to see the real “Garden State”. Hearing people pronounce N.J. home evoked the question, “What Exit?”.  But that only meant the listeners were ignorant of our state’s fine qualities, including its generous spirit.

Today, I am especially proud of the news that N.J will be supporting (and that means funding in hard times) preschool programs, particularly for children of poverty. Our governor, Jon Corzine, had hoped to provide all day pre-school for all of N. J.’s children. That hope will have to be compromised.  There will not be funding enough for all. But the Governor understands the potential life long benefits of a good preschool experience. He plans to use federal stimulus funds and an additional 25 million already set aside for preschool programs. Since the funds are still limited, he plans to focus on the most needy---the most at risk kids.  While many other states are cutting back on preschool programs, N. J. is enriching theirs. Hip hip hurray for the Garden State.

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Whose Bragging Rights?

It’s been some time; but I know I did share at least one story about my oldest grandchild’s social skills.  It’s the honest truth that he began to reach out to other people the minute he emerged from the womb. I saw him about 10 minutes later when he was being wheeled in a newborn’s warmer to get his wrist I.D. (My son-in-law wouldn’t let the newborn out of his sight until that I.D. was secured.) But the little boy himself was busy looking the world over, making eye contact, bundled up but bursting with the energy to reach out and “touch someone”.

A few years later at a community pool, he approached a little girl about his size.  “Hi, what’s your name?” he asked without a hint of shyness.  The other child responded, “Marianne”.  “Oh, hi, Marianne. I’m ‘B’, the landscaper.”

When he was about 8 and just entering a new school, he knocked on the door of the athletic director. “Excuse me, Mr. M”, he said apologetically; “I hope I am not disturbing you. I am BB; Just wanted to say ‘hello’, and tell you how happy I am to be at ______ (school’s name).  His parents were shocked and unequivocally denied having suggested that he do this.  It was all his idea and the first they had heard of it.

Now he has a two year old cousin, who is showing similar signs of social precocity. When his family of four goes out to eat, L often flirts with the diners at the next table, and often breaks out with easy introductions. “This is Mommy; this is Daddy;  that is C., and I am L.”

Handshakes and self-conscious smiles all around among the adults. The origin of the socio-political ease shared by these first cousins is a mystery to us all. Grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles alike, protest, “He doesn’t get that from me!”

Whatever it’s genetic source, it’s a very special gift.

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Brother, Can you Spare a Cup

This is really puzzling to me. Something must have happened when I wasn’t paying attention to the waves of cultural changes affecting every day life.  I am too busy focusing on newspapers barely clinging to life, books and music finding their way to the internet’s instant cost-free availability, wondering what to do with my Webster’s all print dictionary. Probably I’ll keep it for old times’ sake, as I did my Selectric typewriter gathering dust for years before I moved and threw it on the truck of “1-800 Junk” along with an old black and white tv set. There is a fine line between Junk and retro-ware status. I’m sure I always pick the moment before my junk would have become a valuable piece of memorabilia to discard it.  But that’s water over the dam, and not my focus today.

What I want to know now is whatever happened to the plain plastic bathroom cup. I have been searching the vast canyons of mini-malls, the big chain pharmacies, the rare independent drug stores, the “we have everything for the home” chains, even the going out of business novelty stores that always answered “Yes” to any question that began with “Do you carry…?”.  What has happened that I missed? Have Americans given up on rinsing their teeth after brushing?  Are they sucking mouthwash directly from the bottle?  How do they take their plethora of pills, vitamins and cure or prevent-alls?

Confession: I did find a plastic bathroom cup in one large home styles store; but it was made in China and labeled “not safe for the dishwasher”.  Couldn’t risk that one.   Well, anyway, whatever cultural force has crushed the market for bathroom cups in America, it has yet to hit China. When Chinese plastic cups disappear entirely from our marketplace, we will know another mysterious, yet very bad blow has befallen the world economy.

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Surprise! Good News For a Change… Sort Of !

No it’s not an April Fools’ joke---rather some unexpected good news. A recent survey of teenagers revealed the fact that most kids choose their own parents as favorite role models. Friends and coaches and teachers are not even close seconds.

This survey conducted by Junior Achievement and Deloitte confirms similar findings from past research.  So despite all the verbal rebellion, tough talk and crankiness, adolescents admire their parents, worry about their own ability to live up to parental standards and achievement, value parents’ views.

This puts a different sort of burden on parents. Their own ethical conduct is being closely watched and mirrored by their children, despite protests to the contrary. I wonder if there is any connection between the apparent low point in business ethics during the current moment in history and the fact that these same polled teens in large numbers confess to unethical conduct.  What’s more, almost 40 % believe it’s necessary to break the rules in order to succeed.

We’d better clean up our business and professional acts, not to mention demand of ourselves decency in interpersonal involvements if we want to see the next generation raise standards of behavior. What’s at risk is the ability to trust anyone at all in any situation.

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Follow the Money

Grandparents often wake up one morning and wonder how they could possibly be this old. How did it happen? Sneaks up on you, sort of…First you notice that your doctors and political leaders are young enough to be your sons or daughters. Your own children’s friends are people of “substance” in their fields----whether law, business, education, technology; and if they are not, why aren’t they as successful as they “should be”.

