UPenn Expert: TV is Good for Babies

For those of you — like me! — who feel a pang of guilt every time an expert comes along to poo-poo television for young children, here is a small piece of welcoming news. At least to Deborah Linebarger, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, some programming in moderation can aid children’s language development, according to a story in Newsweek.

Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero television for children under the age of two — and another expert quoted by Newsweek echoed that — Linebarger said she has allowed all her children to watch television from the time they were babies and offered some guidelines of her own:

Ages 0 to 2…Last year (Dr. Dimitri) Christakis, (a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and co-author of “The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids”), coauthored a study that found a correlation between baby video and DVD viewing and poor language development in babies ages 8 to 16 months. But Linebarger says to follow your kid’s cues. If your child seems interested in TV, an 11-to-12-minute episode of a commercial-free show like Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues” or PBS’s “Arthur” is unlikely to do harm and could help him learn new words. Preliminary research by Rebekah Richert, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, shows that babies as young as 18 months are capable of learning new words from DVDs like Baby Einstein’s “Baby Wordsworth” as long as “parents direct their children’s attention to the screen and label particular words.”

Ages 2 to 5. In Linebarger’s research, watching such programs as Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” and “Blue’s Clues” and PBS’s “Arthur,” “Clifford” and “Dragon Tales” was linked with increased vocabulary in kids ages 6 months to 2 ½ years, while such shows as PBS’s “Teletubbies” were linked with decreased vocabulary. Choose programs with a linear plotline, as opposed to a variety-show format, because they’re easier for toddlers to follow.

Ages 6 to 10. “There’s not as much programming for kids once they start school that’s of high quality,” says Christakis. But kids in this age group are not yet ready for prime-time TV, and parents will need to hunt around for more-appropriate content. Prescreen as much as possible to make sure the show  you’re watching is teaching your child the same values you are, and check review sites like parentschoice.org or commonsensemedia.org. Linebarger also recommends documentary-style shows on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a new organization dedicated to improving the educational content of digital media, says to limit screen time to one hour per day, discuss TV shows and games with your kids after they’ve viewed them, and read daily with them for at least 20 minutes. As with nutrition, a healthy media diet is all about balance.

I agree that balance is in order, especially in our fast-paced and media-saturated environment. I know I cannot adhere to a “no-TV” rule. But unlike Linebarger’s justification for babies watching television, my gut tells me it is best to limit it as you would sugar in your diet.


Babytalk Magazine Under Fire for Article by Lesbian Mom

Patty Onderko is a senior editor at Babytalk magazine. As such, you’d think an article she wrote titled “A Night in the Life of a Sleepless Mom” would be anything but controversial. The focus of the story is about how difficult is was for Onderko to sleep while pregnant. Turns out, however, that some readers objected to the sentence: “My wife, Emily (I’m married to a woman), says good night and turns off her nightstand light,” and to Onderko’s middle-of-the-night reflections on how to answer the question “But who’s the real mom?”

Babytalk is reportedly getting a flood of hate mail about including such content in a “family-friendly” magazine, especially the reference to marriage. You can see some people’s opinions, pro and con, over at Yahoo! Answers. Personally, I think those with peanut allergies should object to the fact that Onderko related a dream in which “the twins try and try to nurse, but my breasts will produce only peanut butter.”

Babytalk is no stranger to controversy, having riled people in 2006 with their shocking (Shocking! In a parenting magazine!) photo of a nursing baby on the cover. Still, with at least some readers canceling their subscriptions over the revelation of a lesbian mom in their midst, the editors need to know we support their decision to include all kinds of families. You might even mention this would cause you to choose them over other parenting magazines that have been lukewarm at best about lesbian moms.

Write to Babytalk at: letters@babytalk.com.

(Thanks to the Park Slope Queer Parents’ Group, via Louise Sloan, for the heads up. Crossposted at Mombian.)


Banish the “Evil Lesbian Mom”

Not that I expect fine journalism from the News Corp-owned New York Post, but this goes beyond acceptability:

“EVIL LESBIAN MOM LEFT TODDLER TO DIE SLOW DEATH: DA” blares the headline. The story is a tragic one, of child abuse and neglect. A New York mother is accused of abandoning her 23-month-old son to death after he was beaten by her partner. The partner is currently serving a 15-years-to-life prison sentence for the murder.

