I’ve changed how I exercise in front of my kids

I’d been patting myself on the back for working out in front of them, but an innocent question from my son changed my ways.

Photo: iStockphoto

“Mommy, what’s a calorie?”

I was in the middle of an intense workout, having (I thought) left both my sons upstairs under the supervision of their dad. But unbeknownst to me, my seven-year-old had followed me downstairs at some point. Absorbed in my weights and my own labored breathing, I didn’t realize he was there until he spoke up.

But calorie? Who said anything about calories? For a moment, lost in the haze of exercise-induced endorphins, I was at a loss, both to where the question had come from and how on earth I should answer it.

I’ve always tried to raise my children in a body-positive household. You’ll never catch me complaining about the size of my thighs, or jiggling my tummy, or worrying about how my arms look when we have impromptu dance parties. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t dye my grey hairs away. And I’m trying hard to stop taking my glasses off every time I snap a selfie.

So when I say I don’t exercise to lose weight, it’s the absolute truth. I exercise to keep my body strong. I exercise because it gives me more energy. I exercise because it helps my moods stay balanced. I exercise because it helps me sleep better.

I’d never really thought twice about doing one of my exercise videos with my children in attendance. To be honest, I’d always sort of mentally patted myself on the back for it. I took obvious joy when they practiced yoga alongside me, and didn’t even complain when I was edged off my own mat.

What a fantastic, healthy family I was raising. Right?

So where, then, was this question about calories coming from?

Right then, my attention was grabbed by the instructor on my DVD. This move really burns calories! And that’s when it hit me.

Is this where my son is getting it from? Is this why he asked me recently if I wanted to lose weight? Is this why I caught him examining his belly the other day? (A belly which I promptly covered with kisses, I might add.)

Is it these fitness videos I love so much?

The instructors who lead the various exercise videos I watch keep a running commentary going throughout. They talk about form, about how to do the exercises correctly. They offer encouragement, egging me on even when I’m positive I can’t do another rep. They remind me that exercise is a form of self-care.

Mother and daughter hugging My daughter hates her flabby arms-and she's only five' And they talk about calories and exercising to lose weight and building that “perfect” physique.

When I really started paying attention, I realized that nearly every single DVD I use contains frequent admonishments about not “undoing this in the kitchen,” praise for moves that “torch calories,” and reminders that exercise is the key to having the body I’ve always (supposedly) dreamed of.

Although I’d been filtering those messages out, because they’re irrelevant to me, my kids were listening. And they were picking up every troubling implication the instructors send.

Girls love muscular arms, the teacher reminds us. We all want the booty, we’re told.

Are these girl weights? A female instructor teases a lean, muscular man.

And, of course, messages about food. Diet your way to health. Lean proteins, lots of veggies, and portion control. Good foods. Cheat days. And, lest we forget, burn those calories, baby.

These are not the messages I want to send to my children.

Since noticing these not-so-subtle messages, I’ve changed up my routines. Sometimes I still watch my videos in front of my children, but only when I can “pump up” the background music or mute the instructor’s voice entirely. Sometimes I just mute the whole TV and put on my own playlist instead. Or I do routines from magazines or books, and my children like to join in the fun. We do yoga together, attempt push up contests, practice pilates moves. I have hand weights in sizes appropriate for everyone. We go walking nearly every day, and on days when I go running, my boys wave me off from the front window before going off to play with Daddy or Grandma. Exercise is still part of a healthy lifestyle, after all, and I want to normalize it.

For a long time, my workout videos were a beloved part of my self-care routine. Some of the ones in my collection go back years, and the instructors have become almost like friends. But no matter how good of a sweat I get, I can’t ignore the toxic messages being sent to my children by those videos. Some friends you need to let go.

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Siblings sharing a bedroom: 10 tips for making it work

Some kids share a bedroom even when they don’t have to. Here’s what experts and families have to say about the pros and cons—and how to make it work. 

Photo: @JULEYAK via Instagram

As kids, my twin sister and I had our own separate bedrooms in our spacious suburban house—hers was carpeted in ‘80s bubble gum pink, mine in royal blue—but we still slept in the same bed every night. Our parents say we had slept better in the same crib, too. My twin would roll over and hold my bottle up to my lips when we were only a few months old. As toddlers, we’d babble in gibberish after lights out. Throughout our childhood, we continued to stay up late together, chattering and curling up under the covers

When my daughters were born—two girls who are just 22 months apart—having them share a bedroom made sense. To begin with, we had no other choice in a two-bedroom house. And how wonderful would it be for them to be as close as my sister and I are to this day? We moved them in together when the youngest was one and the oldest was almost three.

The whole idea of having a separate bedroom for each kid is a relatively recent middle- and upper-class phenomenon in North America, where there are, on average, fewer than two children per household, yet the houses are among the biggest in the world. But look at different cultures and countries where housing costs are higher and space more limited, and sharing rooms—and even beds—is just a given.

Of course, there are pros and cons to both set-ups. While some of us will do whatever it takes to give kids their own rooms for the sake of more privacy and longer stretches of sleep, others are deciding to have them share even when there is space. Spare rooms are being used for guests, offices and play areas, and families are seeing the benefits of kids learning to negotiate and bond with their siblings.

We asked Laura Markham, the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, and Pam Edwards, a paediatric sleep consultant, about the upsides and downsides of making sharing a room work for your family.

Who’s bunking with whom

Some families don’t have a choice, but others do. What if you have more than two kids, or children with a big age gap, or different genders or personalities? While there’s no right answer, here are some issues to consider.

Age

In theory, siblings of any age could share a room, but a good time to make the move is when the younger kid is sleeping through the night, so as not to disturb the other child, says Edwards, who runs Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Kamloops, BC. If you have more than two children, their ages might also factor in to how you divide them.

Angela Lecompte lives with her husband and their three girls, ages 11, eight and five, in a typical three-bedroom semi-detached house in Toronto. Lecompte originally had the two older children sharing a room (which is what Edwards usually recommends), but now that her eldest daughter wants more privacy, she’s switched it so the two younger girls are sharing instead.

“For my older daughter, having space now is important. She started puberty and needs her own space and time away from her little sisters, who bug her at times. But we do remind her regularly that she’s the only one in the house with her own bedroom.” Lecompte says it’ll be interesting to see how things play out when her middle child starts demanding privacy too, but for now, it’s working. “They ask me regularly when they’ll get their own rooms,” she says. “Um, never?”

Personality

Siblings on the same bed. 5 things to think about before moving your baby into an older sibling’s bedroom If you have the luxury of another option, parents shouldn’t push a child who doesn’t seem ready to share a room into the new arrangement, says Markham, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and parents, and is based in New York City. But some siblings are naturally very caring and keen to welcome a younger brother or sister into their space. Markham herself is significantly older than her siblings, but growing up, she had to share her room. “When I was six, my sister was born, and when I was 12, my brother was born,” she says. “I was very nurturing with both of them—my brother even slept in my room when I was 12, and I ended up liking it.” But of course, the opposite could be true. “You can also imagine a 12-year-old who is really lost in their own world and would not want to be bothered by their little brother….I think a lot depends on the relationship between the kids.”

Gender

When it comes to sharing a room, gender identity might not be relevant for younger kids, but once children are between ages eight and 10, they may no longer be comfortable changing in front of each other. For that matter, even kids who identify as the same gender want more privacy as tweens, so Markham recommends being sensitive to that and doing what you can to give them more space.

The upside

The dream scenario for some families with more kids than available bedrooms is that they all get along and happily share a room. That’s because there are loads of benefits—the friendship, resilience and problem solving, not to mention the extra space it would allow for other things or even more children (if that’s a wish).

“All kids are different, so it’s whatever works for your family, but often, kids really love sharing a room once they’re used to it,” says Markham. “And the reason they love it is because they get closer. They have a soulmate they can spill their secrets to after lights out,” she says. “I have families who put their kids on a double mattress. And the kids love it, because then they’re next to a warm body and they fall asleep better. That way, they don’t wake up scared in the middle of the night—there’s always their sibling to snuggle up with.”

Nicole Jepsen, a mom of two who lives in Cambridge, Ont., has had her six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter share a room since the youngest was 10 months old. Even after moving from a three-bedroom house in Toronto to a four-bedroom home 90 minutes southwest of the city, she plans to keep them rooming together until she hears any complaints. “I get a lot of flack because of them being opposite genders, but I don’t see it as a big deal,” she says. “They sleep better together, and it’s my (maybe unpopular) opinion that we, as adults, prefer to sleep with a companion in the room, so why wouldn’t we allow the same for our kiddos?” Jepsen even got them a bunk bed with a double mattress on the bottom because they sometimes like to share a bed.

