Tagged Family

The Merits of Reading Real Books to Your Children

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Credit Getty Images

A new Harry Potter book and a new round of stories about midnight book release parties reminded me of the persistent power of words printed on a page to shape children’s lives.

How do we think about a distinct role for paper, for “book-books” in children’s lives? My own pediatric cause is literacy promotion for young children. I am the national medical director of the program Reach Out and Read, which follows a model of talking with the parents of babies, toddlers and preschoolers about the importance of reading aloud, and giving away a developmentally appropriate children’s book at every checkup.

We are talking about very young children here, and we begin by giving out board books which are designed to be chewed and drooled on by babies who are still exploring the world orally, or thrown down (repeatedly) off the high chair by young children who are just figuring out object permanence and experimenting with ways to train their parents to fetch and retrieve. But the most essential attribute of those board books, beyond their durability, is that they pull in the parent, not only to pick them up, but to ask and answer questions, name the pictures, make the animal noises.

I love book-books. I cannot imagine living in a house without them, or putting a child to bed in a room that doesn’t have shelves of books, some tattered and beloved, some new and waiting for their moment. It’s what I wanted for my own children, and what I want for my patients; I think it is part of what every child needs. There’s plenty that I read on the screen, from journal articles to breaking news, but I don’t want books to go away.

I would never argue that the child who loves to read is worse off because those “Harry Potter” chapters turn up on the screen of an ebook reader rather than in those matched sets of thick volumes that occupy my own children’s shelves. (Although I think there’s something wonderful about looking at the seven books of the series and remembering a midnight party in a bookstore or two, and sometimes coming home from high school or college and taking one — or all seven — to bed with you.)

But what about the younger children, the ones who are working to master spoken language while taking the early steps in their relationships with books and stories? There’s a lot of interest right now in pediatrics in figuring out how electronic media affect children’s brains and children’s learning styles and children’s habits.

In a 2014 review of studies on electronic storybooks, researchers outlined some of the ways that such stories could help young children learn, and some of the ways that they could hurt. They pointed out that especially for children with language delays, certain features of electronic books that reinforce the connection between image and word (for example, animated pictures) may help children integrate information, but that distracting features and games may cause “cognitive overload,” which gets in the way of learning. And they worried, of course, that screen time might displace parent-child time.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is one of the authors of the coming American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on media use for children from birth to age 5. “Preschool children learn better when there’s an adult involved,” she said. “They learn better when there are not distracting digital elements, especially when those elements are not relevant to the story line or the learning purpose.”

In a small study published in February in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers looked at the interactions between parents and their children, ages 10 to 16 months, and found that when they were playing with electronic toys, both parents and children used fewer words or vocalizations than they did with traditional toys. And picture books evoked even more language than traditional toys.

Words and pictures can do many things for the reader’s brain, as we know from the long and glorious and even occasionally inglorious history of the printed word. They can take you into someone else’s life and someone else’s adventure, stir your blood in any number of ways, arouse your outrage, your empathy, your sense of humor, your sense of suspense. But your brain has to take those words and run with them, in all those different directions. Brain imaging has suggested that hearing stories evokes visual images in children’s brains, and more strongly if those children are accustomed to being read to.

And a parent can offer questions and interpretations that take the experience beyond bells and whistles. “A parent can ask, ‘Oh, remember that duck we saw at the pond?’,” Dr. Radesky said. “When a parent relates what’s on the page to the child’s experience, the child will have a richer understanding.”

Story time can also be good for the grown-ups. “Parents have said to me, ‘I need that 30 minutes of reading, it’s the only time my child snuggles with me,’ ” Dr. Radesky said. “We shouldn’t only think about what the child is getting from it.”

Part of what makes paper a brilliant technology may be, in fact, that it offers us so much and no more. A small child cannot tap the duck and elicit a quack; for that, the child needs to turn to a parent. And when you cannot tap the picture of the horse and watch it gallop across the page, you learn that your brain can make the horse move as fast as you want it to, just as later on it will show you the young wizards on their broomsticks, and perhaps even sneak you in among them.

Reading and being read to open unlimited stories; worlds can be described and created for you, right there on the page, or yes, on the screen, if that is where you do your later reading. But as those early paper books offer you those unlimited stories, the pictures will move if you imagine the movement; the duck will quack if you know how to work your parent. It’s all about pushing the right buttons.

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My Brother, the Hospice Graduate

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Credit Giselle Potter

When I was a college sophomore living in a sorority house at the University of California at Santa Barbara, my parents called to tell me that my baby brother, Gavin, was dying. He had been given a diagnosis of a very rare disease, Aicardi–Goutieres Syndrome.

The doctors immediately placed him in hospice care.

He was 4 months old.

I hung up the phone and rode my red beach cruiser to class, trying to pretend that it was like any other day. I sat through Spanish class, but stared off into the distance, numb to what was happening. When I emerged, the sun seemed too bright. People were laughing, talking on their phones, surfing waves at sunset and meeting up with dates at coffee shops.

I thought back to Gavin’s birth in June. He looked like the rest of the babies in our family, with a thick pad of blond hair. A happy baby. Then at 6 weeks old he started having fevers of 104. They turned into weeklong affairs. And no one knew why.

My parents and Gavin’s doctors tried, for the next few months, to solve a seemingly unsolvable case. We just wanted to know what was wrong. But when we finally had the right diagnosis, it was awful. His disease had triggered brain calcifications, causing permanent brain damage. He was going to lose his motor skills and be unable to eat, so he would eventually die, we were told.

At first, I wanted to avoid dealing with the situation. The playground feeling of my oceanfront college campus was in stark contrast to the atmosphere at home, where my devastated family waited, heartbroken. My impulse was to stay away. I didn’t want to be crushed by the grief that was promised to me.

But I also knew I couldn’t live with myself if I never tried to face it. So I dropped out of college and spent every day with him and the rest of my family, including my sisters, who were 9 and 14 at the time.

Gavin’s disease showed up like Louisiana rainstorms — quick, strong and mean. Sometimes he was the handsome baby who smiled at me with his innocent blue eyes. Then, it was as if he was gone. Possessed. His fevers were now paired with jitters and vomiting. Gavin would shriek uncontrollably, turn a pasty gray and roll his eyes in different directions.

Mom called these visits from the Monster.

The hospice nurses stopped by every week to check Gavin’s temperature and weigh him. There was no handbook on learning to love your dying baby brother, but eventually, I did. Instead of hiding from the Monster — when his body shook, his lips turned jelly purple, and drool spilled from his mouth — I looked at him and said: You are worth it.

With his impending death sentence, Gavin was baptized in an oversize white gown. Mom wanted his soul to be protected.

After the ceremony, we played a slideshow of his short life. I saw a picture of me holding him and thought to myself, how could I not love you? We all loved him, the best way we knew how.

My parents did not give up on him, even though he was on hospice. A major change came when a friend of my mom’s who was an occupational therapist suggested the Haberman bottle, a baby bottle with an elongated nipple for children with special needs. Part of the reason Gavin was in hospice care was that he could no longer breast-feed and it was hard to get him nutrients. But he took pumped breast milk through that bottle.

And somehow his demise never came.

On Gavin’s first birthday he was taken off hospice: a hospice graduate.

The journey shifted. Instead of waiting for a baby to die, we were learning to love and live with a handicapped boy.

Now, Gavin is 9 years old. He is a quadriplegic; he cannot walk, talk or eat solid foods, but he is a survivor. He is joy.

That doesn’t mean his life is easy – for him or for the rest of the family.

Every morning one of my parents carries him downstairs around 7 a.m. They sit him in an egg-shape chair in front of the TV to watch cartoons, usually “SpongeBob” (he’s graduated from “Sesame Street”). His breakfast usually involves bran cereal for digestion, a fried egg, a couple of blueberries, maybe a waffle, sometimes crispy pork sausage. All of that is put into a coffee cup with whole milk and butter, and puréed with an immersion blender.

Gavin’s three epilepsy medications get pulled into plastic syringes. Then the hero of the morning carries a tray, with a handful of towels and a water cup, along with the delicious breakfast surprise and medicine into the TV room, and the real work begins.

Feeding Gavin can take up to an hour. And it can be messy. Sometimes he spits up his food, other times he is just not feeling well and he lets it roll down his chin, onto his neck.

Gavin’s life includes physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. But it also includes floating in the pool in a life vest, going to school and even gleefully crossing the finish line in a marathon – with my husband pushing him in a stroller.

Instead of dismantling our family, he has brought us closer together. We treasure Gavin’s small accomplishments, whether that is running down the driveway in his special gait-training walker or using an eye-gaze communication device or nodding to let us know that he wants to use the bathroom, play with his sister or bounce on the trampoline.

We don’t know what his future looks like. But we don’t know what the future looks like for any of us. The mystery of his life is no different from any of ours.

Courtney Lund is working on a memoir about her brother.


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Challenge No. 7: Try a New Sport or Craft

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Slacklining is like tightrope walking, but the rope isn’t as tight.

Slacklining is like tightrope walking, but the rope isn’t as tight.Credit Brian Lee for The New York Times

Challenge No. 7: Try a new sport or craft.

When we mix things up a bit, we give ourselves memorable moments — and make summer stand out more in our minds. This week, why not do something entirely new? The challenge: Learn a new sport or craft, and revel in using your hands and body in a new way.

Learning something new, whether it’s physical or mental, seems to be good for our brains, especially as we age. Research suggests that learning a new physical skill in adulthood, like a new sport, may lead to an increase in the volume of gray matter in parts of our brains related to movement control. Learning a mentally challenging skill offers additional benefits: participants in a research study who learned to quilt, take digital pictures or both showed enhanced memory abilities.

And, of course, learning something new can be fun, especially when we do it with a family member or friend.

What should you try? How about paddleboarding, badminton, slacklining or surfing? Or if it’s too hot outside, keep it cool by learning to code (try a free Hour of Code) or taking a tapdance class.

Last week, we suggested letting the kids take over. Here’s what we heard:

Becca Mitchell of Branford, Conn., wrote; “Our challenge was to fill our long driveway with color! We used chalk (some soaked in water, which made the colors more vibrant) and sidewalk paint. We invited friends, neighbors and family members to stop by throughout the day.”

Emma Chen of New Jersey, who is 12, wrote: “For this, I decided to walk around town with five of my friends. Only one of us had a phone for emergency contact. We bought a bunch of stuff and I got to explore the town around my school since I just moved here!” She added: “It made me feel independent because our parents weren’t there.”

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Credit Renee Tratch

On Twitter and Instagram, we saw a post about a fishing tournament and a list of a child’s wishes including “play pickleball.” That’s a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong and would be new for some of us — maybe it could fulfill this week’s challenge. (The list, posted by Renee Tratch of Toronto: swimming, fishing, go to beach, pick flowers, get slushies, play pickleball, bike ride, explore and play mini-golf.)

What will you try or learn this week? I’ve been carrying around the instructions and material for crocheting friendship bracelets all summer, and this is the week it happens. Tell us what you try, and how it goes, by commenting here or emailing us at wellfamily@nytimes.com before next Tuesday, Aug. 9. How did it feel to stretch your mind or body in new ways?

Be sure to sign up here for the Well Family email so you don’t miss anything.

We’ll share reader stories and post next week’s challenge — the last! — on Thursday, Aug. 11. The real goal, as always: to savor the summer all season long.

Breast-Fed Babies May Have Longer Telomeres, Tied to Longevity

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Credit Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Breast-fed babies have healthier immune systems, score higher on I.Q. tests and may be less prone to obesity than other babies.

Now new research reveals another possible difference in breast-fed babies: They may have longer telomeres.

