Friday, June 30, 2006

Questioning "educational" media

I love the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya. Ironic, because out of the seven floors of the store, I can only read the books in the foreign-language section. The English books make up maybe one-half of that floor, but it's a fantastic selection, somehow managing to pick the cream of the crop and introduce me to things I wouldn't see otherwise.

I had a craving for English the other night so I bought The Atlantic. I can never resist the pull of good English magazines while I am traveling, even though it felt ridiculous to pay $12 for it. I thought I'd better check out the article Extreme Parenting: Does the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex Enrich Your Child's Mind--or Stifle It? by Alissa Quart. [Yes, now I see I could have read it online for free, but I wanted the real magazine anyway.] This excerpt from Quart's upcoming book Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child was thoughtful and well-researched. Imagine my surprise, reading this in Tokyo at 3 am when my jet-lagged brain would not sleep, to find my old acquaintance Bradley Schlaggar, MD PhD quoted. I knew Brad back in my neuroscience days, when in fact I was very interested in educational media. I thought at the time that it would be cool to develop neuroscientifically-sound language programs to help very young kids develop a native accent for a foreign languague. Since then the whole Baby Einstein phenomenon has exploded, propelled in part by one study, never persuasively reproduced, that claimed to show that listening to classical music improved college students' short-term spatial thinking. The so-called "Mozart effect" and a billion-dollar Baby Genius Edutainment complex were born. My own neuroscience research focused on "critical periods" and environmental factors in brain development, and I am sorry to see those concepts blown out of proportion when they are brought to the general public. Yes, the first three years of life are very important, but that is more in terms of setting an adequate level of care and stimulation, rather than "getting ahead." So Head Start: yes, absoutely needed. Baby genius: save your money, and don't worry about it at all, in my professional opinion. Language acquisition is one area where it helps to learn early, as in before adolescence, and the best way to learn is in person, spending time with a native speaker if possible.

But what I think is very funny, now that I have been through the baby years myself, is that while Quart interviewed a ton of experts about the pros and cons of educational baby products, she never proposed what I believe to be the most likely explanation for their popularity. Rather than truly becoming invested in the idea that these videos will give kids a required edge, I think that busy parents are just looking for something they can put on without feeling totally guilty to buy some time to get things done. Television is the ultimate parental crutch--one I cop to using more than I'd like. I think that most of us know that we aren't creating geniuses by plopping kids in front of a video, but I think we will gladly shell out money for programming that might not hurt. The jury is still out even on that, and I look back and realize that my daughter had plenty of screen time from a ridiculously young age. Here's what the American Academy of Pediatrics has to say on TV and very young kids:

A word about...TV for toddlers from the AAP

"Children of all ages are constantly learning new things. The first 2 years of life are especially important in the growth and development of your child's brain. During this time, children need good, positive interaction with other children and adults. Too much television can negatively affect early brain development. This is especially true at younger ages, when learning to talk and play with others is so important.

Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children age 2 or younger. For older children, the Academy recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs."

I'm not saying I could stick to this if I had another child, but I'd like to think that I'd try. Now that my daughter can read, by the way, much of our "self-entertaining" challenge has been solved in a positive way. Hooray!

Comments? I'd love to know what you think on this one.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Tokyo Mojo, with help from Disney

My family has been in Tokyo for 5 days and we're finally getting mojo going here. A 13 hour time shift is not easy on anyone, especially a 6 year old.

Yesterday Little T and I had an amazing time at DisneySea adventure. I was a little reluctant to devote a whole day to Disney, but seeing that she and I had two days on our own while Michael worked, it seemed like a good idea to go for a sure day of kid fun. DisneySea is a unique park, with no U. S. analogue. Built on 7 themed lands with rides and attractions, DisneySea is designed for an older crowd than the Magic Kingdom, though it does have a beautiful Little Mermaid-themed indoor playland for little kids.