Having kids share a room might feel more secure for parents, too. Helena Stones, a mother of five in Victoria, BC, has all of her kids sleep in the same room even though they live in a four-bedroom house. The children’s ages range from two to nine, but because there are two bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs, Stones and her husband feel more comfortable with the kids on the same floor as them. (They came to this conclusion out of necessity—when the eldest was six, he left his bedroom, then in the basement, and walked out of the house in the middle of the night.) They have fit a triple bunk bed, a toddler bed and a crib into the one room. Storage is tight, so they have fewer clothes and do lots of laundry, and toys are kept elsewhere. “The bedroom becomes a jungle gym—the idea of sharing is really celebrated around the kids, so they see it as a positive thing,” says Stones. “The kids love it. They want us to have more babies, but I tell them the next one is going to be a grandkid.”

Potential problems

Of course, sharing a room is not all sunshine and sweet cuddling sessions. Sibling dynamics can be tricky to navigate and add more chaos to life with kids. What if they have different bedtimes? Won’t they wake each other up in the middle of the night? Will they have more trouble falling asleep? Or what if they just hate sharing a room?

Sometimes my daughters take turns singing each other to sleep, and it melts my heart. But the other half of the time, lights out is challenging. My five-year-old is often desperate to fall asleep after a long day at kindergarten, but she struggles to tune out the shenanigans of her three-year-old sister, who isn’t as tired because she still naps for two hours at daycare.

“It can be tricky if their sleep schedules are different,” says Edwards. For instance, if one of your kids is loud or cries a lot, even if you think the other one is used to it and doesn’t fully wake up, the quality of their sleep is lowered, which can be detrimental long term. So you may have to work on that and consider sleep training. Personality differences and sibling rivalry are also some of the toughest issues to overcome, adds Markham. If the relationship is problematic and two siblings just don’t get along, sharing a room doesn’t tend to help the situation.

How to make it work

So how can you make the most out of sharing a room, while negotiating boundaries and solving disputes?

Time it right.

If you have an older child who’s not adjusting well to a baby and already feels like they have to share everything—such as your love and time—you may want to hold off, says Markham. If you’re having a third child and planning on putting the older two children together, do it before the baby arrives so there’s less resentment about the new addition to the family.

Don’t use sharing to solve sleep problems.

For a child who has regular nighttime wakings, it could be a comfort to have a roommate or bed buddy, but Edwards says it likely won’t help existing sleep problems and may introduce new ones. Kids should learn how to self-soothe and sleep independently. “I would never recommend room sharing with the intention of trying to solve sleep problems,” says Edwards. “I would try to tackle that first and use room sharing as a reward for good sleep and not a solution for poor sleep.”

Create personal spaces.

Every kid needs privacy sometimes, but introverts especially crave it. “A lot of introvert kids really need this. They get their energy from being alone,” says Markham. “And if they’re always in the middle of a family and they always have a sibling around, they’re never alone to recharge their batteries.” In lieu of their own room, you could get a bed tent or canopy, or, for older kids, a large bookcase in the middle of the room might help divide the space. Designate special areas for each child’s belongings and give older kids a secure spot, like a box with a lock on it, to keep their treasures away from prying little hands.

Turn up the volume.

White noise is great for winding kids down and blocking out distracting sounds, but my younger daughter doesn’t like it. She also talks to herself before falling asleep, which drives my older daughter bananas. In cases like these, Markham suggests playing relaxing music or an audio story, so kids can focus on that instead of their own voices to self-soothe. That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s working for both girls.

Get bunk beds.

Bunk beds are popular because they not only save space but also visually separate kids for sleep, so they’re less likely to bother each other. Just make sure the child sleeping on the top bunk is at least six years old and that the bed being used meets current safety standards. Always use the ladder to get on and off the top, and only play on the bottom bunk if the lower space is designed by the manufacturer as a play area.

Make the room a quiet zone.

Reserving the room for quiet activities, including reading and homework, is a good way to manage arguments about how the space is used. All the noisy stuff, including playdates, should happen in common areas of the house, like the living room.

Manage conflicts.

If kids don’t learn to solve disputes when they’re young, they’re never going to get it right as grown-ups. “Children certainly aren’t born knowing how to do this, so we need to teach them,” says Markham. While you don’t want to take sides between siblings, you should still help them work out a disagreement, paying attention as soon as it starts, she says. One tip is to draw up a list of rules that you can point to and enforce. Writing things down goes a long way, even if your kids don’t read yet, Markham says. Some good ones for the list are “We are a family, and we always work things out,” “No mean voices or yelling” and “We always clean up our own messes.”

Think about sleep times.

If your kids are close in age and have similar sleep needs, do bedtime routines and stories together. Give older kids a short time limit to chat once they’re in bed. Otherwise, bedtimes should be separated by at least one hour, says Edwards. That timing might seem like more work, but it could be a solution to those bedtime struggles. For example, you may need to let a toddler who still naps during the day stay up later than a school-aged kid, says Edwards.

Separate them for naps.

It’s hard to get two kids sharing a room to settle down at the end of a tiring day, and it’s even harder for afternoon naps. If both kids need to sleep and space allows for it, consider moving the older one to another room or to your own bed (a.k.a. “the big bed”), suggests Edwards (if your eldest is old enough to stay in an adult bed safely). It will be easier for both of them to wind down.

Be patient.

Expect a transition period of three to six weeks to adjust to rooming together, and be patient, says Edwards. “This is normal—don’t give up if it’s not working right away.”

Read more:
6 tips to help keep the peace between siblings
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Why I gave up trying to create the perfect Halloween costume

Late-night sewing machine sessions and multiple trips to the craft store had this mom wondering—who was more interested in creating a memorable costume, them or me?

Young girl dressed as Pepsi vending machine
Photo: Courtesy of Julie Vick

In elementary school, I went as a soda machine for Halloween. My dad made the costume by painting an appliance box to look like a vending machine and cutting out arm and face holes. It was perfect for the Colorado Halloweens of my youth, where snow would often make an appearance, and a cute Tinkerbell costume would have to be covered up with a parka.

It snowed on the Halloween when I wore the soda machine, and a thin layer of flakes piled on top of the box as I walked door to door gathering candy. Later that night, the snow melted and dripped down the side of the costume, smearing some of the paint. But the box held up for all the Halloween events that year and helped secure me a month’s worth of mini chocolate bars and gummy treats, so I was OK with letting it go. As a fan of spontaneity and mischief, my father always liked Halloween and enjoyed helping me create my costumes. Another year, he transformed a box into a wearable Rubik’s cube for me by carefully measuring and painting the coloured squares onto the sides.

Dumbledore, Moana, Captain Hook, Rey, Canadian rocket ship, Rain cloud 38 best store-bought Halloween costumes for kids When I had my own kids, I remembered the soda machine and some of the other unique costumes I had worn during my childhood. For the first few Halloweens of my kids’ lives, my husband and I attempted to construct costumes, or modify store-bought ones to make them unique. One year, we sewed felt spikes onto a shirt to transform it into a hedgehog costume, and another year we created Batman and Robin getups by buying capes and sewing felt logos onto form-fitting clothes.

The Batman and Robin costumes turned out to be the last ones my dad would see my kids in, and after he died, I felt a renewed desire to create memorable costumes. Putting work into their uniqueness felt like a good way to remember him and pass on a tradition.

But last fall, when we were browsing a big-box store, my sons latched on to two store-bought costumes: a black cat and a hot dog. It was late September, and since kids change their mind about Halloween costumes about as often as the performers change in a Broadway show, I hesitated to buy them. Should I stall a bit longer? Try to recreate similar costumes at home? I’d also seen the vast wasteland that is a store holiday section a few days before Halloween and didn’t want the outfits to get snatched up by someone else if the boys had their hearts set on them. I decided to buy them and keep the tags on, figuring I could return them if they changed their minds.

While I can appreciate the uniqueness of homemade Halloween costumes, they can be difficult to assemble around work and other obligations. Previous Halloweens had involved late-night sewing machine sessions and multiple trips to the overwhelming aisles of a craft store to get them finished on time. Unique homemade costumes can also be difficult to use again or pass on, and a lot of parental desires can get mapped onto kids’ clothing—who was more interested in creating a memorable costume, them or me?

kid dressed up as Rubik's Cube
Photo: Courtesy of Julie Vick

Last Halloween, my older son remained steadfast in his desire to be a black cat, so he wore the costume we had bought. My younger son cycled through a series of costumes we had in the house for various Halloween events—Spider-Man, a leopard, a superhero and the hot dog.

They both seemed happy with their choices and enjoyed celebrating the holiday, which I realized mattered more than any Pinterest-perfect holiday visions I had in my head. In the future, if one of my kids gets his heart set on going as an obscure inanimate object, I will be more than happy to help him create it, but if all he wants is to throw a sheet over his head and go as a ghost, then so be it.