Telomeres are stretches of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes and protect the genes from damage. They’re often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces that prevent laces from unraveling. Telomeres shorten as cells divide and as people age, and shorter telomeres in adulthood are associated with chronic diseases like diabetes. Some studies have linked longer telomeres to longevity.

The new study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is a hopeful one, its authors say, because it suggests telomere length in early life may be malleable. The researchers, who have been following a group of children since birth, measured the telomeres of 4- and 5-year-olds, and discovered that children who consumed only breast milk for the first four to six weeks of life had significantly longer telomeres than those who were given formula, juices, teas or sugar water.

Drinking fruit juice every day during the toddler years and a lot of soda at age 4 was also associated with short telomeres.

Socioeconomic differences among mothers can muddy findings about breast-feeding because the practice is more common among more educated mothers. However, this group of children was fairly homogeneous. All of them were born in San Francisco to low-income Latina mothers, most of whom qualified for a government food program.

“This adds to the burgeoning evidence that when we make it easier for mothers to breast-feed, we make mothers and babies healthier,” said Dr. Alison M. Stuebe, an expert on breast-feeding who is the medical director of lactation services at UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill, N.C., and was not involved in the study. “The more we learn about breast milk, the more it’s clear it is pretty awesome and does a lot of cool stuff.”

The study did not establish whether or not breast-feeding enhanced telomere length. It may be that babies born with longer telomeres are more likely to succeed at breast-feeding. A major drawback of the research was that telomere length was only measured at one point in time, when the children were 4 or 5 years old. There was no data on telomere length at birth or during the first few months of life.

“We don’t have a baseline to see if these kids were different when they came out,” Dr. Stuebe said. “It could be that really healthy babies can latch on and feed well, and they already had longer telomeres. It could be successful breast-feeding is a sign of a more robust kid.”

The researchers were following children who were part of the Hispanic Eating and Nutrition study, a group of 201 babies born in San Francisco to Latina mothers recruited in 2006 and 2007 while they were still pregnant. The goal of the research was to see how early life experiences, eating habits and environment influence growth and the development of cardiac and metabolic diseases as children grow.

Researchers measured the babies’ weight and height when the children were born. At four to six weeks of age, they gathered detailed information about feeding practices, including whether the baby had breast milk and for how long, and whether other milk substitutes were used, such as formula, sugar-sweetened beverages, juices, flavored milks and waters. Information was also gathered about the mothers.

Children were considered to have been exclusively breast-fed at 4 to 6 weeks of age if they received nothing but breast milk, as well as medicine or vitamins.

When the children were 4 and 5 years old, researchers took blood spot samples that could be used to measure the telomeres in leukocytes, which are white blood cells, from 121 children. They found that children who were being exclusively breast-fed at 4 to 6 weeks of age had telomeres that were about 5 percent longer, or approximately 350 base pairs longer, than children who were not.

The new findings may help explain the trove of benefits that accrue from breast-feeding, said Janet M. Wojcicki, an associate professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, and the paper’s lead author.

“What’s remarkable about breast-feeding is its ability to improve health across organ systems,” Dr. Wojcicki said. “Telomere biology is so central to the processes of aging, human health and disease, and may be the link to how breast-feeding impacts human health on so many levels.”

There are several possible explanations for the correlation between breast-feeding and longer telomeres. Breast milk contains anti-inflammatory compounds, which may confer a protective effect on telomeres. It’s also possible that parents who exclusively breast-feed their babies are more scrupulous about a healthy diet generally.

Yet another possibility is that breast-feeding is a proxy for the quality of mother-child attachment and bonding, said Dr. Pathik D. Wadhwa, who was not involved in the research but studies early-life determinants of health at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. “We know from studies looking at telomere length changes in babies who came from orphanages that the quality of the attachment and interaction, and more generally the quality of care that babies receive, plays a role in the rate of change in telomere length,” he said.

When children are exposed to adversity, neglect or violence at an early age, “psychological stress creates a biochemical environment of elevated free radicals, inflammation and stress hormones that can be harmful to telomeres,” said Elissa Epel, one of the authors of the study who is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Lab.

“The idea that breast-feeding may be protective for telomeres is heartening because we don’t know much about what’s going to help protect them in children, besides avoiding toxic stress. And boy, do we want to know,” Dr. Epel said.

Although genes can’t be changed, Dr. Epel said, “This is part of the genome that appears to be at least partly under personal control.”

Harry Potter’s a Dad: ‘Accio, Pacifier!’

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Harry Potter fans wait for the release for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Harry Potter fans wait for the release for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”Credit Yeong-Ung Yang for The New York Times

Our family is just home from the bookstore, with multiple copies of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” in hand, gamely reading in a new format — the book is the script of the play by the same name, and thus a different reading experience from the seven novels that came before it.

There will be no spoilers here, but the very title makes clear that “The Cursed Child” is a story about parents and children in a way that the original series never was. Harry Potter is a father now, and one question this book will answer is how the Boy Who Lived — when his parents didn’t — handles that role.

As an orphan, Harry himself could operate free of the burden a parent’s fears, love and expectation can place on a person. Now, as a parent, he has to confront it.

For readers who started reading these books when the first one came out nearly 20 years ago and grew up with Harry and friends, the scenes that reveal the characters as adults are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Though the story has serious themes, the sheer fun of returning to the familiar magical world is a delight.

And there are certainly moments when real-life parents can fantasize about the possibility of a magical assist. Imagine being able to use a spell like “Accio Binky!” to return a dropped pacifier to the sleeping baby, or “Expelliarmus Mobilio!” to expel a mobile phone right out of a teenager’s hand.

Molly Brennan, a mother of two attending a book release party on Saturday night at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., suggested a spell called Behavioramus. “I would dodge it,” said her son, Logan Brown, 9. “I like my behavior how it is.”

Becky Middleton of Glen Ridge, N.J., who has four children ages 6, 9, 9 and 11, said her spell of choice would be volume control. Rob Fechner of Montclair, the father of two boys ages 7 and 10, asked for a spell “to pause time so I could get stuff done and take a nap.”

It’s giving nothing away to say that none of those abilities seem likely to make raising children any simpler for Harry, Ginny, Hermione and Ron. As Julia Miner, a mother of three who lives outside Washington, D.C., said Sunday, when she was up to page 70 of “The Cursed Child,” parenting teenagers has challenges no matter who you are. Magic has never helped much with relationships in the Harry Potter universe, and the fact that wizards face some of the same bitter limits that Muggles do has always been a part of the series’ appeal.

But for many parents and children in this universe, the books are conversation–starters that help connect us, engaging us in the same world. Now our conversations can go further.


In the comments or on Facebook, tell us what spell would help you most as a parent.

Attention, Teenagers: Nobody Really Looks Like That

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Credit Anna Parini

The universal truth of puberty and adolescence is body change, and relatively rapid body change. Teenagers have to cope with all kinds of comparisons, with their peers, with the childhood bodies they leave behind, and with the altered images used in advertising and in the self-advertising on social media.

It may be that the rapid way the body changes during these years can help adolescents believe in other kinds of change, including the false promises that various products can significantly modify their size and shape. A study published last month in the journal Pediatrics looked at two kinds of risky behavior that are increasingly common over adolescence: the use of laxatives for weight loss and the use of muscle-building products.

It used data from an ongoing study of more than 13,000 American children, the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS). The participants’ mothers took part in the Nurses’ Health Study II, and the children were recruited in 1996, when they were 9 to 14 years old, and surveyed about a variety of topics as they grew up.

By age 23 to 25, 10.5 percent of the women in this large sample reported using laxatives in the past year to lose weight; the practice increased over adolescence in the girls, but was virtually absent among the boys. Conversely, by young adulthood, about 12 percent of the men reported use of a muscle-building product in the past year, and again, this increased during adolescence.

So a lot of young women are taking laxatives to try to become very thin, and a lot of young men are using products to help them bulk up and become more muscular. The researchers were interested in how these practices were associated with traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity. They found that, regardless of sexual orientation, kids who described themselves as more gender conforming were more likely to use laxatives (the girls) or muscle-building products (the boys).

“The link is the perception that they are going to alter your weight, shape, appearance,” said Rachel Rodgers, a counseling psychology researcher who studies body image and eating concerns and is an associate professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University.

“The representations of ideal appearance in society are very restrictive and very unrealistic both for men and for women,” she said. “They portray bodies that are unattainable by healthy means.”

Jerel Calzo, a developmental psychologist who is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and the lead author on the study, said that one important aspect of this research was the way it highlighted the vulnerability of those who identify with traditional gender ideals.

“Usually in research we tend to focus on youth who are nonconforming, who we might focus on as more at risk for negative health outcomes, depression, who might be ostracized or victimized,” he said. But there are risks as well for those who are trying to measure up to what they see as the conventional standard.

The GUTS participants were asked to describe themselves as children in terms of the games they liked and the movie and TV characters they imitated, and this was used to score them as more or less “gender conforming.”

The early patterns of gender conformity were significant, Dr. Calzo said, because they were linked to behaviors that lasted through adolescence and into young adulthood. “Laxative use increases with age, muscle-building product use increases with age,” he said. “There is a need for early intervention.”

Chronic use of laxatives can affect the motility of the bowel so that it can be hard to do without them, and overdoses can alter the body’s balance of electrolytes, to a really dangerous extent.

“There’s a lot of shame and guilt for laxative abuse,” said Sara Forman, an adolescent medicine specialist who is the director of the outpatient eating disorders program at Boston Children’s Hospital. And many products marketed as cleanses or herbal teas are not labeled as laxatives, though they contain strong laxative ingredients.

The muscle-building products in the study included steroids, creatine and several others. The risks of steroids are well known, from hormonal imbalances and shrinking testicles to acne and aggression. With other commercial muscle-building products, the risks may have more to do with the lack of regulation, Dr. Calzo said. The products can contain banned substances or analogues of banned substances, like the amphetamine analogue found in popular diet and workout supplements last year.

And of course, the muscle-building products won’t reshape you into the photoshopped model any more than the laxatives will.

As Dr. Calzo says, we need to worry about the vulnerabilities of children who are growing up with issues of gender identity and sexuality. But don’t assume that more “mainstream” or “conforming” kids have it easy when it comes to body image. Parents can help by keeping the lines of communication open and starting these conversations when children are young. We should be talking about the images that our children see, about how real people look and how images are altered.

And that conversation should extend to social media as well; in a review by Dr. Rodgers, increased social media use was correlated with body image worries. “Teenagers are looking at their friends on social media and seeing photos that have been modified and viewing them as something real.”

The other message for parents is about helping to model healthy eating, family meals, realistic moderation around eating and exercising, and to refrain from any kind of negative comments or teasing about a child’s body. “Research has shown people who have more body satisfaction actually take care of themselves better, which suggests that the approach of making them feel bad is actually not helpful,” Dr. Rodgers said.

Every adolescent, across gender, gender identity, gender conformity, and sexuality, lives with a changing body and the need to navigate body image and identity. There are a lot of unrealistic images out there to measure yourself against, and a lot of false promises about how you might get there.

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Why I Decided to Stop Writing About My Children

Photo

Credit Giselle Potter

There is a hunger in our culture for true stories from the parenting trenches where life is lived mud-flecked and raw. I’ve written extensively, intimately, damningly, about my children for seven years without once thinking about it from the point of view of their feelings and their privacy. A few months ago I stopped.

I wish I could say that I deeply reflected on the ethics of writing about my children and heroically pivoted myself out of a concern for my character, but here’s what really happened: My father called.

He called me after reading a blog post I had written about my son’s first signs of puberty. It seems an obvious line-crossing that I wrote about such an intimate detail, but I did. At the time I didn’t pause for a split second; I was more than willing to go there. I had been writing and reading extensively about parenting tweens. I knew people might be mildly shocked, but mostly interested.