If the women did what they are accused of, then they indeed they deserve whatever sentence they get for the horrible act. The fact of their being lesbian has nothing to do with it, however, any more than sexual orientation has to do with the many cases of child abuse perpetrated by straight couples. There are many bad people in the world, LGBT and not. Percentage-wise, I think we’re about even. Thankfully, it’s a small percentage.

The Post could, of course, make the editorial decision to specify sexual orientation—and hey, why not race, while they’re at it— in every headline, which would give us: “Straight White Daughter Finds Straight White Mom Hacked to Death in NY; Straight White Dad Is Charged,” “Straight White Tycoon Perved Me at 14,” and, of course, “Heath Ledger’s Straight, White Body that Once Played Gay in a Movie Begins Trip Home.”

GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has released a media alert on this, and notes: “After GLAAD contacted editors at the New York Post, its representatives refused to change the offensive headline on its website.”

GLAAD gives contact information as follows:

Laura Italiano
New York Post

Michelle Gotthelf
Metro Editor
New York Post

Sure, the Post thinks they can take on evil lesbian moms. Wait until they see what happens when they take on the good ones.


Jennifer Love Hewitt Gets Real

I’m not one for celebrity gossip.  I used to get Entertainment Weekly years ago and followed all the happenings with the stars of the day.  But since I’ve had kids, I just don’t really have any interest.  Every once in a while I hear an inspiring story about a celebrity that intrigues me.  Well, today when I was checking on the weather (it’s a snow day and both kids are off from school) I happened to catch a blip about an upcoming story on Jennifer Love Hewitt.  Apparently, some paparazzi shot photos of her akin to the Tyra Banks photos that were taken last year which of course, ended up being posted on the internet.  She was in her bathing suit, and guess what… she doesn’t look like Nicole Ritche.  She has CURVES.  
As you can imagine, horrible comments like We know what you ate last summer in regards those photos have inflamed Hewitt.  From her own blog

This is the last time I will address this subject.
I’ve sat by in silence for a long time now about the way women’s bodies are constantly scrutinized. To set the record straight, I’m not upset for me, but for all of the girls out there that are struggling with their body image.
A size 2 is not fat! Nor will it ever be. And being a size 0 doesn’t make you beautiful.
What I should be doing is celebrating some of the best days of my life and my engagement to the man of my dreams, instead of having to deal with photographers taking invasive pictures from bad angles. I know what I look like, and so do my friends and family. And like all women out there should, I love my body.
To all girls with butts, boobs, hips and a waist, put on a bikini — put it on and stay strong.


I love it!  Unlike Tyra Banks, Hewitt didn’t see this as a call to lose weight.  She said… suck it, media… I like my body!

This country is obsessed with thin.  Do you remember the hubbub about the Dove’s Campaign for Beauty models?

I remember hearing some terrible things about those billboards.  One comment comes to mind…

The only place I want to see a thigh like that is in a bucket of extra-crispy.

Oy.  As a country, I think we are really all over the place on weight.  They say the obesity rate is rising, but it seems like women in the media are getting thinner too.  It’s a very strange paradox indeed.    

Finally, I have to give a shout out to the late Anita Roddick, who was the first woman I remember speaking out about the obsession with thin.

I agree with Hewitt and Roddick.  We need young girls to feel empowered and not feel pressured to be size 0.   After all, you don’t have to be thin to be beautiful.  


Dottie’s Magic Pockets Brings Sparkle to Television for LGBT Families

(Originally published in Bay Windows, October 18, 2007.)

Dottie (Jen Plante)When Dottie’s partner, May, takes their son Ollie to his first day of school, the stay-at-home mom feels lonely. Luckily, Ollie has left her a present—a sweater with magic pockets. Glitter in the pockets transforms Dottie’s living room into a colorful, whimsical playground for herself and several new friends: James, a tea-loving French daisy, Motilda the Mouse, Randal, a slightly nerdy beaver, Wally the Wall, and Uncanny the Singing Can.

Tammy StonerThat is the premise of Dottie’s Magic Pockets, a new DVD-only television series aimed at 3- to 8-year-olds from LGBT families. The show’s creator, Tammy Stoner, developed Dottie because she could not find any videos for her 4-year-old son that featured families like their own. “If I wanted my son to have media to reflect his life,” Stoner says, “then I was just going to have to do it myself.” Luckily, Stoner had worked in the film industry and knew people who could help realize her vision.