After last Halloween, we added the hot dog and cat to our box of dress-up clothes, and now my kids occasionally don a costume to jump on the trampoline or complete a homemade obstacle course. It’s nice to see them getting more use out of them. Sometimes, when I’m watching a hot dog and a black cat hold an impromptu dance party in the basement in June, I pause and think about how entertained my dad would be to see them, too.

Read more:
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Are we better off waiting to be older parents?

As more women choose to have children in middle age, they feel that they're excelling as parents, their kids are happy and the downsides are no big deal.

Philip Ferreira was 54 and Natalie Grunberg-Ferreira was 41 when Arieh, now a year old, was born. Photo: Jimmy Jeong

The turning-point conversation about kids happened in Fiji. Kristina McKinnon and her husband, Rob, took a boat cruise to visit the outer islands. Other people’s kids were running around, roughhousing, snorkelling, yelling, a cloud of kid chaos, and Kristina loved it. The next part of the trip was adults only, and she and Rob agreed it had been better with kids. “We have a lot of love to give,” she thought. “We can do it.” She was 35. It wasn’t really a late start, considering she’d met her husband at 29, and the next few years had been about launching the marriage and getting professionally settled.

But it took a decade-long obstacle course to reach parenthood. After Fiji, Rob’s dad was diagnosed with dementia. The couple decided to rent out their home in Radium Hot Springs, B.C., and move back to their hometown of Victoria to care for him, building a suite for themselves on top of his ranch house. They started new jobs: Rob as a police officer; Kristina in administration at the University of Victoria. For the next five years, she tried to get pregnant, without success. It was a hard time. In every direction, Kristina saw children; they seemed to be multiplying, clogging streets and grocery store aisles.

At 40, Kristina went to a fertility clinic, where the doctor told her, “You have to get on this right away.” Three rounds of IVF came next—needles and hormones and mood swings. The transfer of each embryo was followed by the agony of waiting two weeks for results. Then the call: not pregnant.

A friend knew what they were going through and offered to donate her eggs. Rob’s sperm and the donated eggs added up to five embryos, one of which was transferred to Kristina, who was by that point 45. She got pregnant, and 10 years after that discussion in Fiji, Kristina gave birth to her daughter, Kaitlyn. “A perfect baby. Slept through the night right away,” she says.

Her father-in-law died when Kaitlyn was two. “Taking care of your kids through that helps. They rescue you from sorrow,” says Kristina. Her mom and stepdad moved into the house, which meant more sandwich-generation caregiving for Kristina. Her mom had a heart condition that gradually grew worse. After months of treatment, she died. To get through another dark period of loss, Kristina leaned on her sisters, and Kaitlyn’s solitude in the world as an only child suddenly seemed stark and alarming. Her cousins were 15, 20 years older; who would she have to turn to when Kristina and Rob were old, or if something happened to them, God forbid? On her way to work, Kristina would drive by the clinic that housed her two frozen embryos, from the same batch as Kaitlyn: “I could hear them calling.”

The doctors at the clinic Kristina went to wouldn’t transfer an embryo after age 50, so she had to make a decision within three months of her mother’s death. Kristina didn’t know if she was in the right headspace. “Was I being selfish, or do we still have time and energy and love?” The answer was no, and yes, yes and yes. Just before her 50th birthday, Kristina had the “emby”—her term—implanted and became pregnant. Like many older moms, she developed gestational diabetes, and she worried about the strain on her heart. During delivery, she said to herself: “Please don’t die on this table. You have to make it through for this baby.”

Two parents standing by a trampoline with their two kids on it
The leap: Rob McKinnon was 51 and Kristina McKinnon was 50 when they had daughter Sam, now two years old. Their daughter Kaitlyn (at right) is now six. Photo: Jimmy Jeong.

She did. Her daughter Sam arrived in June 2017, a few weeks before Kristina’s 51st birthday. Kristina’s stomach is still distended from torn abdominal muscles. She’s bone-tired, shuttling two kids, ages six and two, between activities and child care while working three days a week. The $50,000 cost of IVF on their line of credit means she and her husband are indefinitely postponing the home they wanted to build. “I wouldn’t recommend having a kid at 50,” she says. “A lot of people at work think I’m absolutely insane, and to be honest there are days we look at each other and say, ‘Oh my God—we’re crazy.’”

But she’s laughing as she says this, and being honest about the downsides isn’t the same as regret—is it?

“No! Being a mom is sheer, absolute joy,” says Kristina. “We experience everything brand new. You learn about all of humanity through watching them learn and grow up and have emotions. It’s an education for us to just go to kindergarten and meet the teacher, all these experiences other parents might take for granted. This is something we almost didn’t have. Here we are, getting to do this. It’s unbelievable.”

In 2012, the average age of Canadian mothers at childbirth, taking all births into account, hit 30.8 years, the oldest age on record in this country. For the first time, birth rates are higher for women in their late 30s than in their early 20s. In 2010, another seismic demographic shift occurred: Over-40 pregnancies became more common than teenage ones.

Because the vast majority of women having kids in their 40s and 50s require some form of assisted reproductive technology to become mothers, this cultural swing to older parenting has raised alarm bells about an attack on the natural order in some religious and conservative circles. Older parenting does seem supernatural, somehow; it undoes chronology and has the potential to rearrange society. Last year, an American psychologist warned a conference at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine that women who have children in their 50s and 60s will “traumatize” their kids. Too early in life, said the psychologist, these children will become caregivers and invariably face the monumental loss of a parent.

Mom pushing stroller while holding hands with young daughter outside I had three kids after 40But the several Canadian women who delayed parenting that I spoke to don’t seem like emissaries from a cold sci-fi future; their reasons for becoming parents later have arisen from the everyday realities in which they live. Women delay childbirth because they haven’t found a partner, or they’re trying to get established professionally in order to afford a kid, or they haven’t made up their minds yet. That last one is about choice, which is what feminism gave us, along with birth control. Since birth control allowed women agency over their reproduction half a century ago, maternal age has been rising incrementally in developed countries around the world. Assisted reproductive technology is the next generation of scientifically aided autonomy for women, allowing us even more control over our biology, including the time of life in which we become mothers.

For women who seize the opportunity afforded them by this moment in history and become later-life mothers, the challenges are many, including the aforementioned exhaustion and playground side-eye (“Are you so-and-so’s grandma?” is the dreaded question). But older mothers also project a very specific kind of joy.
Karen Kaffko, a clinical psychologist and professor at York University in Toronto who has worked with women going through fertility treatments, finds the anxiety of making multiple attempts at conception is later mitigated by thoughtfulness and delight. “They have a kind of mindful appreciation of every moment of their young child’s life,” she says. Parenting is regarded as a gift—and often a hard-earned one.

Older moms provide a counterpoint to the “I hate motherhood” trend of the past few years. A body of social science literature has shown parents are less happy than non-parents, and mothers are less happy than fathers, hence confessional anti-motherhood blogs and books like Orna Donath’s Regretting Motherhood. But parents who have their kids over age 34 display higher levels of happiness than those who have their kids earlier. This is likely because having kids when you’re older often means avoiding the stressors that make parenting hard, namely financial strain and instability.

As they move from aberration to a new normal, older mothers are reinventing the very institution of motherhood—maybe even improving it, which raises the question: Are older women better at motherhood?

***

Elizabeth Bruce and her 10-year-old son, Graham, live in an apartment in the west end of Toronto where the balcony overlooks a tangled ravine. Elizabeth, whose air of no-fools-suffered efficiency is offset by a head of playful, fiery-red hair, works from home one day a week rather than at her downtown office, where she’s the national manager of hospitality services at RBC. Graham will be home soon. He has a key to the building and walks from school on his own most days, a conscious decision by Elizabeth to instill independence.

“Oh, these snowplow parents,” she sighs. “I’m just amazed at the over-worry and concern. I just don’t have it. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I think the kids are going to be fine.”

Elizabeth waited to have a kid because her mother always told her and her sisters: Fly. Have a life. Don’t rush. “It was never my intention to find somebody, get married and have a baby,” she says. “That was just never on the forefront for me. It was, ‘Okay, what am I going to do with my life, for me.’”

She did a lot. She lived in Bermuda and San Francisco, travelled the world and dined in three-star restaurants. After the fallout from 9/11 devastated the hotel industry, she moved back to Canada, bought a house in Pickering and fell in love with and married a man named Mark, who had two sons from a previous marriage. But soon after, she was diagnosed with lupus, which explained her aching joints and breathing difficulties. When Elizabeth received the diagnosis, she left the office, burst into tears and called her mother: “I’ll never be able to have kids!” She was 38. The doctor disagreed, however, and Elizabeth did get pregnant, but she miscarried three times. One of those times, she miscarried twins.