We live in a break-the-internet arms race of oversharing. And adolescent sexuality is an emergent, fascinating topic, especially for parents who are figuring out how to address difficult questions with their children. For example: I ate up Peggy Orenstein’s marvelous new book, “Girls & Sex,” with a spoon, shocked and upset the whole way through.

But when my dad said, “Elizabeth, are you pausing to deeply consider what you’re writing about?” I wanted to get defensive. I said, “Uh. I kinda perceive myself as a confessional poet, Dad,” I said, “Heir to Plath, Sexton and Sharon Olds. And the photographer Sally Mann, if I’m honest, Dad.”

But he said, “I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about my grandson.”

He was a lion for his grandson. I listened. I heard him. His words went to my heart, my maternal heart, which is in equal parts steel and cornmeal mush. I thanked him honestly for his feedback, got off the phone, and cried into my daughter’s stuffed animals, which are very soft and plush and forgiving.

So began my wrestling with my relationship with the Nora Ephron line, “Everything is copy.” Until now it has been my battle cry and artistic excuse for printing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with very blinkered vision. Maybe, in fact, not everything is copy. Maybe it’s people’s lives, and we should be considerate and loving and respectful of their privacy. It’s a new point of view for me in our clickbait culture of confessionalism and parading nakedness.

When I started blogging, my kids were babes in arms, hardly people; they were creatures, mewling, milk-drunk, with eyes so deeply slate they were alien-denim blue.

I used the blog as a live journal to get me through postpartum depression and “the lost years” for me that were “the magic years” for them, when I felt overwhelmed by washing out sippy cups, lurking at the edges of the mommy wars, and co-sleeping and diapering.

Writing made the joys and the hardship of parenting into stories. Stories I could tell. Stories that I considered as one considers a diorama.

I was always the narrator, the main character, even if I was also the storm-tossed heroine, the hot mess in mom jeans who couldn’t get the overalls on her 2-year-old. Or figure out fourth-grade fractions homework. I was working out my issues. My kids were always satellites to the big round-faced moon of me.

I’ve shamed their eating habits in chat rooms. I have Facebooked the things they’ve said. I have skewered them horribly, but also with great interest and affection, as a collector might do to some butterflies.

I think Sally Mann’s photographs of her kids are luminous and transcendent, while others accuse her of child pornography. The lines between art and privacy are blurry. You have to consider what you are doing carefully. And previously I wasn’t.

Sally Mann and I don’t belong in the same sentence. I’ve been a Baltimore mommy-blogger writing about things like head lice. She is a world-class artist. But she and I have done the same thing: publicly disrobed our children.

My children didn’t give me their permission to tell their stories, or strike poses in a waterfall, naked, gorgeous as all get out, and human, with lives ahead of them, as Sally Mann posed hers. And now that I see that, I don’t want to mar my children’s glory and subvert their beginnings for my so-called art.

If I’m going to continue writing, I realize I need to find some new material, and for that I’m going to have to look more deeply within myself or entirely outside. For inspiration I have turned to writing about nature. The environment. The sea. Things that are bigger than me. I’ve been reading John Muir. I’ve been reading “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Nature is for all to see. Nurture is between me and my kids, off the record.


Elizabeth Bastos lives in Baltimore and writes about urban nature. Follow her at thenaturehood.blogspot.com and on Twitter @elizabethbastos.

Summer Challenge No. 6: Kids’ Choice

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A group of Pennsylvania teenagers made beaded friendship bracelets as one of the many activities they came up with to spend 24 hours outdoors.

A group of Pennsylvania teenagers made beaded friendship bracelets as one of the many activities they came up with to spend 24 hours outdoors.Credit Kelly Kopera

Challenge No. 6: Let the kids take over.

So far, the Well Family Intentional Summer challenge has been led by the grown-ups. We’ve taught our children street games, encouraged them to try wild flavors of ice cream and walked or biked with them instead of driving. This week, we invite you to shake up that family dynamic and let your children make the call: What do they want to do (within reason) to make the most of this summer?

Research shows we gain more happiness from doing something than buying something, and like adults, children and teenagers get much of their pleasure from the planning process. Being a part of making something happen makes us value it even more.

And children have their own ideas about what makes for a perfect summer day.

Their choice might be fairly simple (my youngest son asked that we play mini-golf) or far more elaborate, like the plans of 17-year-old Kelly Kopera of Phoenixville, Pa. She wrote:

For the past four years, our neighborhood group of friends has set aside a day for the ultimate “intentional summer challenge” — staying outside all day.

It all started one night early in the summer of 2013. My brother, Tim, and I were out in the driveway enjoying the first of many summer nights to come, and we didn’t want to go inside. One of us said to the other: wouldn’t it be fun to spend a whole day outside?

A few weeks later, we did it — we stayed outside from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., accompanied by some friends and neighbors here and there, and time allotted for bathroom breaks. The day, which we dubbed “11 to 11,” became a tradition in our family and neighborhood.

The next year’s 11 to 11 was successful, with growing participation and commitment. Since our kitchen was undergoing renovations, we had a Porta-Potty in our yard, and didn’t even have to go inside to use the bathroom! The following year, however, we wanted to take it a step further. With a core group established — my brothers Tim (now 16) and Kyle (14), along with our friends since grade school, Kimmy (16), Keli (16) and Matt (15) — we stayed outside from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and then slept in a tent in our backyard before going back inside at 11 the next morning. We also declared it a “tech-free day” — no one was allowed to look at their phones for the entire time we were outside, enjoying summer and each other’s company.

Last year’s “11 to 11 to 11″ featured “extreme hopscotch” extending all the way down our block, a water balloon fight, a trip to our local pool, backyard croquet, a scavenger hunt and a bonfire. This year we’ll be going to the pool and a nearby creek to keep cool; playing “glowquet” (croquet after dark with glow sticks on the wickets), card and board games, and classic summer games like manhunt; and capping off the night with some stargazing before we get into the tent for the final 12 hours. It’s a summer tradition that we all look forward to every year, and we’ve been planning this one for a long time to make it the best one yet!

Last week, we challenged you to learn the name of a wildflower, tree or something else you find outside — and we offered a quiz to test your plant knowledge. Some of you complained that the quiz was too easy; about a third of you got all the answers right.

Anne, a reader from Rome, asked for the names in Latin, too. “That way people all over the world will know what you are writing about. Gratias vobis ago.”

But BusyLizzieBe wrote: “Youngsters’ disconnect from the natural world is deeper than I ever imagined and deeply disconcerting. In a volunteer situation, I have even encountered children who have never seen a caterpillar or a butterfly.”

Sue Peterson of California sent an email: “This past weekend, we went camping with friends, and there was quite a bit of concern about being able to identify poison oak. It was funny, because everyone had a slightly different identifying factor (rounded leaves, how many leaves on a stem, spots on the plant, etc.) and no plant we found seemed to have them ALL, but they would always have a few.”

She and others suggested using Google’s image recognition feature. “They are not exact, but it was fun to see the other plants that look so much like the plant I had found, but were slightly different, and learning the technical names and nicknames of different plants was fun.”

This week’s challenge: Whether it’s a full 24 hours outside or 18 holes of windmills and dinosaurs, why not let your children pick a summer moment? Tell us what they chose, and how it goes (and don’t forget to ask them what they thought, too), by commenting here or emailing us at wellfamily@nytimes.com before next Tuesday, Aug. 2. Were they more creative than you expected, or did they suggest an idea from summers past that you’d forgotten?

Be sure to sign up here for the Well Family email so you don’t miss anything.

We’ll share reader stories and post next week’s challenge on Thursday, Aug. 4. The real goal, as always: to savor the summer all season long.

Crossing Paths: A Baby and His Grandfather

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

In a photo essay, Thad Russell and Josephine Sittenfeld chronicle the end of life of a beloved father and the beginning of life of their new baby.

Nov. 20 – Thad

I’ve left my very pregnant wife, Jo, and our little daughter, Polly, to drive up to northern Vermont to retrieve my 86-year-old father and bring him back to Providence.

But when I get there, Dad is hunched over in his chair in the living room. He looks thin and tired, unshaven, confused, cold, short of breath.

In a weak voice he says that his lungs aren’t working and he can’t get enough air. With his arm hanging limply over my shoulder I move him toward his bedroom. I take off his shoes and glasses, turn off his light, and kiss him goodnight. I go to bed shaken to the core.

Dad grew up on a farm, played football in high school, went to M.I.T. to study engineering and architecture, and had a long career designing and building houses.

He became an expert skier back in the 1950s when downhill skiing was rebellious and dangerous.

And now, maybe for the first time ever, he doesn’t want to get out of bed.

I call my friend Bill, an emergency room doctor. He tells me quietly and firmly, “Call 911 and get him to a hospital ASAP. Don’t think about it. Just do it.”

This is the last time my father will ever see his land or be in his own house or sleep in his own bed. In fact, it is the last time he will sleep in any bed that isn’t in a hospital or nursing home. It’s the last time he will live without the assistance of a walker or a wheelchair, a professional caregiver or an adult diaper.

At the hospital, Dad’s cardiologist puts it bluntly. “Your father needs a new heart, and he’s not going to get one. I’ve used up my bag of tricks. Have you thought about hospice?”

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jo

That tiny, rapidly fluttering shape amid the gray static — even though I’ve been through ultrasounds before with my first child, the evidence of the life inside me is still awe-inspiring. I feel excited and tearful.

Nov. 28 – Thad

Dad’s vital signs are bad. He has trouble breathing and now needs oxygen full-time. It’s Thanksgiving morning, and Dad is taken by ambulance from the nursing home to the Miriam Hospital. I meet him in the emergency room, abandoning Jo to cook her first turkey and prepare for a house full of in-laws. The emergency room staff does a battery of tests and confirms what we already know: Dad is suffering from late-stage heart failure.

But after a few hours, he’s released, and I bring him home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Dec. 25 – Thad

Amazingly, Dad is able to be at our house on Christmas Day. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, or even Jesus for that matter. But he does like a good turkey dinner.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 9 – Jo

I wake up at exactly midnight with contractions. Around 6 a.m. the contractions get closer together. Polly wakes up and thinks it’s funny that I’m mooing like a cow. Thad and I take Polly to a neighbor’s house and head to the hospital.

I have another killer contraction in the lobby. I’m on all fours on the floor, moaning. People are staring.

Once we finally get to the room, I get into the tub. It feels good to be in the water, but the contractions are painful and intense — after the tub I’m on a ball, then on the bed, then standing, then on the toilet, then back on the bed.

Thad is on the phone in the next room trying to coordinate a urology appointment for his dad when all of a sudden things intensify. The baby’s head starts crowning, and it burns like hell. The nurse runs out to get Thad. And with a few more pushes our baby is out.

When they hand him to me, he’s big and grayish, but pretty quickly turns pink.

It’s intense and beautiful and crazy and amazing.

Baby Curtis lies on my chest, still connected through the umbilical cord, and Thad and I just take him in.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 13 – Thad

Dad is excited to meet his first grandson  —  and a little confused. He keeps calling him Matt, and asks when we have to give him back.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 24 – Thad

A nurse calls to tell me that Dad has fallen. I meet him in the E.R., again. He looks pretty beat up and has a big gash on the top of his head.

The test results worry the doctors.

And yet he survives  —  for days, then weeks, then months.

I visit Dad as often as I can and for as long as I can. I pick him up and we go on little field trips: to doctors’ appointments, to get new eyeglasses, to get his hearing aids cleaned, or to our house for dinner.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Occasionally, I find Dad asleep in his room, his face lit by the light of CNN Headline News. Some nights I stay with him for quite a while, rubbing his feet, watching him breathe and wondering what he is dreaming about.