“We pulled in favors from everyone we knew,” she recalls. “A lot of people put in a lot of time free.” She shot the first three episodes in her garage. “That’s why we have a lot of inserts, imaginative things that take you off the set even though you’re still on the set.” Still, they faced some unexpected hurdles. The garage’s seven-foot ceilings limited the height of their stage lights, causing trouble with shadows. They had to stop shooting every 20 minutes during Oscar weekend because their Southern California location was on the flight path for many celebrities’ private jets.

The show will cover a number of different educational topics, including problem solving, basic word concepts, taste, and manners. These serve to facilitate the core concepts of acceptance and diversity. Dottie uses a light touch, though. There are no heavy-handed discussions about diversity or “issues” children of LGBT families may face. Instead, Stoner explains, “We want to have good, clever stories that assume intelligence on the part of the children and really attract wanting to watch the show. We’re going to have a lot of people come by and talk about their partners in everyday, ordinary situations. We don’t want [coming from an LGBT family] to be a one-liner, where it’s like ‘It’s okay! It’s okay!’ We just want to do a program where it is okay.”

Dottie’s son doesn’t appear except in the opening sequence, however, because of the financially draining requirements for having children on set. The show gets around this, though, by having Dottie talk about Ollie and May, and in one episode, reviewing a photo album of her family. Inserts also show other children who were filmed off set, or feature animated characters like a caterpillar named Princess who has two dads.

Overall, the formula works. Actor Jen Plante plays Dottie as upbeat and cheery, but has a wide enough range to avoid the constant chirpiness that makes some children’s-television stars irritating. Her non-human friends, all puppets, are engaging and sympathetic. The songs have infectious lyrics and rhythms that should get most kids up and dancing, if my own 4-year-old is any indication.

Uncanny the Singing CanThere are a few rough edges. Uncanny’s high-pitched voice is sometimes hard to understand. A few inserts don’t seem to add to the whole, and others appear without enough transition, yanking us out of Dottie’s house. Stoner could take a cue from Sesame Street’s “Elmo’s World,” which has Elmo view videos e-mailed to him by other characters. A similar lead-in from Dottie (maybe her photo album could magically bring pictures to life) might work well to introduce scenes off the main set.

Dottie also isn’t quite up to the pedagogical rigor of shows like Sesame Street and Between the Lions. In “Beat Beet,” the characters discuss “words that sound the same, but have different meanings.” This works for pairs like “beat-beet” and “flower-flour.” When Dottie explains that “beehive” can mean both a home for bees and a hairdo, however, I scratched my head. The hairdo was named after the home for bees, so that isn’t really a separate meaning. Still, my son loved Dottie’s hot pink beehive wig, so maybe I’m being fussy.

If I am, it is in the hopes of being constructive. Despite some shortcomings, Dottie is more watchable than many mainstream children’s shows, and has a unique and compelling message of acceptance for all families. It is also refreshing to see a show that hasn’t yet swamped us with a wave of mass-market merchandising (though you can buy “Uncanny” t-shirts via its Web site). Still, it would be a certain sign of progress if Toys R Us started carrying posable Dottie action figures.

The first DVD, with two episodes, is available now at www.dottiesmagicpockets.com. Stoner is aiming to have the second DVD out in February, and work up to three or four per year, assuming the needed revenue comes in. One promising indicator is that they are getting “a lot of great response” both within and outside the LGBT community. “We’ve sold an equal amount to GLBT families and to traditional, straight families,” she says. “We’re selling to a lot of people who want to show their kids this is the way the world is, or here’s Auntie Sue and Auntie Jane’s family. It’s just a really good tool for everybody.”

With holiday season coming up, there’s no reason not to share a little of Dottie’s glitter with your young children, extended family and friends.


New York Times Misses the Point on Same-Sex Families

The New York Times reported today on the Evesham, New Jersey School District’s decision to uphold a ban on the film That’s a Family, because of its inclusion of children with same-sex parents. (See my Mombian post on the matter.)

The Times tries to remain a neutral reporter, offering opinions both for and against showing such subject matter (depictions of same-sex families, not sex education) to children of elementary-school age. The big point they overlook, however, is that there are children of same-sex families already in preschools and elementary school classrooms. These kids know about same-sex families from birth—or at least from the point they can say “Mommy and Mama” or “Daddy and Papa.” This blows the whole “third grade is too early” argument out of the water.

When schools ban films and books showing same-sex families, they also make our children feel like oddballs and outcasts. No one would think of showing an educational film today that didn’t include racial diversity, and for good reason. Same principle should apply here. This isn’t a matter of teaching children about some distant community. This is about teaching children to respect others who may be sitting right next to them, sharing a juice box.