Whatever one might think about Disney as a corporation, there is no doubt that they are geniuses at delivering a guest experience. I loved seeing a newly-imagined world for the first time through Disney's eyes--something I hadn't done since I was 5 years old and visited Orlando. Visiting the Magic Kingdom now is still fun, but in a nostalgic, we-all-know-the-drill kind of way. DisneySea was an unknown exploration. The theme of each land, from the Jules Verne-styled "Mysterious Island" to the kids' "Mermaid Lagoon" was realized down to the last detail. I experienced two moments that highlighted Disney's commitment to their vision and brand. Both happened in "Port Discovery," an area designed like a futuristic marina/weather experiment station. DisneySea is built on the edge of Tokyo bay, and has extensive water features throughout, but when you are in the park you really can't see out to the surroundings. In Port Discovery, which really does look like a marina, there is a sea wall. I stood looking at that wall and truly wondered whether the sea was behind it, or a paved 5,000 car parking lot. It could have been either. Later, still within Port Discovery, I was able to climb higher and see the sea and I thought it was just behind that wall. But on the way home, on the monorail back to the JR Rail station, I realized that the monorail tracks were behind that wall, on a narrow strip between the park and the sea, but you couldn't see that from the controlled view inside. In every version of reality, Disney directed the experience. But it was wonderful and it worked. Throughout the day I was really taken by Disney's commitment to their vision and planning the environment to the last detail. It was a great lesson in brand implementation and extension. (Can I now write this trip off as a business research mission?)

Second epiphany: while in line for a ride at the end of the day, mind wandering in zoned-out exhaustion, I briefly thought that the background music playing overhead was the theme music from "Twin Peaks." But that would never happen at Disney would it? It was a funny thought at the time--next up, David Lynch land.

We had a hugely entertaining day, with "Journey to the Center of the Earth" the hit attraction. We rode it 7 times throughout the day, which seemd like a great idea at the time. Later I realized that 7 roller-coaster trips at age 37 is a little different than it was 30 years ago, so today I'm paying the price feeling quite achy and sluggish.

If you're ever in Tokyo with kids in the summer, I highly recommend DisneySea. Plan for a full day to take in the whole park. It was a Thursday and the park was not crowded at all during the day, a huge bonus. Apparently school is in session in Japan in June so this was not high season.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Why the Motherhood Movement needs the Baby Boomers...

When You're Sixty-Four

During the past few years, we've seen the rise of the Mommy Wars. These explorations, while creating an often-messy public debate, have led the latest generation of parents to examine motherhood with all its accompanying joys, sorrows, and seemingly endless work. We've wrung out all the wisdom we're going to get from this conversation. It's time to write a new narrative to guide our discussions about family life. What we need is an awareness campaign about making the invisible work of life visible, and then dividing it fairly.

I believe that help is on the way, if only the Baby Boomers will open their eyes to the coming trends and join forces with parents of young children to make caregiving a national priority. All throughout their lives, the Boomers have been a demographic juggernaut, creating teen culture, and propelling the sexual revolution, feminism, and yuppiedom into our cultural consciousness. Now the emerging trend seems to be "Sixty is the New Forty" or "Sixty is Seasoned and Sexy." I empathize with optimism but implore us to also get realistic: I can only hope that as Boomers move to the senior side of the sandwich generation, caregiving will finally become cool. We have an opportunity to approach the aging of our population with grace and acceptance, working together to finally make the social accommodations that will be necessary to support all tiers of our generational network.

When we talk about motherhood and childcare, we get entangled with debates about personal choices, privilege, and gender. On the one hand, this has fueled the Mommy Wars. But there is an opportunity to connect as well. In my work as the author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family, I have come to see motherhood as a leveling experience that raises privileged women's awareness about the hard work of life that many of us take for granted. My hope is that this common experience will translate into political action toward common goals that benefit all families, particularly those who are struggling to fit together the puzzle pieces of childcare, living wages, and health-care coverage.