I feel conflicted  —  it’s not that I want Dad to die, but I sometimes wonder if this is the way he ever wanted to live.

Dad can’t walk, get dressed or complete most basic daily routines without assistance, but his spirits are good.

In July, Dad has a bad fall, spends another week in the hospital. I call my siblings and tell them it’s time. We’re going to start hospice.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Aug. 8 – Jo and Thad

Dear Family & Friends –

We are sad to report that Sam died Friday evening. He was 87 years old.

For the past year, Dad continually impressed us with his dignity, toughness and overriding will to live. He  —  and we  —  were rewarded with some distinctly good days that we will never forget.

But last week, he and his heart decided it was time. He retired early one evening, declaring that his bed felt “wonderful,” and started his long sleep.

In the end, he passed quietly and gracefully, surrounded by his family (including his bouncy and bubbly baby grandson Curtis, who played happily at the foot of his bed), and a wonderfully compassionate team of rotating attendants and nurses.

Ever the solar animal, he waited until just after sunset to pass.

With love and thanks,

Thad & Jo

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell


Thad Russell and Josephine Sittenfeld are photographers who live in Providence, R.I., and teach at the Rhode Island School of Design. More of their work can be found at thadrussell.com and josittenfeld.com.

Helping Our School-Age Children Sleep Better

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Credit Getty Images

Everyone knows that getting a baby to sleep through the night can be a big challenge for parents. But sleep problems are common among preschool and school-age children, too. As we ask children to function in school, academically and socially, fatigue can affect their achievement and behavior.

Australian research on sleep problems in children has included work aimed at the “school transition” year in which children adjust to a school schedule. In a study of 4,460 children, 22.6 percent had sleep problems, according to their parents, at that transition age of 6 to 7 years. “We were surprised, we thought it was all baby sleep” that was the problem, said Dr. Harriet Hiscock, a pediatrician who is a senior research fellow at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne who was one of the authors of the study.

Those results led to a randomized controlled trial of a brief intervention for children in their first year of school. A group of 108 parents who felt their children had sleep problems was divided into two groups. One group got a consultation at school, with a program of strategies tailored to the child’s sleep issues, and a follow-up phone consultation; the other group got no special intervention and served as controls. Parents in the intervention group were counseled about a range of possible measures to improve sleep, from consistent bedtimes and bedtime routines to relaxation strategies for anxiety that might be contributing to insomnia. The children in the intervention group resolved their varying sleep problems more quickly, though sleep problems got better over time in both groups. The interventions also produced positive effects on the child’s psychosocial function and parents’ mental health.

The most common sleep issues for children around the age of school entry, Dr. Hiscock said, definitely include limit-setting issues — that is, some of them need their parents to make the rules and routines clear. But there are also children with what sleep specialists call “sleep onset association disorder,” in which a child has become habituated to falling asleep only in a certain context, requiring the presence of a parent, or needing to have the TV on, to cite two common examples. Very anxious children are also often problem sleepers. And then there are children beset by nightmares, night terrors and early morning waking.

Screen use is a major issue in childhood sleep, and more generally in childhood these days. The first recommendation is always to get the screens out of the bedroom, the same recommendation made for improving adolescent sleep, and for adults in the current best-selling book by Ariana Huffington. All of us, old and young, are vulnerable here, but it’s a good place for parents to draw the line for their children, even when they can’t quite manage it for themselves.

Reut Gruber, a psychologist who is an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, where she is director of the Attention Behavior and Sleep Lab, said that there is a close association between sleep and a wide range of cognitive functions, including attention, executive function and memory. When children go to school, “they need to pay attention and plan and follow instructions, all of which fall under executive function, which is very much affected by sleep,” she said.

Many parts of the brain work less well when children are tired. “The prefrontal cortex is very sensitive to sleep deprivation, and it is key to the brain mechanisms which underlie executive function and some of the attentional processes,” she said. “The amygdala is affected by sleep deprivation and is essential for emotional processes.”

These different but connected brain pathways led her to be interested in the way that sleep affects many different aspects of academic performance. In an experimental study of a small group of 7- to 11-year-olds who did not have sleep, behavior or academic problems, the children were asked to change their sleep patterns, so that they were sleeping an hour less per night, or an hour more. After five days with less sleep, she said, there was measurable deterioration in alertness and emotional regulation, and after five days with more sleep, there were gains in these areas.

For the past several years, Dr. Gruber and her colleagues have worked with a school board in Montreal to develop a school-based sleep promotion program that was piloted in three elementary schools; results were published in May in the journal Sleep Medicine. The intervention involved a six-week sleep curriculum for the children, to teach them about healthy sleep habits, and materials designed to involve parents, teachers, and school principals, who were asked to consider the sleep ramifications of school schedules, extracurricular activities and homework demands.

The children in the intervention group extended their sleep by an average of 18.2 minutes a night, and also reduced the length of time it took them to fall asleep by 2.3 minutes. These relatively modest changes correlated with improved report card grades in English and math; the control group children’s sleep duration did not change, and their grades did not improve.

The goal of the intervention was to help families make sleep a priority.

“How do you make changes in your priorities, find the way as a family, as a school, as an individual, to reshuffle things, no matter how much homework, no matter how many aunts and uncles coming for a visit, that bedtime will still be respected?” Dr. Gruber asked. “We all agree in principle, but how do we actually incorporate it into daily life?”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently endorsed the 2016 guidelines issued by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, that 3- to 5-year-olds need 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day (including naps), while 6- to 12-year-olds need nine to 12 hours for optimal health and well-being.

Dr. Gruber advised that a child should wake up naturally, without requiring energetic parental encouragement. If after nine or 10 hours of sleep, a child still seems very tired, parents might wonder about whether a sleep disorder is affecting the quality of the child’s sleep, she said.

But for most school-age children, it’s an issue of habits and routines, screen time and setting limits. Many of us know, as adults, that we don’t get as much sleep as we should, or that we don’t practice very good “sleep hygiene,” as the experts would say when they advise us to get the screens out of our bedrooms, create regular routines and avoid caffeine too close to bedtime. Making school-age sleep a family priority is a good way to get everyone focused on what really matters: waking up rested and ready to function well, in body and mind.

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Learning to Scale Peaks From My Underprotective Mother

Photo

Credit Giselle Potter

I grew up hearing stories of my mom’s grad school days at M.I.T. in the early ‘90s: pulling all-nighters in the Fishbowl, a cluster of computers off of the Infinite Corridor; writing messages to other Project Athena users on black screens with green text; sneaking through tunnels at night. Later, after dropping out, she gave birth to me.

And after that, she climbed mountains in the Himalayas: Everest and K2, Gasherbrum II and Kanchenjunga. As the only child of a single mother, I stayed in Connecticut with my grandparents during her journeys, swinging on the swing set in their backyard, waiting for her to come home.

I missed my mom desperately and feared for her safety — so much so that she nicknamed me Mrs. Potts, after the motherly teapot in “Beauty and the Beast.”

But death was a real possibility in the Himalayas. I understood that much. Luckily, my mom always came back, her fleece smelling like countries I might never see.

For my 18th birthday in 2010, my mom drove from Connecticut to Boston to visit me at Harvard. She parked beside my dorm at 9:30 p.m. and texted: Come outside.

I met her at her car. We drove across Cambridge in her silver Subaru, not talking much. She parked at M.I.T. near the Small Dome, a structure that sits atop 10 Ionic columns. From the car, the dome looked like the surface of the moon.

“Leave your ID and wallet in the car,” Mom said.

“What?”

“Just do it.”

We slipped through one of the building’s open doors. She held my hand as we snuck upstairs, past corridors of professors’ offices and classrooms with empty chairs. The few students we passed didn’t recognize us as trespassers.

We found our way to the door she was looking for. The crash-bar read: “Emergency exit. Alarm will sound.”

Mom took out her car key and gingerly depressed the latch. She procured a piece of duct tape from her pocket and covered the latch so that the door wouldn’t lock. The alarm didn’t sound. Without another look back, she stepped onto the roof and started walking.

I hesitated in the doorway, one leg out and one leg in. “Mom,” I called out. “I’m scared.”

I was not then (nor am I now) drawn to climbing. For years I had a deep fear of mountains –– they represented an uncontrollable force, the thing that took my mother away from me when I felt like I needed her the most. But as early as elementary school, I understood that my mother’s way of healing was to seek solace in ascents and summits.

Many American parents would probably say their primary responsibility is to keep their children safe, to teach them to respect authority and stay out of trouble. These were not my mother’s goals.

She turned around to smile and reassure me. “You’re going to love it.”

I followed her. Late September wind gathered along the sides of the buildings, blowing my hair up and out, wrapping stray curls around my face. The late-night pedestrians under the streetlights looked like Lego figures.

We trekked across a long section of the roof, turned, and stared up at the dome. The summit. Mom laced her fingers together and went down on one knee to give me a boost. I took my fingers out of my pockets and breathed on them, trying to summon some warmth. I stepped onto her hands.

The first time we tried, I stepped without confidence and stumbled. The second time, my hands made contact with the lip. I did a half-pull-up and wriggled my torso onto the dome. I rolled over, turned around, and called down to Mom: “You coming?”

“No. You go. I used to have the upper body strength to do this alone. Not now.”

“You sure?”

“Go enjoy the view.”

I kept climbing, trying to get handholds and footholds on the surface of the dome.

I stopped just before the window above the atrium of the building, not wanting to feel vertigo, not wanting to test how thick the glass was.

From up that high, I could see the Charles River unfurled like a wing. Stray lights reflected on its surface. The domed skyscraper on Huntington Avenue stood across the river, as regal as a Himalayan mountain –– or what I imagine one looks like. I’ve only seen pictures. The moon was full, another gray dome in the sky.

I scrambled back down. We walked in silence across the roof, through the door (Mom removed the piece of tape with her fingernails), down the stairs, across the lawn, and into the silver Subaru. Only there did we collapse into laughter, relief. We’d had our adventure. No parking tickets waited on the windshield.

A year ago I rode my bicycle solo along the length of New Zealand. In the South Island, I cycled to the base of Aoraki Mount Cook, the mountain where Sir Edmund Hillary’s mountaineering career began. It was there I realized that my mother’s example has allowed me to be a female adventurer of a different sort.

I didn’t become a mountain climber, but for the last two years I have been traveling mostly by bicycle in the United States, Fiji, Tuvalu, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I’m halfway through a project to collect 1,001 stories about water and climate change from people I meet.

Now I can see that my mom’s birthday gift to me was more valuable than the kind that comes wrapped in paper and ribbons, even though the only tangible thing she brought was a strip of duct tape.


Devi Lockwood is a poet who will be attending the United Nations COP22 climate talks in Morocco in November as a youth delegate for SustainUS.

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Summer Ice Cream Adventures

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Noah, age 5, with his blended fruit rainbow ice pop.

Noah, age 5, with his blended fruit rainbow ice pop.Credit June Wai

In last week’s Intentional Summer challenge, we proposed making or trying an unusual flavor of ice cream. You did not let us down.

One of our readers, MJM, wrote: “On a trip to Northern Michigan with siblings, their families and our parents, we ate at the wonderful Rowe Inn in Ellsworth. On the menu for dessert: asparagus ice cream. We tried a bowl to share with the table. I think the overall sentiment was, well, we tried it, but not again.”

On Instagram, saltnpepperhere posted honey lavender ice cream; twosw offered coffee and Oreo; and kathelemon showed us a Hoyne’s Dark Matter beer ice cream sandwich.

Here at Well, we sampled corn ice cream in the office, and one of our editors tried lemon-jalapeno ice cream from the Pittsburgh Ice Cream Company at a pickle festival called Picklesburgh.