She and her husband considered IVF, but it was too expensive, and adoption felt right. The adoption process took a year of interviews and a lengthy, privacy-invading home study. A week after they were approved to adopt, when the nursery had been painted pink in the hopes of a girl, Elizabeth found out she was pregnant. One of the first calls she made was to the adoption agency, to regretfully back out. The lupus made hers a high-risk pregnancy, so she spent much of the next nine months at a clinic in Toronto to make sure she stayed in remission.

A woman who has a child past age 40 has a slightly higher risk of having a medically complicated pregnancy, contending with issues like high blood pressure, diabetes and early labour, usually culminating in a C-section. And babies born to older mothers may have an increased chance of developing birth defects, especially Down syndrome. Early on, Elizabeth was apprised of the health risks posed for her child, but it wasn’t a deterrent. “I didn’t care about what kind of baby I was going to get. My feeling is that God gives you what you can handle. We were going to figure it out.”

After 12 hours of induced labour, Graham was delivered with forceps (“I feel like we could have done that at hour eight,” Elizabeth says dryly). She had just turned 41. Asked to describe her son, she lights up: “He’s smart. He’s athletic. He’s very kind. He’s very shy. He’s—everything.”

When Graham was 18 months old, Elizabeth and Mark split. She moved to Toronto and started over with a baby. So her experience of older motherhood is inseparable from her experience of single motherhood, which is also on the rise: 19 percent of Canadian children who are newborn to age 14 live primarily with a single parent, and 80 percent of those kids live with their mothers.

Graham has a good relationship with his dad, who remarried and has since had another son, but Elizabeth is the primary parent. Her plate is full, spilling over the edges, in fact, with parenting, working full-time and keeping her lupus under control. A basket of medications sits above her kitchen sink.

A 50-year-old woman looking at an ipad with her 10-year-old son
Family compact: Elizabeth Bruce gave birth to Graham, now 10, when she was 41. Photo: Jimmy Jeong

As an older mom, she can’t rely on grandparent support the way her siblings could when they had their kids two decades ago. Now in their 80s, Elizabeth’s parents are—knock on wood (she does)—relatively healthy. But her mother could sled and play road hockey with her first grandkids, and she physically can’t with Graham. One offshoot of delayed parenting is the fact that grandparents are often absent, either dead or physically limited, a phenomenon one Time magazine columnist bemoaned as “the grandparent deficit.”

But the concept of the nuclear family with the grandparents next door was really a postwar blip, and in the age of gay parenting, common-law partnerships and thruples, family is custom-built. Elizabeth has compensated for the gaps in her own reality—no partner, less hands-on grandparenting—by leaning on her sister and brother-in-law, and teaming up with a couple of older single moms she met through Little League. They share meals and driving duties, and commiserate about the kids, who all hang out. They even vacation together.

Despite the red hair and a face that looks more than a decade younger than 51, Elizabeth does get The Question: “Oh, is he your son?” with the emphasis on “son,” as in, “not grandson.” “He’s mixed race, so I don’t know sometimes whether they’re asking if he’s biologically my child or if I’m his grandmother,” she says. “But I cut it off. I’m kind of proud. Like, ‘Nope, I’m his mom.”’

Elizabeth brings her folding chair to every single one of Graham’s baseball games and gets very excited when he hits a home run. “Maybe too excited,” she admits. But she doesn’t overschedule him, and her parenting style is pretty relaxed, which may be an older parent thing, too. “I just see the bigger picture. ‘This, too, shall pass’ is my favourite expression.” She makes healthy lunches. She enlists a French tutor. “I’m lucky I can afford it,” she says, a fact she attributes to being established professionally before she had Graham.

But if she does the math (which she does sometimes, late at night), when he graduates from university, she’ll be in her mid-60s. She works hard to stay healthy, buying only organic food, doing her 30-minute workout video most days. “I have a huge amount of anxiety over something happening to me. I get emotional. I can feel the tears coming into my eyes—I just almost get sick to my stomach at the thought of…” Tears do begin to well up, but she pulls them back. “So I’m going to live to 90. That’s the only solution.”

***

Motherhood is a shape-shifter, a construct that reflects and refracts its era and milieu. Today, our lifespans are longer, so we’re young longer, and we live—and mother—like we’re younger, too. The boomers decided not to age, and the mentality stuck: youth won. Readily available hair dye and injections make middle age harder to identify. Age levelling continues with technology, where information and cultural references travel back and forth across generational lines; social media ushers experiences out of silos for the sharing. We probably know more about our parents’ lives, both inner and outer, than they knew about their parents’ lives.

As the distance between the old and the young collapses, it doesn’t seem so strange to have kids later. The ultimate sign of allegiance to youth is, of course, bearing children, like Halle Berry (46 when she had her second baby) and Rachel Weisz (48 when she had her second). “It keeps you young” is something women who have kids later in life are often told, and it actually might.

Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, calls himself “Dinosaur Dad” because at age 63, he has a 15- and a 12-year-old. (His academic area of expertise: procrastination.) “It changes what aging means if you engage in the life tasks of the young,” he says over the phone, having just made pancakes and dropped his eldest at school. “When you’re in your 60s, it’s often the time to be winding down, disconnecting from the world. But I’m deeply engaged in the life tasks of a fortysomething. Psychologically, I’m younger.”

But, of course, no matter how young one behaves, biology is a fact and fertility is limited. The problem for women is that the optimal time to reproduce collides with the optimal time to get educated and build a career. Considering the realities of having kids today, delaying parenthood is a pragmatic move. Political bluster about universal child care tends to disappear after elections, and in overpriced cities and uncertain economies, the cost of raising a kid (on average in Canada, some $260,000 from birth to age 18) requires economic stability.

Elizabeth Gregory, director of the women’s, gender and sexuality program at the University of Houston, writes in her book Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood that women who become moms later earn higher salaries than women of the same age who had their children earlier. In effect, older moms often avoid the “wage penalty” of young motherhood. Being settled, financially and professionally, before having kids is used to guarantee security when the system doesn’t.

Women today are also likely to have multiple partners throughout their lives, so they often don’t settle on which one they want to have kids with until later. Natalie Grunberg-Ferreira, a teacher and small-business owner in Victoria, dated through her twenties and never met the right person.

“I wanted, at the end of my life, to be surrounded by kids, this loving family, like my dad was when he died. I had a good family growing up, and I wanted that connection.” At 37, she froze her eggs and “shelved them,” she says. When she still hadn’t met anyone at 40, Natalie used a donor from an American sperm bank (a Jewish guy who included a touching essay with his donor profile; someone she would have dated if he wasn’t 26) to create two embryos. “I was tired of having my life revolve around a man. At 40, I decided, ‘I’m going to make my own family.’” Her mother helped her with the financial hit: about $25,000 in total. But then, six months before the planned embryo transfer, she met Philip—a tattooed hairdresser—and they began a relationship. Fifty-three, with two grown kids, he was open to parenting with Natalie. A few months later, he was by her side when the transfer was performed. They married in their backyard last summer, when the baby, Arieh, was three months old.

“I got the family I always wanted. I wish more women knew about egg freezing,” says Natalie. But when she looks back on the experience of becoming an older mother, she gets a little pissed off. “People talk about egg freezing as if it’s a selfish thing women do, putting their careers first. But men don’t seem to be aware of the biological clock, and so we have to do all that work—the emotional and physical planning, the financial output. No one looks at men and says, ‘It’s irresponsible for you to be waiting because there are all these women out there with biological needs.’”

Tammy Chomiak and her wife used a sperm donor too, and Tammy went through six unsuccessful rounds of insemination, a gut-wrenching experience. With IVF, Tammy did get pregnant, giving birth to a daughter at 37 and a son at 38. Now she’s 40 with two kids under three. Sometimes, in groups of moms in their mid-20s (she lives in Maple Ridge, B.C., where she’s observed that moms seem to have their kids younger than in Vancouver), she’ll feel a bit older, a touch awkward. They have different cultural shorthand; a decade between life experiences. But Tammy is certain those extra years she had before motherhood serve her and her kids now—she has what psychologists identify as the advantage of “emotional preparedness.” “I don’t think I fully knew myself until I was in my 30s. I’m a bit wiser, a bit smarter, a bit slowed down. You’re not partying anymore; you’re more into being at home. I think knowing who I am helps me parent.”

Older moms may be happier, but what about their children? When Brenda Reynolds was 44, with two fully grown kids, ages 18 and 22, she found out she was pregnant. She visited her doctor with stomach cramps and bloating, only to discover she was 23 weeks along. This was a shock; an earlier pregnancy test had been negative. The night before giving birth, she spent time at Walmart with her son, shopping for supplies to accompany him to college. Today, she’s a part-time real estate agent in the small southern Ontario town of Coldwater and the 50-year-old mother of five-year-old Jax, a Tasmanian devil of a kid (he stops running for intermittent Lego and YouTube sessions only). Brenda and her husband, who is 60 and became a grandfather from a first marriage when Jax was one week old, are exhausted. That’s not to say that it isn’t fun: Brenda loves her son’s sly sense of humour and relishes her reunion with forgotten domestic pleasures like back-to-school shopping and baking. With her first kids, Brenda was a single mom working three jobs—now she has more time to devote to Jax. But Brenda’s mother, who is blind, lives down the street and needs daily visits and hours-long drives to Toronto for treatments. Brenda hasn’t had a vacation in years. Some friends have vanished. People her age aren’t talking about feedings and nap times; they’re discussing cashing in their RRSPs. Sometimes when they’re all out together, her now 24-year-old daughter gets mistaken for Jax’s mom. But most of all, Brenda worries about what it’s like for Jax to have older parents, about the stresses he’ll invariably face as his parents age or, worse, pass away.