Similarly, I see the emerging wave of elder care as a societal equalizer, as the 77 million Baby Boomers confront the need to support their elderly parents, and then arrange care for themselves. My hope is that executives who've never stopped to think about the crews who clean their offices after-hours will begin to see the world differently when they find themselves in charge of providing basic care for their parents. Childfree couples who looked down on co-workers for leaving work early to pick up a sick child will learn to empathize with our family obligations. Men will come to understand just how much work women have provided at home once husbands are charged with caring for ailing wives.

I am not wishing hardship, heartache or disability on anyone. I am however, asking each of us to open our eyes to the work of life. This is the work that no one notices unless it doesn't get done, the work that is dismissed as unimportant and not worthy of our attention or economic calculation, much less financial subsidy. When we are young, healthy, and childless, it was easy to ignore this invisible web of work and connectedness. Eventually, each of us will experience a "before and after moment" that illuminates the need for caregiving as part of the essential fabric of life.

As the mother of a 6-year old, I have been in touch with these ideas for quite a while now, but recent events have heightened the entire range of my family's needs. In the past two months, we've faced my mother's diagnosis of lymphoma at age 64 and my father-in-law's sudden death of a heart attack at age 74. Thankfully, my mother is responding well to treatment. I have gladly rearranged my priorities to accompany her to appointments and chemotherapy. At the same time, my husband has flown to New York to help his mother with her emotional transition as well as the legal matters and practical details of settling his father's estate.

My husband and I are fortunate to have flexible jobs, reliable after-school care, and financial security that allow us to make additional space in our lives for these emerging family duties--but this flexibility is currently a privilege, not a right. We need to create policies that support family networks on a national level. All workers should have access to family leave, flexible work options whenever possible, and job security to ensure that their employment is not at risk when family crises arise.

I invite Boomers to add their influential voices to the call for family-friendly policies. We have an amazing social network in place that will help ease the coming caregiving crunch if we provide family and community networks enough support to function. Informal caregiving already saves society 257 billion dollars per year providing long-term care for elders. This is in addition to the billions of dollars of uncompensated work mothers and fathers provide in raising the next generation of taxpayers. None of us can afford to overlook the true cost and value of caring for our families-and for weary, overworked Moms and Dads, help from the rest of us can't come soon enough.

As a teenager Paul McCartney wrote "When I'm Sixty-Four" in honor of his father's 64th birthday. June 18, 2006 was Sir Paul's own 64th birthday.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Now they're beating us over the heads with our own breasts!

I am so outraged over the news about the government-sponsored campaign to promote breast-feeding that I can barely think straight. Don't get me wrong--I am very much in favor of breastfeeding. I applaud its benefits, and I was fortunate to be able to breastfeed my daughter. But to have our government use scare tactics and fear-mongering to bully women into breastfeeding is completely unacceptable. The frankly bizarre television ads sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services compare the risks of formula feeding to riding a mechanical bull while pregnant. Another proposal being made (by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa) is that packages of formula should carry warning labels like cigarettes have. What a horrible comparison. This morning The Today Show showed the ads, and highlighted the debate, and you should be able to access the video clip from their site. The New York Times also had a well-written feature on the topic-- Breast-Feed or Else is currently the day's most emailed article.

Using fear to motivate women, and inducing shame in mothers who can't, or choose not to breastfeed is mean-spirited and disrespectful. It's also incredibly hypocritical--the phrase that came to my mind was "don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining." Our government has treated women with a state of neglect that has left us with one of the least family-friendly societies in the developed world. Many mothers of newborns have to work, and they don't get guaranteed maternity leave (paid or otherwise). We have inadequate pre- and postnatal medical care, and flexible employment is not always offered. The health policies coming from our government are woeful and woman-hostile. The political stranglehold that has trumped science to block approval of over-the-counter emergency contraception is one good example. The lack of medically accurate sex education in many schools is another.