Photo

Coffee-Oreo ice cream.

Coffee-Oreo ice cream.Credit Twosw

Caitlin Fish emailed: “I’ve been experimenting with many different ice cream flavors this summer, but so far my favorite has been an interpretation of the popular snack ‘Ants on a Log.’ I make a celery cream base, swirl in peanut butter, and add golden raisins that have been plumped in a fresh ginger syrup. Surprisingly addictive!”

Tina Frühauf wrote: “I am known for being able to sorbet everything, at least so my friends say. Indeed, in our SoHo home, sorbet has become a verb, a process of turning and churning imagination into creamy frozen desserts, from avocado-tequila to basil, fig-red wine with rose water, and herbal varieties such as cilantro.” For a recent German-themed dinner party, she made a “sauerkraut” sorbet with green cabbage, lemon juice, sugar and limoncello. “The unusual aftertaste of the first spoon dissolves with the second,” she assured us.

Photo

Hoyne’s Dark Matter ice cream sandwich.

Hoyne’s Dark Matter ice cream sandwich.Credit Kathelemon

June Wai made rainbow ice pops with her son, Noah, age 5, layered with raspberry, strawberry and cherry, orange, golden kiwi, green kiwi, blueberry, and black grape and blackberry. “Each fruit was blitzed in the food processor with a touch of honey (we used Colorado honey) and frozen layer by layer, 30 minutes at a time,” she wrote. Next time they are going to try a vegetable ice pop, she said.

Photo

Honey lavender ice cream.

Honey lavender ice cream.Credit Saltnpepperhere

Madeleine Blandy, age 10, of Arlington, Mass., wrote to tell us about her family’s “ice cream nominating convention” to vote on what flavor to make at their annual gathering in Cape Cod. Her grandfather created rules on the voting, which started in June. “You got as many votes as 100 minus your age, which favored the kids more,” Madeleine explained. “Among the oddest flavors was salty licorice, and other creative flavors included black pepper cardamom and corn.” The winners were lemon blueberry muffin, raspberry chocolate chip and Oreo crunch.

“The rules state if your flavor wins, you have to help make it — and eat all of the leftovers,” she wrote. Sounds like a delicious family tradition to us.

The ‘Intentional Summer’ Challenge: Name That Plant!

Photo

Credit KJ Dell’Antonia

Challenge No. 5: Name a flower, plant or tree.

This week, as part of the Well Family Intentional Summer, we’re inviting you to renew a skill your grandparents (and maybe even your parents) probably had: putting a name to the flowers, bushes and trees that surround even urban dwellers daily.

The names — and what’s more, the uses — of the plants that grow around us were once common knowledge. But for most of us, the need to brew dandelion tea or pop dandelion leaves into a salad evaporated the moment one of our recent ancestors walked into a supermarket. A generation or so later, many of us can’t even identify a dandelion.

British researchers have found that few people can identify five common wildflowers or trees, and the younger we are, the less likely we are to be able to name names. Even biology teachers in Britain did poorly on similar questions — a third couldn’t name three or more wildflowers.

That lack of knowledge reflects our increasing disconnect from the natural world. The more time we spend in nature, the more we want to know it and name it. Identifying a single plant is an invitation to connect with the green spaces around us.

“There are lots of benefits to spending time in green surroundings,” whether it’s a local park or a national forest, says Jessica de Bloom, the author of many research studies on vacation and happiness. A little nature can reduce recent stress and improve our mood. Even if the plant in question is growing out of a crack in a city sidewalk, taking a moment to really look at it and find out more about its place in the world can offer a memorable break in our day (and maybe lead to more outdoor exploration).

How to identify your plant of choice? Technology can make that easier. My kids and I chose a blue wildflower we hadn’t noticed before, and posted its picture on Facebook to test the hive mind. Meanwhile, I found mywildflowers.com and chose a few simple characteristics of our flower from the menu of options offered there: It had seven or more petals, was blue, appeared individually rather than in clusters and bloomed in July. (Similar sites and apps exist for other plants and trees: Try Leafsnap, iPflanzen or NatureGate.)

We had an answer via the internet in three minutes, and from Facebook in four: Chicory, the root of which can be blended into coffee. In fact, it’s in the coffee I’m drinking as I write. The search led to a conversation about chicory and to a real desire to know more about the “weeds” that grow by the side of the road.

If you’d like to test your knowledge of some common North American plants, try our quiz.

This week’s challenge: Name something in nature, and tell us how it goes by commenting here or emailing us at wellfamily@nytimes.com before next Tuesday, July 26. You can also share on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (#intentionalsummer).

Be sure to sign up here for the Well Family email so you don’t miss anything.

We’ll share reader stories and post next week’s challenge on Thursday, July 28. The real goal: to savor the summer all season long.

A Pediatrician’s View on Gun Violence and Children

Photo

Credit Getty Images

What does it mean to consider gun violence a public health problem, especially when it comes to children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics announced the development of a new initiative last week reacting to the violence in St. Paul, Baton Rouge and Dallas, an attempt as pediatricians to find ways to protect children, adolescents and young adults.

This isn’t a new issue for the academy; the existing policy on firearm injuries in children emphasizes the importance of sensible gun control, along with the importance of counseling parents about how to reduce risks. Pediatricians as a group have long been concerned about the psychological effects of exposure to violence and the culture of gun violence.

But how can pediatricians make a difference? “I would like us to think deeply about this being trauma for kids,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, the president of the academy. He emphasized that the discussion must include the overlapping issues of race and the impact of racism on children and adolescents.

This past week, children, along with the rest of us, have seen a truck used as an assault weapon in Nice, France, reminding us that violence takes many forms. Many families worry about how to discuss with our children the disturbing images and stories that play out in the news media. There is an overarching sadness to this discussion. We would like to tell our children that they live in a better, safer country, that the world is getting safer, and that we are making some progress on racism and racial disparities.

Parents need to protect young children from repeated exposures to graphic images, and to be mindful with all children about just how much they’re seeing and hearing. Be there to watch with an older child, both so that you can monitor the exposure, and so that you can talk about disturbing stories and convey the message that it’s O.K. to have these conversations, even when there are no easy answers. The A.A.P. offers age-related guidelines for talking to children about tragedies and other news events on the Heathy Children website.

When children are very upset or worried, they may have nightmares or other sleep disturbances, or complain of physical problems which perhaps will keep their parents nearer, or otherwise, according to their ages, may signal depression or anxiety. Again, it can help to make it clear that you’re willing to talk about these events and the emotions they engender, and willing to get pediatric or mental health help for a child who is particularly distressed.

Beyond what we say in difficult conversations with our frightened or troubled children, adults face the challenge of really making the world safer.

Dr. William Begg, the emergency medical services medical director for the area of Connecticut that includes Newtown, was in the emergency room when the shooting happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. He co-founded United Physicians of Newtown, a medical group working to keep children safe from guns.

“I’ve said at every opportunity we have to look at gun violence as a public health issue,” he said. “I think we have to do more as physicians.”

Parents who choose to own guns need to understand how dangerous an accessible gun can be, especially a gun kept in the home, often loaded and unlocked.

“Those are the guns that get used in suicides and unintentional killings and some of the intentional killings,” said Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician and health services researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital.

As sample safety measures, Dr. Fleegler brought up good safety locks, or even biometric safes, which can be opened only by the right person’s fingerprints, as well as the possibility of safe repositories where people could store guns outside their homes, either temporarily or permanently.

Dr. Begg said it’s important that pediatricians have the opportunity to talk to parents who are gun owners.

“I would never tell a parent, you can’t own a gun; what I would tell a parent is, you should make an informed choice knowing the facts, knowing your family situation,” he said. “I think if people understood the data, many people would make a different choice.”

But these conversations can be controversial; Florida, Montana and Missouri have laws that restrict doctors’ discussion of guns; eight other states have considered such legislation.

When you consider guns as a public health issue, the first thing you look for is data and research, but under pressure from the gun lobby, Congress has restricted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from doing or funding research on gun violence and how to prevent it.

Researchers look for associations between injury rates and possible interventions, safety measures and regulations. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Fleegler and his colleagues showed that states with more firearm laws had fewer firearm-related fatalities; the association was true for both homicides and suicides.

As with so many public health issues, risks are greater for children in poverty and greater for minority children. “The numbers are staggering no matter who you are, but worse the poorer you are, the darker your skin, especially for violence and homicide,” Dr. Fleegler said.

According to the C.D.C., in 2014, homicide by firearm was the second leading cause of death among 15- to  24-year-olds in the United States, with suicide by firearm in fourth place. For those 10 to 14, where the numbers are much lower, the order was reversed, with suicide by firearm the third leading cause of death, and homicide by firearm fourth.

We lost more than 10,300 males from age 10 to age 19 to violence-related firearm deaths from 2010 to 2014; 63 percent of them by homicide, 36 percent by suicide, and 1 percent by legal intervention. The death rate for the black males was 26.3 per 100,000, compared with 6.6 per 100,000 for the white males.

The public health approach means talking to parents about how to keep their children safe, and looking for strategies—technological, behavioral, and legal—to make everyone safer.

Think about what it has meant to bring down the numbers of children dying in car crashes. We don’t look at collisions as unavoidable twists of fate. We look for strategies — technological, behavioral, and legal — to reduce the incidence of collisions and minimize the damage that they do to small bodies.

“We need to take away the notion that we shouldn’t regulate the safety of firearms,” Dr. Fleegler said. “We take pride in our cars, but the idea of removing safety regulations makes no sense.”

Dr. Begg said that for the first 25 years of his career, while practicing in different emergency rooms around the country, he saw patients harmed by gun violence and took care of them, but did nothing to address the larger problem.

“After the Sandy Hook tragedy where I saw the children of my friends and the children of my community, I didn’t know if my children were going to be affected — they were in lockdown also in school,” he said. “I decided I was going to devote the next 25 years of my career to promoting gun violence safety. There’s a lot more change to come.”

My Autistic Son’s Lesson: No One Is Broken

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Credit Giselle Potter

My youngest son, Sawyer, used to spend far more time relating to his imagination than he did to the world around him. He would run back and forth humming, flapping his hands and thumping on his chest. By the time he was in first grade, attempts to draw him out of his pretend world to join his classmates or do some class work led to explosions and timeouts. At 7 he was given a diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum.

That was when my wife, Jen, learned about the practice called joining. The idea behind it, which she discovered in Barry Neil Kaufman’s book “Son-Rise,” is brilliant in its simplicity. We wanted Sawyer to be with us. We did not want him to live in this bubble of his own creation. And so, instead of telling him to stop pretending and join us, we started pretending and joined him. The first time Jen joined him, the first time she ran beside him humming and thumping her chest, he stopped running, stopped thumping, stopped humming and, without a single word from us, turned to her and said, “What are you doing?”

“Learning what it’s like to be you.”

We took turns joining him every day, and a week later we got an email from his special education teacher telling us to keep doing whatever we were doing. He’d gone from five timeouts a day to one in a week.

The classroom was the same, the work was the same – all that was different was that we had found a way to say to him in a language he could understand, “You’re not wrong.” Emboldened by our success, we set about becoming more fluent in this language. For the next couple of years we taught ourselves to join him constantly. This meant that whatever we were doing had to stop whenever we heard him running back and forth and humming. But we could not join him simply to get him to stop running and thumping and humming. We had to join him without any judgment or impatience.

That was the trickiest part. The desire to fix him was great. I had come to believe that there were broken people in need of fixing. Sometimes, I looked like one of those people. I was a 40-year-old unpublished writer working as a waiter. My life reeked of failure. Many days I looked in the mirror and asked, “What is wrong with me?”