And yet, most research suggests long-term outcomes for children born to older parents are positive: Because they are more likely to have a favourable home environment, with economic and emotional stability, they are more likely to exhibit high levels of self-sufficiency in adulthood. One study of 1.5 million Swedes concluded that children of older parents are less likely to drop out of high school, are more likely to go on to post-secondary education and tend to perform better on standardized tests than their older siblings. They may even—and this is odd—be taller than the children of younger parents.

Kaffko has been a counsellor for over 25 years and doesn’t worry about older parents’ effect on child development. “I have never counselled a child with issues because of having older parents. If there’s conflict in the home, that’s the issue, not age.”

These findings may not placate anyone who frowns upon older parenting, caught in what Elizabeth Gregory calls “the yuck factor.” At the heart of discomfort with the idea of older mothers is, in our youth-venerating culture, a set of assumptions about aging: that it’s negative, gross, the end of the sex that leads to reproduction. Pychyl has a more positive outlook. “The question of ‘Is it good or bad to be an older parent?’ bangs on notions of normality and ageism. We have this normative idea of development in our society,” he says. “Kids who grow up with older parents are going to be more accepting and understanding of age. It won’t be long before we start thinking differently about this altogether.”

I think of that when I’m at Elizabeth’s apartment and Graham comes in after school. He’s wearing a Toronto toque and carrying a drooping backpack. Shyly, he listens a bit while his mother and I talk, dangling a ribbon above his cat, Molly. Tomorrow, Elizabeth will be joining his class on a field trip to a museum, and he’s working out who will be in his group for exploring ancient Rome (Gabriel, Colin and someone else, he forgets who). I ask him what his mom is like, and he smiles: “Crazy. She laughs a lot!” He lists fun things they do together—watching Lemony Snicket, going to Cuba, hanging out.

I tell him we had been talking about his mother being older. “Yeah, some of the other moms are younger,” he says thoughtfully. Does it matter? I ask him. “No,” he says, looking at me like it’s a really weird question.

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Why the way we teach kids table manners is actually kind of racist

The message that eating food with your hands is unmannered is dripping with the control and shame of colonization — and we need to rethink our idea of "good manners," says chef and food activist Joshna Maharaj.

Photo: iStockphoto

When we were little, my father taught me and my brother how to eat with our hands using roti, an Indian flatbread. He was very clear and specific with his instructions, showing us how to tear a piece of roti with one hand and how to wrap it around a medium-sized mouthful of food (big enough to be efficient, small enough to not land on my shirt on the way to my mouth). He taught us how to be neat and tidy, reminding us that the roti’s job was to keep our fingers from touching the food and that our fingers shouldn’t get messy beyond the line of the first knuckle (because we were kids, he said that we could go to the second knuckle, but absolutely nothing beyond that!).

Later on, I learned how to eat food with rice with my hands from someone else. This process involved using my fingertips (again, not beyond the first knuckle) to pull a mouthful of lentils, vegetables and meat with rice toward me on my plate. I was taught to use my fingers to work the mouthful together so that I would have a reasonably portable, mashed-up nugget. Then I was instructed to bring the nugget to my mouth and use my thumb as a sort of catapult to send it in. It’s both tidy and effective. As I grew up and found myself eating with other Indians in Canada and India, I realized that we had all been given this same lesson from our parents because everyone of all ages would do it the same way.

I’ve always believed that food tastes better when it’s delivered to your mouth by your hands, regardless of what you’re eating. But what feels important to say is that my dad was very clear that the technique he taught us was only for eating Indian food. He spent just as much time teaching us how to use a knife and fork and how to behave properly at the table, with all of the detailed instructions of an etiquette lesson. There was never any horsing around allowed at the table or complaining about not liking the food, and both my brother and I learned to tip our soup bowls forward and ladle up the last bit of soup away from us to avoid any accidental drips on our clothes.

young girl eating omelette This is what kids' breakfasts look like around the worldAs we grew up, we learned that there were times to eat with our hands and times to use cutlery and that this difference was largely dictated by the culture of the food we were eating. A roast chicken dinner needs a knife and fork to break down the meat and roasted vegetables into bite-sized pieces—plus, navigating through mashed potatoes and gravy is a hot mess with your fingers. But sandwiches and falafels are all about hands. And, of course, chopsticks make their way into the picture for noodles, sushi and dumplings. I have known my whole life that not all of the food around the world is eaten with a knife and fork.

Recently, I chatted with someone who told me a story about her young niece, who goes to a prestigious preschool and was eating rice with her hands at lunchtime. The feedback her parents received was that this child needed to work on her table manners and use proper cutlery to eat. I immediately felt a rush of anger bubble up inside me when I heard this. The message that eating food with your hands is an unmannered way to eat is a real problem for me because it is dripping with the control and shame of colonization, which is particularly dangerous in an educational context. Suggesting that a child who eats with her hands has no manners is an echo of European colonial powers looking to tame the wildness out of the people they controlled. These European table manners were imposed on conquered people in an attempt to “civilize” them. It’s a damaging message about right and wrong ways to do things. It positions the technique as superior and the people who practise it as setters of the standard, leaving those with a different approach to eating with a status of inferiority. The idea of a single standard of acceptable table manners is just one of a host of strategies used to grow and promote racism. It’s a subtle message but one that is reinforced three times a day, every day, which makes it quite powerful.

Let me be clear here: I think it’s vitally important to teach children how to behave at a table. But I think we need to revisit what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it. Recognizing diversity in cultural backgrounds and food traditions is essential, especially in a country as multicultural as Canada. We shouldn’t be teaching kids that they’re not supposed to eat with their hands at all or that eating with cutlery is a more refined or sophisticated way to eat. Different people eat their food in different ways. My father’s instructions were very detailed, with a big focus on being tidy and efficient and maintaining Hindu customs around cleanliness and purity. There is a very mannered way to eat with your hands, and there are more than a billion people around the world who eat this way.

The lessons we receive about how to eat come from our particular cultural background and experience. As adults, this is something that is very important to remember. The better message, I think, is that sometimes we eat with our hands and sometimes we eat with cutlery. There are prescribed and traditional ways to do this, and both options are equally legitimate. To illustrate this point, just think of the complete madness of watching someone insist on eating sushi with a knife and fork. In this case, if you are eating sushi and don’t know how to use chopsticks, your fingers are a much better option than the imposing violence of a knife and fork.

I remember being in my 20s and taking some university pals to an Indian restaurant. These friends had all been taught from a young age that it was bad manners to eat with your hands, and they were very hesitant about it. They would start to use their forks to eat, dipping edges of naan clumsily into the gravies. I lost my patience at what I felt was a mediocre experience, and I showed them how to tear a piece of naan, scoop up some food and deliver it to their mouths. Every single time, you could see delight wash over their faces once they were brave enough to just dive in and go for it. I’ve since taught many people how to eat with their hands, in formal and informal settings, and I constantly marvel at how much support and courage they need to muster to do something as simple as put food in their mouths. What I’ve since realized is that, with one mouthful, they are violating a lifetime of their own cultural conditioning about how “rude” it is to eat with their hands.

I recently spoke with some friends of British descent, who recalled their own strict lessons at the dinner table about not touching a single thing on their plates with their hands, with the curious exception of unsauced asparagus, which is somehow given a pass. (Yep, this is actually an etiquette thing.) They talked about how much of their own tradition they had to set aside to become comfortable eating more than just sandwiches and fries with their hands.

The message we need to send to our kids is that there are many different ways to eat food and that they’re all worthy of respect and acknowledgement. We need to show them that good manners can look quite different from table to table, particularly here in Canada. A great way to start is to ensure that there’s real cultural diversity in the menus served to kids in schools and daycare centres so that they can be exposed to a variety of cuisines and how to eat them. Learning how to properly use a knife and fork is very important, but so is learning how to squeeze a slippery dumpling between chopsticks and how to tear the perfect piece of naan with just one hand.

The more time we spend around the table with others, the more we’ll learn how to do this. And really, it’s the most joyful, delicious homework.

Joshna Maharaj is a Toronto-based chef, activist and author of the upcoming book Take Back the Tray about reforming institutional food.