Your co-workers get younger every year. Your jokes about Jack Benny’s vault evoke puzzled stares and an occasional, “Who’s Jack Benny?”  But a lot more than popular culture icons have changed. Intrinsic values are often turned on their heads.  Behind all this mess now in the financial world a huge flip flop is revealed.  Sure our parents (the great-grand parent generation) believed in hard work and prized the financial rewards it brought. Most were committed capitalists, with full faith in the system. But they clung to a priviso or two: “Work hard, make a lot of money, and be sure to save a lot too!” Go after the brass ring with a fervor, but do it honestly. Lying, cheating, exploiting friends and relatives, in particular, was considered heinous.

Something has happened since the winding down of the cold war.  Our new enemy is financial failure or even mediocrity. Nothing is more sacred than the acquisition of signs of riches---huge, if highly mortgaged multiple homes, automobiles, electronic toys, boats, clothes, jewels, glitzy vacations and hobbies, obscene tuitions even in some preschools. We’re in an awful mess because of the acceptance of excess.

A check out clerk at the supermarket confided a question she was almost ashamed to ask me---it seemed so unreal. “Someone about your age told me that when you were growing up there were no credit cards.  Is that true or is he pulling my leg?”

Her eyes bulged as I confirmed the accuracy of that information. It was too much to believe that we didn’t even have health insurance cards.  Mom would send or take us to the doctor with a stomach ache or sore throat and a five or ten dollar bill to pay the kind gentleman for his care. In farm towns, some doctors got paid in eggs, chickens, a side of beef or a turkey for Thanksgiving. That worked because it was a long horse and buggy ride to the general store, and the farm goods were fresh. But now I am going way back to a time----before Jack Benny even thought of having a vault. Jack’s silent reaction to an armed robber’s demand, “Your money or your life” caused the villain to repeat the choice before him.  “Give me a minute”, Benny responded, “I am thinking about it”.

With that remark, we entered the modern era, thinking less and less about any contest between our money and our lives. Today, it’s money, hands down.

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Culture Clash

I guess I set myself up for culture shock since I read newspapers, and magazines including local weeklies that purport to “enlighten parents”.  And I am also a regular reader of books and journals in developmental psychology. As a consulting editor for NAEYC, I am a staunch defender of “Developmentally Appropriate Practice”, and absolutely certain about the value of play. My position about standards vs. individualized instruction is predictable. Learning programs should be designed to meet the individual needs of each child. No wonder the public positions on such matters frequently cause me dismay.

One of my favorite little magazines is “The Horn Book” since it not only offers updates about the history and current best of children’s literature, but dares to question some of our deepest held popular assumptions such as a commitment to enhancing kids’ self esteem.  Daniel Greenstone, author of “Ain’t I Great!: The Problem With Self- Esteem”, attacks with powerful data,  the notion that what matters most is to love yourself.  He accurately unmasks the notions that bullies and bad behaving kids have low self-esteem.  As it turns out, not liking one’s self is not an accurate predictor of poor behavior.

Greenstone quotes a NY Times writer who in 2002 predicted that “studies attacking self-esteem would not gain much traction.;” and they haven’t. The Times author pointed out that “Self esteem, as a construct, has become a quasi religion, woven into an (American) tradition.”  It is tough to budge it, just as it is tough to demystify group testing results.

The same can be said of the growing popular conviction that play is a waste of time, and kids should be single-mindedly working toward college acceptance from the day they enter school, maybe even from the day they are born. An article in the current issue of my small town paper announced (with implicit pride) that the Board of Education is offering a presentation for parents of all school children, from kindergarten up, a presentation guiding parents about how to prepare their children to apply to college. Implication: it’s never too soon; children are never too young to begin the college application process. 


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My 12 year old twin nieces (S & R) and their 7th grade classmates were asked to write an essay about an interesting ancestor.  Much to the delight of their father (my brother) the twins each elected to write about a paternal grandparent. S chose the life story of her grandmother (my mother) who had died when S was 6 years old.  R decided to write about her grandfather (my father) who had died before the twins had been born. Both girls gathered interesting details by interviewing family members.

S. said she chose her grandmother because she thought it was “neat that Grandma Helen had been able to work and have a happy life at home.” She had a very important job in “what was then a male dominated world.”  Imagine a poor girl from a large family, growing up in Brooklyn, graduating from high school at age 15 and working hard enough to become the President and CEO of Dell Publishing Company. R learned that their grandfather also had humble origins, and was the first member of his large family to attend college, graduating with honors before the age of 20.

These grandparents’ life story was not only about work and achievement. There was a romantic side to it. They met on a train when Helen was just 18 and traveling for business; and her future husband was a college student traveling home for vacation. Two years later they married, she, on her way to a startlingly successful career in publishing, he, a newspaper reporter, the couple beginning life together a month before the stock market crash of 1929. In the early days of the depression, Abraham Meyer was reassigned to the financial page of his newspaper.  Helen Meyer got on the bandwagon of publishing successes during those hard times. She had a hunch that movie and romance magazines might be diversions from life’s real troubles. (Incidentally, once again in the current economic meltdown, movies have become a popular diversion.)

The twin grand daughters admired their grandparents for making the most of their talents in a tough time. “Grandma Helen reached the top of her profession, never forgetting her first life priority—her family, soon to include a daughter and son.”

Grandpa Abraham was a hard working man, earning his own way through college and beyond. “I am so proud of him” said one of the two granddaughters he had never met. “It makes me very sad that I didn’t get a chance to meet him because he seems like he would have been a great grandfather. I know that if I had met him I would have loved him.”

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