The only way to believe that Sawyer wasn’t broken was if no one was broken – not anyone anywhere ever.

I was used to seeing good people and bad people, smart people and stupid people, talented people and untalented people. I had to break that habit. I did this through a trick of perception. If someone was flapping and humming, or insulting you or saying something cruel about a whole group of people, I taught myself to pay attention to the person beneath the behavior, to the one who was scared or confused, who felt unlucky or undeserving or inadequate.

I did this, ostensibly, so that I could be Sawyer’s dad and help him flourish in the world. And by and by he began emerging from his bubble, began talking about wanting friends, began talking about his future. Now, 10 years later, at the end of our classes (we home-school him) every day he asks, “Dad, can we hang out today?” Had this been all that had come of joining Sawyer and learning to see a world without broken people, I suppose it would have been enough.

But 10 years later the writer who couldn’t get published, who felt like failure, now finds himself talking to groups and even crowds of people, telling them, in so many words, “Everything is O.K. even though it looks like everything is not O.K.!” I would never have talked to these people, nor published the essays that inspired these talks, if Jen and I had not joined Sawyer.

Yet the moment I really understood the power of joining came long before any of this. I was having an argument with my wife. I consider ours a good relationship, by which I mean it is the relationship against which I measure all my other relationships. But on this evening we were in the thick of a particularly nasty back and forth. It started small, as they all do. We each felt wronged by the other. The more we talked, the more we tried to “clear things up,” the worse it got. We raised our voices though we live in a small house and our boys would hear us. As the argument grew more heated, as Jen’s voice grew louder and sharper, she shifted before my eyes. I wasn’t seeing my best friend and lover anymore; I was seeing an enemy. Her words, it seemed to me from the opposite end of the couch, were daggers aimed squarely at my worthiness. I had to defend myself.

It was just as I was preparing my next attack that I remembered Sawyer and our practice. I took a beat, and even though Jen still looked like an enemy, even though she still sounded like an enemy, and even though I had learned over the years to protect myself against enemies, I asked myself this question: “What if she’s not your enemy? What if she still loves you? Then what are you looking at?”

This is often how I’d practice with Sawyer or myself or strangers on the street. If any of us looked broken, I’d ask, “But what if no one is broken? Then what are you seeing?” So that’s what I did with Jen. And as I asked this question, she changed again. Now I saw a woman who was as upset as I was, who wanted to be in agreement as badly as I did, who didn’t understand why we couldn’t reach an agreement. In that instant my war was over. Soon, the argument was over as well. As always, it had just been a misunderstanding. We still loved each other after all.

Joining Sawyer taught me that unconditional love is not some point on the map. It is a path that leads me where I want to go – to the world I want to live in, rather than the one I’m seeing.

William Kenower is a writer and the editor of Author magazine.

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The ‘Intentional Summer’ Challenge: Try an Unusual Ice Cream Flavor

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Sweet corn ice cream with blackberry verbena syrup.

Sweet corn ice cream with blackberry verbena syrup.Credit Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Challenge No. 4: Make (or try) an unusual flavor of ice cream.

This week’s Well Family Intentional Summer challenge is just in time for National Ice Cream Day, celebrated this year on Sunday, July 17 — which may be a holiday invented by the ice cream lobby, but we’re not complaining.

To make it part of your Intentional Summer, try something new, by making an unusually flavored frozen dessert at home.

Why not stick with chocolate or a seasonal berry offering — or even just plain vanilla? We’re trying to make moments that set themselves apart. Building Ice Cream Day into an event, with planning, shopping and preparation – and memorable flavors — makes it more likely to stand out. Worried about things getting a little too weird for your kids? Research shows we’re more likely to embrace a novel taste if we choose to try it. So if your children are old enough, involve them in the decision about what to make.

Our suggestions: If you have an adventurous family, how about sweet corn ice cream, sweet potato ice cream, basil ice cream or savory tomato sorbet? Recipes that call for steps like separating eggs may sound like too much work, but it’s easier than it sounds, as I found out when my boys tried making strawberry-rhubarb ice cream last summer.

Don’t have an ice cream maker? Go with a wildly flavored ice pop, like this Mexican street corn paleta. You could also try one of Mark Bittman’s simple ice pop recipes, which include flavors like chocolate-chili and coconut curry, along with some boozy grown-up-only options.

“If you have a story to tell about why you’re choosing a particular ice cream it’s going to be that much more appealing,” said Jenny Rosenstrach, author of “Dinner: A Love Story” and the forthcoming “How to Celebrate Everything.” Earlier this week, she shared the history of the Ample Hills Oatmeal Lace ice cream flavor, named after a cherished family recipe, on her blog.

“Also, there are just some kids who place a premium on the unpredictable. Play up the maverick idea and they just might bite.”

Last week, we proposed going on a quest: a treasure hunt, or a search for something usual. As it turns out, millions of people took us up on the invitation — thanks to the arrival of Pokémon Go, the smartphone game that takes a virtual hunt for Pokémon into the real world.

Some readers, though, kept their quests less digital. Pattra Mattox of Ipswich, Mass., was inspired to seek out the Two Fat Cats Bakery in Portland, Me., after catching it on the PBS show “A Few Good Pie Places.” “Coupled with a visit to a near-by children’s museum and fried seafood at a coastal lobster shack, this short Sunday outing near our home felt like a true vacation day,” she wrote. And reader Kathleen Kirk is taking both the quest and the “walk or bike somewhere you would usually drive” challenges to a new level by biking from Washington State to Boston. “This will engage all of my senses,” she wrote, “maybe leaving out common sense?!”

This week’s challenge: Make (or try) an unusual flavor of ice cream, gelato, sorbet or any frozen dessert. Use one of our recipes, or find or invent your own, and tell us about how it goes, by commenting here or emailing us at wellfamily@nytimes.com before next Tuesday, July 12. Was it weird? Delicious? Weirdly delicious? Or did you run straight out for a pint of vanilla? You can also share on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (#intentionalsummer).

Be sure to sign up here for the Well Family email so you don’t miss anything.

We’ll share reader stories and post next week’s challenge on Thursday, July 28. The real goal: to savor the summer all season long.

An Early Bedtime for Kids May Fight Weight Gain

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Preschool children who are in bed by 8 p.m. are far less likely to be obese during adolescence than children who stay up late, a study has found. Their risk of teenage obesity is half the risk faced by preschoolers who stay up past 9 p.m.

The research analyzed data gathered on nearly 1,000 children born in 1991 whose bedtimes were recorded when they were 4½ years old, and whose height and weight were recorded at age 15. The children were part of the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, done under the auspices of the National Institute of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Among the children who were in bed by 8 p.m., 10 percent were obese as teens, compared to 16 percent of those who went to bed between 8 and 9 and 23 percent of those who went to bed after 9, according to the study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

The researchers adjusted for such factors as socioeconomic status, maternal obesity and parenting style and still found that the children who went to bed by 8 p.m. were at less than half the risk of teenage obesity as those who were up past 9, said Sarah E. Anderson, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor of epidemiology at the Ohio State University College of Public Health in Columbus.

Although the study does not prove that early bedtimes protect against obesity, Dr. Anderson said, “there is a great deal of evidence linking poor sleep, and particularly short sleep duration, to obesity, and it’s possible the timing of sleep may be important, above and beyond the duration of sleep.”

“This provides more evidence that having an early regular bedtime and bedtime routine for young children is helpful,” she said.

Myths About Teenagers and Risk-Taking

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Credit Stuart Bradford

Teenage risk-taking heats up in the summer. Studies show that during the summer months adolescents are most likely to experiment with first-time use of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes. For car crashes, the perennial leading cause of death among teenagers, June, July and August hold the grim honor of being the three consecutive months with the most adolescent traffic fatalities.

These are alarming statistics, but a quick spin around the research gives parents reason to feel hopeful, not helpless. The emerging science on adolescent boundary-pushing debunks some old saws and shows us useful directions to point our energy. Here are some common misconceptions and illuminating findings.

Myth: We were better

Adults have long fretted about “kids today,” but on the whole our teenagers are much better behaved than we were. A report published last month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, compared to adolescents in 1991, today’s teenagers are less likely to carry weapons, smoke cigarettes, try alcohol, binge drink or have sex. And they are more likely to wear seatbelts and use condoms.

The report found an increase in marijuana use since 1991, but not a statistically significant one. Other studies confirm a rise in adolescent pot-smoking, and teenagers face new threats such as e-cigarettes and high rates of prescription drug abuse. But we are now raising the tamest cohort of teenagers in decades.

We might want to go so far as to give teenagers credit for this, because how we regard and talk about adolescents matters. One study found that parents who took a dim view of teenagers were likely to raise adolescents who ultimately lived down to their parents’ expectations. The study’s results held up even when the researchers washed out the conduct of older siblings (who might have soured the parents on teenagers) and the behavior of the children in question before they entered adolescence. In other words, low expectations can do harm, while high expectations have long been linked to positive outcomes for teenagers.

Myth: Teens think they’re invincible

Studies show that adolescents feel as vulnerable as adults do. In fact, when we ask teenagers to predict the likelihood that they will be jailed or dead before the age of 20, they grossly overestimate the actual probability of such events. Why do adolescents take so many risks if they feel so unsafe? Research provides an answer that shouldn’t surprise any ex-teenager: For adolescents, the wish to impress their peers often trumps their better judgment.

In a study demonstrating this phenomenon, the psychologists Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg compared adolescents and adults as they played a video game that allowed for risky choices. When individuals from each group played by themselves, teenagers were nearly as cautious as adults. When playing in front of people their age, however, the teenagers became reckless, while the adults drove much as they did when alone.

A finding like this helps explain how graduated drivers’ licenses have helped to reduce the rate of adolescent car crashes. Laws that limit the number of passengers allowed in cars driven by teenagers accord with solid evidence that adolescents make better decisions when they’re alone or with an adult than when they’re with friends.

What are the takeaways for parents? To start, striking terror into teenagers with dire warnings about their safety may be unnecessary and even counterproductive. Indeed some researchers suggest that teenagers may act rashly, in part, “because of an exaggerated feeling that they are not going to live.”

As an alternative, we might address the hazards posed by peer pressure. In addition to asking our teenagers who they will be with and what they’ll be doing, we could consider saying, “We love your friends, but if things are getting out of hand, please call. We’re always available to get you out of any situation that feels like it’s heading south.”

Myth: Teens are immune to adult influence

Parents offering guidance shouldn’t be put off by the occasional teenage eye-roll. Research consistently finds that adults can capitalize on their relationships with teenagers to reduce adolescent risk-taking.

In broad terms, adolescents who have open lines of communication with their folks and describe their parents as available and understanding are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior. More specifically, teenagers whose parents talk with them about sex and contraception have been found to take fewer sexual risks, conform less to their peers’ behavior and believe that their parents provide the most accurate information about sex. Teenagers drive more safely when their parents reinforce driving curfews and other motor vehicle laws. And adults who establish and uphold rules tend to raise adolescents who are less likely to use illegal drugs and alcohol. While peers certainly influence teenage behavior, parents do, too.

Adults must live with the nerve-racking reality that we cannot absolutely guarantee the safety of any teenager. But we can make choices that promote adolescent safety. With so much at stake, let’s ditch the myths about teenagers and ground our parenting in the objective, and in many ways encouraging, realities.

Lisa Damour is a psychologist in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University and the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is the author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.” Follow her on Twitter: @LDamour.

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Talking to Kids About Racial Violence

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The daughter of Diamond Reynolds, whose boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot by the police in Minnesota last week.