I started re-reading Susan Faludi's book Backlash last week after reading Newsweek's 20-years-later analysis of it's own bungling of the Marriage Crunch faux-trend of the 1980's. I was planning to write an opinion piece in response to the current Newsweek story, but Susan Faludi said it so well in her 1991 book: "Under the backlash, statistics became prescriptions for expected female behavior, cultural marching orders to women describing how they should act.... As the backlash consensus solidified, statistics on women stopped functioning as social barometers. The data instead became society's checkpoints, positioned at key intervals in the life course of women, dispatching advisories on the perils of straying from the appointed path." (Backlash, p. 8)

This latest campaign is a great example of that. I think of social science as now providing a politicized "border patrol" function that defines a very narrow path of acceptable behavior. Attempting to shame women into breastfeeding is a low blow. This government campaign isn't trying to inspire, enlighten, or educate us, much less offer true support that would help women breastfeed. Instead Big Brother is trying to shame us into following best-practices. Why am I not surprised? It's raining pretty hard out there.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Innovation takes patience and courage

This week I got a mojo recharge from an unlikely source--Pixar/Disney animation genius John Lasseter's interview with Terry Gross on the June 8 episode of Fresh Air. Lasseter's career embodies several great examples of my motto, "use everything" to fuel your creative drive and life experience. He talked about his long-ago summer job working at Disneyland as a ride operator for The Jungle Cruise. You might think that giving the same corny spiel every 8 minutes all day long would be a nightmare job, but Lasseter found that telling the same jokes to a new audience was a great way to hone his comic timing.

Even more interestingly, Lasseter actually worked as an animator at Disney "back in the day" (I am guessing late 70's/early 80's) when he was fresh out of Cal Arts. At that time Disney animation was headed by those artists who had been second-tier in Walt's day, and who had risen with seniority but weren't necessarily amazing. Lasseter was full of new ideas, influenced by the changing film landscape, everything from Star Wars to Martin Scorcese, and the Disney bosses wanted none of that. He was actually fired for refusing to just sit down and draw what they told him to draw. He then went to work for Lucas Arts and Pixar, and became the man behind Pixar's revolutionary films from Toy Story to Cars. Disney finally bought Pixar this year and now John Lasseter is the Creative Chief for all of Disney. His new role includes designing new rides as well as producing films. Lasseter said his experience as a young animator has influenced his management style--he vowed he would never quash the enthusiastic ideas of young artists.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the trend of Gen X employees enthusiastically embracing alternative work arrangements, such as telecommuniting and job sharing. It seems to be an uphill battle to get employers on board. Sure, you'll hear about exceptional companies who realize the benefits of utilizing new work models, but they are still reported on as novel trailblazers. It can be lonely and frustrating to wait for the world to catch up to embrace new ideas. That's why John Lasseter's example of persistence, of not settling for a second-rate job, his willingness to pursue his vision, came at a great time for me. I hope the rest of us will take heart that innovation takes patience and courage. Whatever our cause, if we truly believe it it, we have to keep moving forward even if we are forging alone ahead of the rest of the herd--for now.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Amy's Interview with founders

The Mojo Mom Podcast was on hiatus during May (not planned, but that's what life dealt us that month) but we're back with a great episode this week. co-founders Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner and Joan Blades share their plans for grassroots organizing to harness the political will and activism of America's women. Their work gives a voice and an organized outlet for the passion that has been growing among mothers to demand a much better deal than we're getting. MomsRising has had 50,000 people sign up in the month since the site was launched, and Joan and Kristin's book The Motherhood Manifesto became an instant best-seller on

I hope you'll listen to our interview, then sign up yourself on, and tell all your friends about this exciting movement. If you are wondering why this new powerful arm of the motherhood movement is so critical right now, read the first chapter of The Motherhood Manifesto, which the authors have made available free on the web. If you don't find your blood boiling with indignation, call a doctor to check and make sure you actually have a pulse.