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Choosing the right toddler shoes

Finding the proper toddler shoes that fit and provide good support requires a few important steps. Here's how to shop for your little one's first pair.

Photo: Getty Images

We were given lots of cute shoes for our son, Carmelo well before he took his first steps. From soft leather slippers adorned with monsters to skateboarder sneakers, sandals and superhero-embossed rubber boots, there were plenty to choose from. But I wasn’t sure if any of them were actually good for his feet.

“Try to always find the best-fitting shoe possible,” says Joseph Stern, former president of the Canadian Podiatric Medical Association. “You don’t have to be overly concerned about the quality of shoes that are only worn very occasionally, but toddlers all need one good pair for everyday wear.”

A toddler walks up stairs on her tiptoes What it means when your toddler is toe-walkingThat one good pair should be sturdy, fitted to your child’s foot at a shoe store so it will support his foot properly and have rubber soles to stop him from tripping. “Each shoe is designed for a specific function,” Stern explains. “For example, sandals are designed to wear to the beach or pool, not to run around in. The bones in the foot are very soft at this age. Wearing badly fitted shoes won’t deform your toddler’s feet, but if his shoes aren’t very supportive, it can advance any abnormalities that his feet may already have, such as flat feet.”

You should take your child for a professional fitting, says Stern, who recognizes that it can seem pricey to buy a good pair of shoes, considering how quickly kids grow out of them (little feet grow about 1.5 mm in length every month between the ages of one and three). “If your child needed glasses, you wouldn’t buy them off the shelf instead of going to an optician,” he says. “A more expensive shoe is going to be made of better materials, and has been designed by a manufacturer who knows about the science of children’s feet so it will better support them.”

Fit and function

Stern says that the right pair of shoes will have a toe-box that’s wide and round or square, to naturally follow the shape of the foot, with adequate room so the toes aren’t squished together. Materials should be breathable—leather or the types of mesh used in running shoes. The shoe should flex at the ball of the foot, but the heel counter at the back should be stiff to hold the shoe upright. Look for a pair that has Velcro fastenings (or laces, if you have a co-operative kid) to ensure a snug fit.

Is it OK to share shoes?

Lots of parents buy second-hand kids’ footwear on neighbourhood Facebook buy-and-sell groups. But the experts warn against doing so. Only pairs for special occasions, which generally don’t get much wear, are OK to pass on to younger siblings. Everyday shoes have formed to a child’s foot in a way that may not give the necessary support to another child, says Stern. What’s more, he says, “fungus, like athlete’s foot, or warts can be carried in all shoes.”

Measuring up

When your child gets fitted for their first pair, it’s about more than just having enough room for their toes. First, the foot is measured for length and width. Next he’ll try the shoe on, then a list of things are checked. “The width, instep, and flex point—where the sole of the shoe is most easily bent—are all important measurements,” says Linda Goulet, president of Panda Shoes, a Canadian children’s footwear retail chain. As for length, given that your child’s likely going to need two to three pairs of shoes each year until growth slows down, it can be tempting to buy shoes a size bigger. Goulet recommends you don’t.

“It’s the same as it would be for adults: Are you going to be comfortable walking in shoes that are too big? No. Plus, if the shoe is too big, the flex point will be in the wrong place and won’t support or protect the foot properly.” Ill-fitting shoes may lead to slips, trips, and falls, which can cause ankle damage. Take your time in the store so you can watch how your child walks in each pair. “If they’re on tippytoes or not walking properly, something’s hurting. Have patience in the process,” says Stern.

While I got my first child properly fitted for shoes when he was a toddler, doing the same for Carmelo was the one task that kept slipping through the cracks of our busy life. He is never happier than when stomping around in his Spider-Man rubber boots, but when he eventually moved from toddling to more sure-footed steps, I took him in to get fitted for a proper pair of shoes—and reserve his boots for puddle jumping.

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An age-by-age guide to reading to your kids

There's more to story time than just reading the words on the page. Help your kids learn new vocabulary and develop empathy and self-control with these expert tips.

Photo: iStockphoto

Carla Hudson Kam’s son was three and a half when he realized text in books had meaning. “He was trying to tell me what to say while I was reading to him,” explains Hudson Kam. “When I told him that wasn’t what the book said, he exclaimed ‘Those are WORDS? And they tell you what to SAY?’ He hadn’t realized that I didn’t just have the story memorized.”

Hudson Kam’s kid had an advantage—as a professor and Canada research chair in language acquisition at the University of British Columbia, his mom is basically a professional story reader. And thanks to that, she points to the text on the page as she speaks, to encourage kids to have just that kind of revelation.

While any reading you do to your kid is beneficial, adding in a few simple techniques can help kids learn vocabulary faster and even encourage skills like empathy and self-control. Here’s an age-by-age guide to making story time even more enriching:

Reading to a baby under a year

Try big kid books: You might not think to read a complex storybook to a newborn, but babies under six months old actually benefit from hearing the kind of books you would read to older kids. “It helps them hear the rhythm of the language,” says Hudson Kam. “It trains their ear and makes it a little easier for them to pay attention to longer sentences later.”

Grab their attention: By about six to twelve months, babies start to get interested in books as toys to examine and manipulate. Expose them to cloth or board books with things like flaps, textures like a bit of fur or rubber on the page, crinkle pages or electronic buttons to keep their interest. But don’t be surprised if they just pull the book from your hand and just mouth it or physically explore it—that’s totally normal, and okay at this stage.

Simple sells: Books that have simple pictures paired with single words help babies learn their first vocabulary. If there is more than one picture on the page, be sure to point to what you’re talking about. “When there are two or more pictures on a page, kids don’t know what to look at,” says Hudson Kam.

Reading to a one-year-old

Turn to the classics: Nursery rhymes are great at this age because of their natural rhythm. “Kids seem to learn new vocabulary better when we pause before something important, because that lets their brains catch up,” says Hudson Kam. “It’s very hard to do that intentionally, but we do it naturally with rhymes.” Books should also have thick pages to make turning the page easier, be colourful and have on picture per page.

Expect more: You’ll still want to point at pictures and label them, but now you can expect your child to respond by pointing, gesturing, making a sound or imitating the word. “By the time babies are about 12 months old, you can say, ‘Where is the red balloon?’ and they can point at it,” says Alyson Shaw, a paediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. Then, to take it further, aim for a few more back and forths. You might wait and see if your toddler taps the page, and then you could say “the boy is holding the balloon” and wait again to see if your child does something in response. These kinds of back and forths are the beginning of what’s called dialogic reading, a technique where parents and kids have a conversation about what’s in a book that helps kids retain vocabulary. “Research suggests children who have more conversations prior to two have superior language skills at 13,” says Luigi Girolametto, professor emeritus of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto.

Reading to a two-year-old

Mom and school-aged daughter cuddled up on a bed reading a book together How to raise a readerRead about their world: Toddlers are ready for books that have more complex pictures and stories. The best picks describe something familiar to them, like going to the park or a bedtime routine.

Make it fun: If you have an active toddler who has no interest in sitting still for story time, try getting a more interactive book—lift the flap or pull the tab ones, or electronic ones that make sounds when you push a button are great to keep kids involved.

Ask questions: Toddlers love re-reading favourite stories. After you have read a book together a few times and they have gotten familiar with a story, try prompting them to tell you what happens next. For example, with Five Little Monkeys, you could pause when the monkey falls off the bed and say “UH OH, what happened?” Or you can connect the text to the real world—if the book has a dog in it, you can say, “a doggie! Just like grandma’s doggie!”

“Read” the pictures: When you flip to a new page, try ignoring the text and pausing to see what your kid says instead. If your two year old looks at the picture and says “Doggie run!” you can expand with a longer phrase: “Yes! The doggie is chasing the cat.” Those types of expansions—where you answer your kid with a sentence that’s just a bit more complex —help kids learn grammar and new words faster.

Reading to a three-year-old

Expand the plot: Kids this age are graduating to real stories with simple plots—look for books where the character has a problem, tries to fix it, and finally there is a happy ending. This level of book tends to have three or four sentences per page. You can also introduce your kid to non-fiction books that teach kids about topics like dinosaurs or the solar system.

Follow the text: If the book has multiple pictures on the page, point at the relevant one so it’s clear to your kid what you’re talking about. If there is only one picture per page, try pointing to the text instead of the image, which helps kids learn that you read from top to bottom, and left to right—and maybe even that text has meaning, like Hudson Kam’s kid learned.

Explain new vocabulary: When you come across a word that’s new to your kid, pause to describe it. “If a book says soggy, you can say, ‘He’s soggy! That means he’s really really wet. Just like when you came out of the rain, you were soggy,’” says Janice Greenberg, director of early childhood education services at The Hanen Centre, a not-for-profit organization that teaches language and social skills to parents and professionals.