The daughter of Diamond Reynolds, whose boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot by the police in Minnesota last week.Credit Eric Miller/Reuters

My husband is white; as an Armenian man, I am a hue darker, and our 10-year-old daughter is biracial, with brown skin. We’ve tried to shield her from some of the recent painful news stories related to bias. But after last week’s killings of two African-American men by police officers, and then the killings of five Dallas police officers, we need to be ready to talk with her about the terrors of prejudice.

I reached out to some experts who help teenagers and parents make sense of violent racism, and work toward something better. Here is some of the wisdom they offered:

  1. Don’t avoid it. “As moms and dads, we can be scared to talk about something so raw, and ugly,” said Tamara Buckley, an associate professor of counseling and psychology at Hunter College and the co-author of “The Color Bind: Talking (and Not Talking) About Race at Work.” “But not bringing it up doesn’t protect your family. It only puts the conversation in others’ hands.”
  2. All kids — not just minorities — need to talk. “Every youth needs to be nurtured to practice empathy, not judgment,” said Renée Watson, who has worked with high school students struggling to process the Black Lives Matter movement and whose work includes the young adult novel “This Side of Home.” “It’s time for us to get out of our own worlds. To be critical thinkers, young people must be exposed to news about every demographic.”
  3. It’s O.K. not to have answers. “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable in front of your child,” said Ms. Watson. “Even as a teacher I don’t know everything. It’s not about me trying to get students to think how I do, but to create room for dialogue.”
  4. Ask open-ended questions. Buckley suggested asking: “How are you feeling about what you’re seeing in the news? What are your friends saying? What bothers you the most?”
  5. Notice changes in behavior. “Your son might answer, ‘It’s not bothering me,’” Dr. Buckley said. “Some young people may be in such shock they can’t take in the news. Keep a close eye on them. Do they seem stressed? Isolated? Watch for changes in demeanor, which can suggest they’re upset even if they’re telling you otherwise.”
  6. Turn to art. “If things get tense, music, painting, and dance are great ways to express yourself,” said Ms. Watson, who was a 2013 NAACP Image Award nominee. She said multicultural publishers like Lee & Low “know we need a mix of ‘mirror’ books — in which we see ourselves reflected — and ‘window’ books — in which we see others.” She offered a checklist to measure the diversity in your home library: Do all the titles featuring black characters focus only on slavery? Do all the ones about Latinos emphasize immigration? Are all your L.G.B.T.Q. books coming out stories? If so, you could consider books that examine broader issues in these communities.
  7. Educate yourself about social justice. “Know the difference between equality and equity,” said Shuber Naranjo, a diversity educator at Bank Street School for Children in Manhattan. “It’s like in a Broadway theater, there are the same number of stalls in the women’s and men’s bathrooms. It’s equal, but not equitable, because you see a longer line for women.”
  8. Don’t go it alone. Racism is a tough subject for one person to tackle. “Seek out other dads and moms,” Dr. Buckley suggested, “and find ways to support one another. I’ve noticed all this racial violence has been a real point of connection between black and white parents.”


How do you talk to your kids about race, policing and violence? Join six New York Times journalists for a live chat at 2 p.m. Eastern time, Tuesday, July 12.

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Pokémon Has Children on the Move

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The author’s son and daughter, both 10, sneak up on a virtual Pokémon.

The author’s son and daughter, both 10, sneak up on a virtual Pokémon.Credit

Parents looking for a way to get children moving and off the couch this summer have found a surprising new ally: Pokémon.

Unlike most video and smartphone games, the phenomenally popular Pokémon Go, which has been downloaded by millions in the past week, requires the player to be active. The game uses map technology and local landmarks to make it seem as if mythical cartoon creatures are lurking in the real world all around you.

As my two 10-year-olds and I quickly found, playing Pokémon Go is not sedentary. Pokémon “trainers” must search for the virtual creatures; finding more of them requires getting up and heading outside.

Other parents are reporting a similar effect.

“My 18-year-old and his friends walked and biked 25 plus miles in two days, outside, in the heat and rain,” said Lisa Romeo, a mother of two who lives in Cedar Grove, N.J.

Phil LeClare of Salem, Mass., said that after three days of Pokémon Go while on vacation in Maine, his 11-year-old son proudly said that he’d walked 30 miles.

Along with the stories of calories burned come the benefits of unexpected family time. The real-world component of walking and hunting for the creatures seems to make playing Pokémon Go alone unappealing. Instead, even teenagers are inviting siblings and parents along. Add in the likelihood of meeting other players at Poké-stops, and the game begins to feel like a social event.

“Event” is a good characterization, said Jeffrey Rohrs, a father of two and the chief marketing officer of Yext, a location data management platform. The app, he said, appears to have struck a perfect chord in our culture, making fresh use of smartphone technology while offering a way around our collective fears that smartphones make us more sedentary and connect us better to the cloud than to one another. “There’s just this euphoria around it,” he said. “It’s unique.”

But for families that have been pleasantly surprised by the action and interaction of Pokémon Go, the game has created a quandary: Do our usual screen time limits apply? Do miles logged and family togetherness really make Pokémon Go different from other screen-based distractions?

The average American child already spends more time consuming media via a screen than at school. Adults aren’t doing much better. Many of us say we spend too much time on our smartphones and the internet, and our kids think so too: In one study, about 70 percent of children under 18 said their parents spent too much time glued to the phone.

“I’m wary of promises that more technology is the answer to problems caused by the overuse of technology,” said Richard Freed, a psychologist and author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.” We’ve been hopeful in the past that certain games, like the Wii system, would promote family time or get kids moving, he said, but those games ultimately failed to live up to the hype.

When it comes to Pokémon Go, Dr. Freed says he is in “wait and see” mode, but dubious. His family loves to walk together outdoors. “Now you add this new wrinkle,” in the form of a game that may be more compelling than the conversation that forges bonds among them. “You have to ask,” said Dr. Freed, “will this facilitate that connection?”

As a replacement for other forms of gaming, Pokémon Go offers plenty of advantages. My two 10-year-olds and I did enjoy connecting while roaming the streets in search of creatures — but part of the pleasure, for me, was that I’d lured them away from their usual Sunday afternoon game-fest with the Wii.

For some families, the hunt has already begun to take over their travels — encouraging kids to walk and hike further, yes, but will they remember seeing the White House, or the Pokémon at its gates? On a positive note, Mr. Rohrs sees a future where the technology could be used to enhance our destinations “It’s easy to imagine a hunt for the great authors of London,” he said, rather than Pokémon.

But for now, it’s even easier to imagine getting just a little tired of children who’d rather hunt Zubats than enjoy a zoo.

Which can only mean one thing. “Part of parenting is establishing boundaries,” said Mr. Rohrs, who spent his weekend exploring New York City with his wife, two children and Pokémon Go. Although he was mostly enthusiastic about the unexpected places the game led them, “We quickly realized we needed to declare some ‘phone in pocket’ time.”

For now, many parents seem to be relishing the good in Pokémon Go, while recognizing that they will need to create limits. For some of us, Pokémon Go brings up unexpected summer memories of twilight freeze-tag and hide-and-seek. Laurel Snyder had to set a curfew for her kids, ages 9 and 10, who spent the day wandering their neighborhood in Atlanta.

“I told them they had to be home by 8, and they dashed in sweaty-faced at 7:53. It really felt more like my own childhood experience than I’d have imagined,“ she said. That early hour might even relax a little, with so much community to be found in the initial excitement surrounding the game. It’s likely that for many children, and adults too, the summer of 2016 just became the summer of Pokémon.

To Stem Obesity, Start Before Birth

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Credit Paul Rogers

To stem the current epidemic of obesity, there’s no arguing with the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As every overweight adult knows too well, shedding excess pounds and keeping them off is far harder than putting them on in the first place.

But assuring a leaner, healthier younger generation may often require starting even before a baby is born.

The overwhelming majority of babies are lean at birth, but by the time they reach kindergarten, many have acquired excess body fat that sets the stage for a lifelong weight problem.

Recent studies indicate that the reason so many American children become overweight is far more complicated than consuming more calories than they burn, although this is certainly an important factor. Rather, preventing children from acquiring excess body fat may have to start even before their mothers become pregnant.

Researchers are tracing the origins of being overweight and obese as far back as the pre-pregnancy weight of a child’s mother and father, and their explanations go beyond simple genetic inheritance. Twenty-three genes are known to increase the risk of becoming obese. These genes can act very early in development to accelerate weight gain in infancy and during middle childhood.

In the usual weight trajectory, children are born lean, get chubby during infancy, then become lean again as toddlers when they grow taller and become more active. Then, at or before age 10 or so, body fat increases in preparation for puberty – a phenomenon called adiposity rebound.

In children with obesity genes, “adiposity rebound occurs earlier and higher,” said Dr. Daniel W. Belsky, an epidemiologist at Duke University School of Medicine. “They stop getting leaner sooner and start putting on fat earlier and put on more of it.”

Still, twin and family studies have shown that many children with these genes remain lean. Furthermore, these same genes were undoubtedly around in the 1960s and 1970s when the obesity rate in children was a fraction of what it is today.

So what is different about the 2000s? Children today are surrounded by a surfeit of unwholesome, easy-to-consume calorie-dense foods and snacks accompanied by a deficit of opportunities to expend those extra calories through regular physical activity. And countering a calorie-rich, sedentary environment is now harder than it should be, with the current heavy emphasis on academics, parental reluctance to let children play outside unattended, and intense competition from electronics. All these circumstances may give obesity genes a greater chance to express themselves.

“There is no going back to a world in which calories are scarce and obtaining them is physically demanding,” Dr. Belsky wrote in an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics. “And governments and their publics have shown little enthusiasm for regulations restricting access to palatable, calorie-dense foods.”

Curbing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and keeping calorie-dense junk food out of the house and other settings where young children spend time is crucial. This is especially important for infants and children with large appetites that are not easily satisfied.

It’s also essential that parents model good eating habits, experts agree. “If you do it, they’ll do it,” David S. Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston, said. “Young children are like ducklings, they want to do what their mothers do.”

Equally important, Dr. Belsky said, is “allowing children in institutional settings – in day care, preschool and elementary school – to be as active as they choose to be rather than forcing them to sit quietly in chairs most of the day. Being physically active encourages a healthy metabolism. Active children are not constantly hungry.”

He added, “In the face of the obesity epidemic, eliminating the handful of opportunities for kids to be active during the day is a shame. Sedentary behavior becomes a life pattern.”

Another critical issue is the vicious cycle of overweight that starts with future mothers and fathers who are overweight or obese. “If we want healthy kids, we need healthy moms before pregnancy and during pregnancy,” Dr. Belsky said. “There are multiple pathways by which unhealthy levels of weight before and during pregnancy can influence a child’s weight going forward.”

As Dr. Ludwig explained, “Although genes are not modifiable, the weight of the mother before and during pregnancy is. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy predicts not just the baby’s birth weight but also the likelihood of obesity in middle childhood.”

The father’s weight is also turning out to be important, Dr. Ludwig said. “Acquired factors influence gene expression,” he said. “Being heavy alters DNA in the father’s sperm that changes gene expression and can be passed down to the next generation.”

Most, though not all, studies have linked a longer duration of breast-feeding to a reduced risk of overweight in children. Although Dr. Ludwig said that the effect “is not dramatic,” a more important benefit of breast-feeding may be “exposing the baby to a wider range of tastes based on what a mother is eating. If a breast-feeding mom eats a large variety of nutritious foods, the child is more likely to like them.”

Antibiotics given early in life, however, may counter any potential benefits of breast-feeding for weight gain, a new study found. Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland reported that when breast-fed infants are treated with antibiotics, the antibiotics kill off health-promoting bacteria that live in the gut. “The protective effects of breast-feeding against infections and overweight were weakened or completely eliminated by early-life antibiotic use,” the team wrote in JAMA Pediatrics last month.

