Tag: 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.”

Photo

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.