Focus on feelings: In the same way, stop to discuss what the characters are feeling. “Internal states are really complicated for kids to understand,” says Hudson Kam. “Simply stopping when you run across words like think, want, desire, wonder and hope to discuss what those words mean has been shown to help kids understand other people’s feelings.” You could say something like, “Oh, he wants the toy, but the other boy is playing with it. How do you think that makes him feel?” Then you can tie it to real life and say, remember when we were in the playground yesterday, when you were having a bit of trouble sharing a toy? “If you do that, books become not only a place to build literacy, but also problem solving and emotional regulation, too,” says Greenberg.

Reading to four- and five-year-olds

Get complicated: Kids have now graduated beyond simple, straightforward problem-and-answer stories to ones with multiple issues, secondary plots and characters who have conflicting desires. These books tend to have four to 10 sentences per page, and still have a photo on every spread.

Find the text: At this age, you can focus on pre-reading skills, to help kids learn that words are important and to focus on the text. Point out sentences that rhyme, and alliteration (when words start with the same letter or sound). And read out text in the illustrations—a stop sign or store name, for example— to help kids develop the idea that words are meaningful.

Add predictions: Ask kids to guess what’s going to happen next in the story, which helps them learn to think about experiences as a sequence of events. “That’s one of the skills they need to develop to come home from kindergarten and tell you what happened in their day,” says Shaw.

Reading to six-year-olds and up

Don’t stop!: “Most people stop reading aloud at this age, because they think kids can read on their own,” says Greenberg. “But when kids start to read, they start with really simple books that don’t really advance the child’s ability with vocabulary, or inferencing, or even complex plot.”

Graduate to chapter books: When you’re looking for read-aloud choices, look to chapter books with fewer or no pictures. They’re a great way to show kids more complicated plots and advanced language, like passive sentence structure, that we don’t use in everyday speech very often. (Plus, you might get to finally reach for some of your childhood favourites.)

Connect the dots: Continue having conversations about what you’re reading, and talk about how it relates to your kids own life, and to their previous knowledge. That will make sure that they are ready for the next big transition, moving from learning to read to reading to learn, which typically happens in grade three.

Keep it fun: Above all, make sure you keep the experience enjoyable at every age. The most important part is to keep up a feeling of joy around reading. Hudson Kam found that her kid’s joy of reading lagged a bit when he started learning to read on his own, because he found the early reading books boring. But once he got to the age where he could read what was interesting to himself, “he has just kept on reading,” says Hudson Kam. “We have to limit him at night now or he’ll keep reading until the wee hours of the morning.”

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How social media hashtags put your kids in danger—both online and offline

Hashtags can be a great way to rack up likes and boost your social presence, but they can also make your kids vulnerable to child predators.

Photo: iStockphoto

Like most modern-day parents, you’ve likely spent more time than you’d like to admit scrolling through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where your feed is now filled with giddy photos of moms, dads and their adorable kids. Perhaps you’re also chuckling at funny parenting memes while keeping up with heartwarming pics of your friends and family. You also almost certainly have an account of your own where you document your little one’s unforgettable moments in regular posts.

This trend of “sharenting”—when parents use social media to share content about their kids—is commonplace. Tons of celeb moms, from Chrissy Teigen to Amy Schumer, post frequent photos of their youngsters living it up on the ’gram. It’s a regular part of existing in the post-privacy digital world. So, it’s not surprising that 90 percent of children have a social media presence before their 2nd birthday, according to the non-profit organization Child Rescue Coalition (CRC).

But one seemingly innocuous element of these posts could actually be putting your children at risk: hashtags. From the rosy-cheeked #bathtime babies doused in bubbles to the #pottytraining pics of chubby toddlers ditching their diapers, these markers have become somewhat of a map for child predators to find content.

What’s so #sketchy about hashtags?

Many of us use hashtags when we upload a cute pic; it’s a great way to emphasize a clever caption, rack up some likes and boost your online presence.

Hashtags are a type of user-generated metadata that allow people to add their posts to broader, themed groups. They help describe a photo or video and make them easier to find based on the subject matter.

On Instagram, for example, hashtags sort photos into different categories. If you’ve tagged a pic of your baby with #bathtimefuntime, clicking on that hashtag will take you to a page where you can see all the posts from people who have used the same tag. This is both the intended effect and the technology’s Achilles heel.

Anyone can create or search a hashtag—meaning pedophiles who want to look at #nakedbabies or #toddlerbikinis have access to thousands of photos of kids with just one click. Some parents even create unique hashtags for their children, so if someone takes a liking to your kid, it becomes that much easier to find photos of #raynamichelle or #jonathanlee.

Child Rescue Coalition works to protect kids from sexual abuse using their Child Protection System (CPS) technology (it provides data on where child predators are downloading and sharing explicit content). As part of their efforts, they have compiled a list of hashtags trolled by predators, including a host of common ones that parents might be using:

• #childbath
• #bathchild
• #bathtimefun
• #splishsplash
• #sinkbath
• #cleanbabies
• #pottytraining4kids
• #pottytrainingguide
• #nappyfree
• #diaperfree
• #pottytrainingsuccess

CRC’s founder and CEO Carly Yoost says these hashtags allow predators to access regular photos that don’t necessarily fit the criteria of child porn. But because the pics are public and easily searchable, they’re of interest to those who are sexually attracted to kids.

When hashtags lead to #offline dangers

Not only can pedophiles easily screenshot family pics or cute dress-up snaps, but when these posts have geographical tagging enabled, they become particularly unsafe, putting children in physical danger of being found offline.

Two kids with their back to the cameras looking out on palm trees and a beach Why you won’t see my kids' faces onlineLocation sharing is a chief concern for Stephen Sauer, the director of Cybertip.ca, a tip line operated by The Canadian Centre for Child Protection, a national charity for reporting online child sexual exploitation. He warns that parents need to stop posting their kids’ whereabouts.

“Let’s say you’re going to school. You’re posting images of your child that first day of school and you have the location of the school. That becomes very concerning,” he explains. “Even school uniforms, [they] make the child more identifiable.”

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection is trying to combat this online exploitation of kids in several ways. It receives reports from the public related to digital sexual child content, which it passes along to law enforcement teams, child welfare agencies and more. It also sends notices to service providers that have inappropriate material hosted on their networks.

The organization is also responsible for launching the automated system Project Arachnid in 2016, which crawls the web searching for child sex abuse material in photos, videos and chatrooms. As of August 2019, more than 85 billion images had been processed.

But it can’t catch everything, and Sauer cautions that photos that seem OK are often misused and may even be edited by predators to appear more sexual.

“One of the things we’re starting to see more of is a lot of these innocent images that appear to have been taken from different social media platforms, they’re being posted on these networks where individuals have a sexual interest in children and they can discuss their interest in that child,” he says. Parents’ geotagging adds the possibility that predators can go out and target kids they’re attracted to.

So what should you do?

Yoost doesn’t want to shame parents to stop posting pictures or using hashtags, but hopes they will pause before they post. Her advice is to think about if an image overexposes your child—with too much nudity or by revealing information about their name, their identity, where they live or which school they attend.

She wants parents to ask themselves: Why am I sharing this? Would I want someone else to share an image like this of me? And would I potentially want this available in the hands of predators that are downloading pictures from social media? Also do I want this to continue to be part of my child’s digital footprint?

One of the areas that Wilfred Laurier youth and child studies professor Danielle Law researches is how children and adults develop and socialize using technology. She says parents posting and tagging photos of their kids brings up issues of consent.

“Are parents sure they’re fully informed when they consent on behalf of their child, when it comes to posting pictures of their kid online?” she asks. “When the child starts going to grade school or high school, would that child appreciate having those photos posted?”

She explains that kids watch their parents and learn behaviour based on their actions. If a mom posts a picture of her baby in the tub or running around without clothes, “what does that teach [that kid] about the kinds of photos they can post of themselves as [a teen]?” she says.

“And if we are posting pictures of our children without consent, what does that teach your child about posting pictures of other people without their consent?”

Sauer suggests parents don’t post any nude or even semi-nude images of their kids online, especially in public forums. With Facebook in particular, he says, you won’t have control after it’s posted.

“You can remove it, but people can copy and paste that pretty easily,” he says.

Facebook’s facial recognition system DeepFace—which is not yet available in Canada, but will be soon—is used to tag photos on the platform, and it can identify faces with a startling 97 percent accuracy. If someone dangerous has a photo of your child from the site, it won’t be difficult for them to find more if they’ve been tagged.

Tips and advice

Setting your profile to private helps ensure that only the people you know are viewing your images, says Sauer.

Yoost agrees, adding that 89 percent of parents haven’t checked their privacy settings in over a year and aren’t actually sure if they’re private.