Even if children have already started on a path of poor eating habits and excess weight gain, Dr. Ludwig said it is not too late to make healthful changes. As founder of the Optimal Weight for Life program and author of “Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World,” he advocates an authoritative, but not an authoritarian, parenting style that eliminates stress and conflict over what and when a child eats.

“Never force food on a child,” he insists. “Stand your ground in a gentle but firm way and be prepared to do a little negotiating. When a child refuses to eat the dinner that’s served, put it away in the fridge to be eaten later. If the child says ‘I’m not going to eat it,’ the response should be, ‘Fine, just go to bed,’ not ‘O.K., I’ll make you mac and cheese.’

“Children should be allowed to control their bodies, but parents have to provide the guidance and control the environment,” Dr. Ludwig said.

This is the second of two columns on childhood obesity. Read the first: “The Urgency in Fighting Childhood Obesity.”

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Thumb Suckers and Nail Biters May Develop Fewer Allergies

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Credit Getty Images

Babies have been seen sucking on their fingers in utero weeks before birth. But the sight of an older child with his fingers constantly in his mouth, sucking her thumb, biting his nails, can drive parents crazy, bringing up fears about everything from social stigma to germs.

A new study suggests that those habits in children ages 5 to 11 may indeed increase exposure to microbes, but that that may not be all bad.

When a pediatrician discusses thumb-sucking, it’s usually because a parent is worried. The thumb is in the mouth so constantly that there’s a worry about speech or about whether the teeth may be affected. It’s gone on too long, and an older child is being teased about it. And in those situations, especially when a child is over 4, we work with parents and children on how to break the habit.

Nail biting worries parents for similar reasons, and we often end up giving similar advice: Don’t make negative comments; look for the situations that bring on the behavior and find alternate strategies; praise and reward the child for not doing it; put a glove or a bandage on the hand to remind the child.

In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers drew evidence from an ongoing study of New Zealand children to show those whose parents described them as thumb-suckers and nail-biters were less likely to have positive allergic skin tests later in life.

The children were in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, in which 1,037 children born in 1972-73 in Dunedin, a coastal city in New Zealand, were assessed and tested as they grew up, with the most recent assessment done at age 38. Stephanie Lynch, a student at Dunedin School of Medicine and the first author of the paper, had the idea of using the data to look at a possible relationship between children who tend to have their fingers in their mouths and allergic sensitization.

The question of such a connection arose because of the so-called hygiene hypothesis, an idea originally formulated in 1989, that there may be a link between atopic disease — the revved-up action of the immune system responsible for eczema, asthma and allergy — and a lack of exposure to various microbes early in life. Some exposure to germs, the argument goes, may help program a child’s immune system to fight disease, rather than develop allergies.

In the study, parents were asked about their children’s nail-biting and thumb-sucking habits when the children were 5, 7, 9 and 11 years old. Skin testing for allergic sensitization to a range of common allergens including dust mites, grass, cats, dogs, horses and common molds was done when the children were 13 years old, and then later when they were 32. Thirty-one percent of the children were described as “frequent” nail biters or thumb suckers (or both) at one or more of those ages.

The study found that children who frequently sucked a thumb or bit their nails were significantly less likely to have positive allergic skin tests both at 13 and again at 32. Children with both habits were even less likely to have a positive skin test than those with only one of the habits.

These differences could not be explained by other factors that are associated with allergic risk. The researchers controlled for pets, parents with allergies, breast-feeding, socioeconomic status and more. But though the former thumb-suckers and nail-biters were less likely to show allergic sensitization, there was no significant difference in their likelihood of having asthma or hay fever.

Robert J. Hancox, one of the authors of the study, is an associate professor in the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at Dunedin School of Medicine, a department that is particularly oriented toward the study of diseases’ causes and risk factors. He said in an email, “The hygiene hypothesis is interesting because it suggests that lifestyle factors may be responsible for the rise in allergic diseases in recent decades. Obviously hygiene has very many benefits, but perhaps this is a downside. The hygiene hypothesis is still unproven and controversial, but this is another piece of evidence that it could be true.”

Malcolm Sears, one of the authors of the paper, a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who was the original leader for the asthma allergy component of the New Zealand study, said, “Early exposure in many areas is looking as if it’s more protective than hazardous, and I think we’ve just added one more interesting piece to that information.”

Dr. Hancox pointed out that the study does not show any mechanism to account for the association. “Even if we assume that the protective effect is due to exposure to microbial organisms, we don’t know which organisms are beneficial or how they actually influence immune function in this way.”

Thumb sucking, especially in an older child, can still be a problem if it interferes with the teeth, or causes infections on the fingers, or gets a child teased. Lynn Davidson, a developmental pediatrician who is an attending physician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, and the author of a review article on thumb sucking, said she tends to be “very low-key” about thumb sucking, since children often stop on their own as they grow.

With older children, Dr. Davidson suggests that parents, if they are worried, should try to analyze when and why the child resorts to thumb sucking or nail biting, and then try behavioral techniques, like offering a child a foam ball to hold and squeeze at those moments. “In an older child you can use their input, ask, what would you do with your hands instead of putting them in your mouth,” she said.

Dr. Sears said, “My excitement is not so much that sucking your thumb is good as that it shows the power of a longitudinal study.” (A longitudinal study is one that gathers data from the same subjects repeatedly over a period of time.) And in fact, as researchers tease out the complex ramifications of childhood exposures, it’s intriguing to look at long-term associations between childhood behavior and adult immune function, by watching what happens over decades.

So perhaps the results of this study help us look at these habits with slightly different eyes, as pieces of a complicated lifelong relationship between children and the environments they sample as they grow, which shape their health and their physiology in lasting ways.

Flu Vaccine in Pregnancy Offers Brief Protection of Babies

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Unborn babies are temporarily protected by their mother’s flu shot, but that immunity fades within weeks after birth, a new study found.

In a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study, researchers measured the efficacy of the flu vaccine on the unborn children of vaccinated pregnant women by comparing rates of disease and levels of antibodies in 1,026 infants born to vaccinated women and 1,023 controls born to unvaccinated mothers. The study, which was paid for by the Gates Foundation, is online in JAMA Pediatrics.

The vaccine was about 86 percent effective until the babies were 8 weeks old. But between 8 and 24 weeks, its power dropped rapidly, and the effect of the vaccine became statistically insignificant.

The lead author, Marta C. Nunes, a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, stressed that vaccination during pregnancy is nevertheless essential.

“It’s still important to vaccinate women during pregnancy,” she said. “Pregnant women are a high-risk group, and vaccinating them protects them as well as their babies.”

Finding a vaccine for pregnant women that confers long-lasting immunity on the baby is important because no flu vaccine is approved for babies under the age of 6 months.

“We have to work on creating vaccines that work in babies or that are more immunogenic in the mother so that her antibodies last longer,” she said.

The Secret Superpower of a Shared-Custody Kid

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Credit Giselle Potter

At 5:25 p.m., my mother pulled into our driveway. I saw my dad’s Cadillac waiting for us and glanced at Mom, whose broad smile instantly flattened. At 10 years old, I could already read her thoughts: Pickup time was 5:30, and she wasn’t willing to suffer accusations of tardiness, just because he was Mr. Punctuality.

Six-foot-five with jet-black hair, my father cut an intimidating figure, even if I knew that he liked nothing more than to turn his long arms and legs into props as he made up the words to songs and did goofy dances. Now, he was all business, and gestured at his watch angrily.

“I still have five minutes,” my mother said. She was generally vivacious, but when feeling threatened, she could transform herself into an ice queen.

“What’s the matter with you? Daylight saving time,” my father said. He’d been waiting an hour. She had made this mistake at least once before.

The color drained from my mother’s face as indignation gave way to embarrassment. Now, in the era of digital clocks that spring forward and fall back automatically, and cellphones that make it simple to communicate, it’s easy to forget that something as ordinary as daylight saving time could once have been so disruptive. But it was 1991, and ever since my parents got divorced, the day after we changed the clocks always felt slippery. My dad prided himself on his superior organizational skills while my mother lived in a house littered with scribbled notes-to-self to compensate for her bad memory.

That evening, I rushed out of one car and into the other. I didn’t need an overnight bag; my parents had done what they could to avoid a situation where I’d be packing and unpacking twice a week, and I had two rooms outfitted with essentials and beyond — two pairs of pink-framed glasses, two closets full of clothing, two favorite stuffed animals. Dad backed out of the driveway quickly, and said very little until we made it past the traffic light at the end of the block.

“Your mother,” he started, his lip twitching. I waited while he paused.

He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Then, his jaw softened. “How long do you think she would have gone until she figured it out?”

I laughed, utterly relieved. “At least another day.”

I would learn, eventually, that all families have rules that – when violated – threaten to dismantle the whole arrangement. At the time, however, I thought I was the only kid in the world with two houses and a handwritten schedule in either kitchen; at the start of every month, my father listed the nights I would spend with him and then presented my mother with a copy. His diligence was a safeguard against situations just like this one, when he rang the doorbell to an empty house and then let the frustration and resentment wash over him.

My mom never made that mistake again. Daylight saving became another scribble on a Post-it note, another thing she was careful not to let her busy mind forget. And my dad let it go, for the most part – her blunder became a private joke for us, shorthand for the way such a smart, put-together woman could also be so ditzy.

My parents broke up when I was 5 years old, which means memories of life before shared custody are available to me, but limited. They set the terms of their divorce under the guidance of their lawyers, and I – as many young kids do — adapted and accepted the new parameters of my childhood.

But as I tipped into my teenage years, switching back and forth became more difficult. There were, of course, small aggravations, like when I accidentally left something I wanted at the other house. Yet that didn’t account for the new anxiety I felt at those twice-weekly hand-offs.

My two homes could not have been more different. By that time my parents had both happily remarried and they’d created new lives: my mom went back to school and our house was quiet, our conversations intellectual. My dad had two more little girls, and every time I stepped through the front door, it felt like I’d joined the circus. Mom stressed the importance of academic achievement; Dad pouted when, in our limited time together, I shut my door to do my homework. My mother thought manners were a sign of good breeding, and she frequently appended a “please” to the end of my requests. When I asked my father for “a glass of orange juice, please,” he ribbed me for behaving like a guest in my own kitchen.

My father’s car had become a portal between two parallel worlds. Somewhere along the way, every day had started feeling like the Sunday after daylight saving time. I straddled two time zones, both familiar, but conspicuous.

Now that I am an adult, with a husband and young son, I sometimes let myself feel sorry for the girl who frequently woke up in the morning not knowing where she was. And the Sunday morning after the clocks change still makes me uncomfortable.

But I know that not all children of divorce are lucky enough to have two parents who work so hard to stay connected. I’ve also come to appreciate the ways my childhood shaped me. Growing up across two households with two distinct sets of customs has made me observant and adaptive: I’m bilingual, in a sense.

That anxiety that plagued me as a teenager is gone, replaced with confidence in my fluency in both families. And like children who actually learn two languages from birth, that innate ability to switch back and forth serves me well, especially when I find myself in unfamiliar settings. It’s not just me: I often admire the way my husband, another shared-custody kid, moves so easily through new environments. He’s good at parties, but he’s also the kind of person who lands in a city for the first time and, within 24 hours, gets asked for directions.

The expected legacy of a joint custody childhood is a craving for stability, which my husband and I share. The unexpected one is real agility: a knack for adapting, switching gears, understanding the language of families, blending in.

We’ve learned that a family needs to be strong, yet flexible. Just as we can’t control the changing of the season or the clocks, we have to accommodate hiccups in the rhythms of our lives.

Rachelle Bergstein is the author of “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us” and “Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds.”

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