But privacy is only a cornerstone of monitoring your kid’s digital presence, and Yoost and Law both argue that it’s equally important to include your kid in the conversation about posting. They say parents and kids should decide together on what to share and set limits on social media use. Law points out that parents can do this by creating a media plan with their child.

“Having the child help with creating the rules gives them a sense of autonomy and helps them with decision making, so they’re learning how to make responsible decisions with you,” she explains.

She also suggests registering your child’s device and apps under your name and keeping track of your kid’s passwords, so that you have some control and knowledge of what’s going on.

In addition to the potential dangers, parents ultimately need to start thinking about how oversharing will affect their children now and in the future, Sauer says, because “there are obviously posts that are embarrassing or that their child may become anxious about.”

“They need to think about that before they post images online.”

Resources for parents

These sites are helpful tools for parents and kids to learn about being safe online:

Read more:
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Why I don’t want to post my baby on social media

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11 ways to make shared custody not suck

As the song goes, "breaking up is hard to do"—but you can make it easier on your kids. Here's how to rock at co-parenting.

Photo: iStockphoto

Shared custody, or co-parenting, can range from a hot mess of terribleness to peaceful and collaborative. Here’s how to do co-parenting well.

1. Collaborate, don’t litigate

Acrimony is expensive financially (a divorce trial, on average, costs each party more than $10,000, but that figure can go up to $100,000 or more) but also emotionally, particularly for your children. According to a report for the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, kids who’ve lived through an ugly split are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues, and are more likely to drop out of school. Court-imposed outcomes also tend to be more short-lived than amicable settlements and can actually increase conflict in the long-term. “When you go to court, the winner goes yahoo, and the loser goes boo-hoo,” says Gary Direnfeld of Dundas, Ont., a social worker who specializes in family mediation and counselling. That means the “losing” parent will be less likely to follow the court order and will try to undermine the other parent in hopes of having it overturned. More collaborative processes force co-parents to achieve a mutually agreeable settlement. “Though you might have to plug your nose a bit,” says Direnfeld, “you’re likely to have a more durable agreement.”

2. Be respectful and “professional”

“Treat your co-parent as a colleague,” says Cameron Shouldice, a collaborative lawyer in Toronto. Would you blow off an appointment with a co-worker? No way. Deborah Moskovitch, author of The Smart Divorce, remembers rushing home to meet her children, only to have her ex show up an hour late. “That escalates the tension,” she says.

3. Create a parenting plan

Sit down with your co-parent (and, if necessary, a third party, such as a mediator or parenting coordinator) to set out the rules and routines of your child-rearing partnership. The more acrimonious the divorce, the more detailed your plan should be, says Moskovitch, whose own high-conflict split dragged on for seven years. How will you share birthdays and holidays? Where and when will you pick up the kids on transition days? How long will you wait before introducing a new significant other? Is it OK to post pictures of your child on Instagram? Revisit the plan every couple of years to ensure it’s still relevant, given your child’s age.

4. Remember that “fair” doesn’t always mean “equal”

Daughter is doing her dads makeup After we split, my emotionally absent ex became Dad of the YearIn the aftermath of a split, many parents get caught up in the notion that “fair” means sharing access 50/50. “But what makes sense for the child might not look like that,” says Nancy Cameron, a family lawyer and parenting co-ordinator in Vancouver. If Mom travels often for work, it might make sense for the kids to spend more time with Dad. If your ex has always taken your child to hockey practice, try working that into the schedule—even if it means giving up some of “your” weekend. And get your kids’ input before making any decisions. “They don’t want to be in control, but they do want what’s important to them to be taken into consideration,” says Cameron.

5. Communicate effectively, part 1

“Generally, ineffective communication is one of the primary causes of the break-up in the first place,” says Shouldice. That doesn’t magically change because you’re no longer a couple. If necessary, work with a coach or therapist to ensure that what you’re communicating to your co-parent is being received in the manner you intended. “This stuff is way more of an important investment than trying to outfit the second bedroom to help the kid transition to two new houses,” says Shouldice.

6. Communicate effectively, part 2

Email and texting lets co-parents to discuss schedules and air grievances without having to pick up the phone, chat in person or stress your child out by turning them into a messenger. That said, it’s way too easy for a text or email conversation to turn ugly, cautions Moskovitch. A few rules: If you receive a message that triggers you, don’t reply immediately. Take time to cool off and to objectively consider your words and tone. Try to only deal with one issue per email or text conversation. And since this is how you’d want to be treated, show respect by responding to your co-parent’s missives within 24 hours (or set specific guidelines depending on the urgency of the situation).

7. Never insult your ex in front of the kids

This one can be tough, but if you’ve got a beef, deal with it when you’re sure little ears can’t hear. Never vent your frustrations about your ex to your kids—never. “Kids are terribly conflicted if they feel they have to align with one parent or the other,” says Cameron.

8. Schedule parenting “dates”

Clear your schedule monthly to talk to your co-parent about your children’s progress. If possible, have regular family meetings with the kids to discuss school, activities and whether the schedule is working.

9. Don’t expect your ex to follow your rules

You might have a few immutable rules in your house: a strict 8 p.m. bedtime, no fast food, one hour of screen time per day. Your ex, conversely, might take the kids to McDonald’s and let them stay up late watching movies. You can’t expect your co-parent to enforce the same rules you do, so try to let it go. But do sit down together and try to come to an agreement on critical values—say, religious observance or a ban on TV violence.

10. Give your kids some agency

Empower your child to take their belongings to your ex’s place—yes, even that expensive new toy. “If it doesn’t come back, that’s OK,” says Shouldice. “It’s the kids’ stuff, and it belongs in both households. That gives them a sense of security.”

11. Get on the same page

To help keep track of pickups, appointments and school events, use an online program or an app—even Google Calendar does the trick. It also helps to have both parents on the school or daycare email list.

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Why you shouldn’t force your kids to hug relatives

Forcing your child to hug an aunt or uncle might seem like an education in kindness, but you’re actually teaching them a dangerous lesson about consent.

We’ve all been there: You show up for a family gathering with your children, who are done up for the holidays and looking extra adorable, and the aunts, uncles and grandparents immediately descend with kisses and hugs. You know it’s all coming from a place of love, but you also see that your kids, who have taken refuge behind your leg, are overwhelmed by all the hands and lips coming at them.

Most of us want our kids to be kind and considerate, particularly to family and other people who are important to us, so it’s tempting to coax them into giving their grandfather that hug he wants so much. But when we ignore our children’s instincts in these situations, what are we teaching them about consent?

Consent lets others know how we want them to interact with us and our bodies. We often talk about it in the context of sexual situations, but it’s actually a skill we can use in any relationship. Helping our kids learn to assert their personal boundaries and respect those of others helps to lay the foundation for creating healthy romantic and sexual relationships when they’re older.

So if your child doesn’t like people getting all up in their personal bubble, that’s okay. Respect their reluctance to hug or kiss a relative.

Consent is a tricky lesson for parents to teach—we want to raise children with a sense of ownership over their own bodies, but at the same time, it’s our responsibility to take care of them while they’re young, which sometimes means making decision about their bodies they don’t want. We may have our children vaccinated, even though they hate needles. We may deny their request to eat candy for dinner, although that’s what they want. We may insist that they wear a helmet when they ride their bike, even if they hate it. Still, there are many situations where children can practice consent, particularly when it comes to expressing affection and love.

Young boy drawing a circle around himself on the ground
When should a kid learn about consent?
Sometimes people swoop in to hug or kiss a child without checking in first. If your kid isn’t comfortable with hugs, suggest alternatives. High fives, fist bumps, waving or just a pleasant “hi” are great ways of showing kindness and respect without touching. If your child is bold enough to say “no” on their own, that’s great! If they have trouble asserting that boundary, you can speak to your relatives or friends on your kid’s behalf.

Talk to your child about how saying “no” to physical affection—especially from people we like—can be hard sometimes. When we care about people, we don’t want to upset them or have them be upset with us. Let your kid know that sometimes people may feel a little disappointed when we say “no” to them, but they’ll be okay. It isn’t your child’s job to make themselves uncomfortable so other people won’t be.

And the lesson in consent goes both ways. Some kids eagerly give hugs and kisses to virtually anyone they like. If your child is enthusiastic about affection, remind them to check in first and ask, “Can I give you hug?” Also, take time to point out others’ physical cues. If you notice that someone seems overwhelmed by your little person’s gregarious display, gently alert your child to what’s happening. “Do you see how your little cousin is pulling away? Let’s give her a little space, okay?” If you have a pet, teach your child to pay attention to your animal’s cues. Is your pet purring or wagging his tail as a signal that he’s enjoying the physical attention? Or are his ears pulled back?

Consent lets us express positive feelings for others in ways that feel good for us and good for them, which is the whole point of hugs, kisses, snuggles and, someday, sex. Starting these lessons early will help kids define boundaries and express themselves in their relationships now and for the rest of their lives.

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