Furthermore, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago for Bay Windows (and have said before), “it is ridiculous to imagine notifying parents every time a child from an LGBT family wants to share family photos during show and tell or write an essay about going on an R Family cruise.”

They can ban curriculum items (films, books, etc.) that depict same-sex families, or have parents “opt out” of scheduled discussions, but to fully expunge us from the classroom, they’ll have to expel our children or limit their freedom to talk about their own families. And with most schools desperate for parent volunteers, do they really want to tell our children they can’t bring both parents to the school potluck? I make a darn good lasagna and my partner makes a mean batch of oatmeal cookies.

(Crossposted on Mombian.)


Losing Faith

We all know that the celebrities gracing the covers of magazines have a little “help”– in the form of Photoshop and an airbrush.

What I didn’t realize was how thoroughly this practice has warped my perception of reality.

Case in point: this shocking before-and-after image of Faith Hill on the cover of Redbook.

When I first clicked on this link and glanced at the cover, nothing looked amiss: the 39-year-old country singer and mother of three looked thin, glamorous, glowing. She’s beautiful, so this was no surprise.

Then I scrolled down.

It seems the Jezebel blog got their hands on the unretouched original photo of Faith and the difference is…disturbing, to say the least.

What disturbed me more was my initial reaction to the unretouched photo, especially as it toggled back and forth with the final cover image. Damn! She looks old and tired, I thought. Faith’s not nearly as pretty as I thought.

Then I studied the original photo, and realized the picture was fine. Nice, even. Faith looks like a real, natural, attractive woman. She looks warm, alive, happy.

The woman on the cover looks downright creepy by comparison. Where did her clavicle and right hand go? What happened to her beauty marks and laugh lines? Who squeezed her into a corset? WHY does her left arm look like a baseball bat???

And the cover line: “Look And Feel Your Hottest!” Is this some kind of a sick joke?

Then I flashed back to my 32nd birthday last week. We went to the beach and took pictures.

When I downloaded them that night, all I could focus on was my flaws, highlighted by the harsh sunlight: I hate that chicken pox scar! When did I get so many freckles? My teeth could use some whitening. Is one of my eyes bigger than the other?

Maybe aging was on my mind because it was my birthday, but I still resent looking at that picture and seeing anything other than a happy, fulfilled woman and her treasured daughter. The rest is just details.

I am guilty of buying into the beauty hype on occasion, but I do my damndest to recognize the hypocrisy and point it out to whoever will listen. I will take pains to explain to my daughter that the “beauty” she sees in the media is fabricated, calculated to make us feel like shit and buy their products in hopes of feeling a little less shitty. I will do my best to instill in her a sense of self-worth that is predicated by something other than her dress size and the price of her jeans.

The writers at Jezebel did a good job of capturing my frustration with this whole situation:

Magazine-retouching may not be a lie on par with, you know, “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,” but in a world where girls as young as eight are going on the South Beach Diet, teenagers are getting breast implants as graduation gifts, professional women are almost required to fetishize handbags, and everyone is spending way too much goddamn time figuring out how to pose in a way that will look as good as that friend with the really popular MySpace profile, it’s fucking wrong. And we’re glad you agreed.


Dangers of Films Like Hostel 2 to Our Kids

Interesting diary, especially in light of the fact that Hostel 2 tanked at the box office. Some say this signals the end of the latest “torture porn” movie craze…I can only hope. -Erika

If it wasn’t bad enough that there was a Hostel I, now we can look forward to more gruesome commercials and posters flooding the airwaves and then the video stores in the months to come with the just released sequel Hostel 2. Never mind that I understand why people watch these films as much as I fathom why people elected or re-elected Bush in the first place.

In the late 1980s when I received my Master’s in mass communication, studies had already shown that there was a direct link between watching porn and becoming detached enough so that the viewer felt that women were subjects/objects, not real people. Viewers began to become less sympathetic to the female victim as a result and tended to depersonalize women. Researchers were also able to show a direct link between routinely viewing violence and the level of aggression it caused on the part of the viewers. No surprise there.  

While these were studies performed on adults, imagine what the outcome would have been had they been conducted on kids who are so vulnerable to outside influences?

Now I can see where a film that has a scene where hurting another person is intrinsic to the plot. But why base an entire mainstream film on the subject? Shouldn’t a commercial distribution house maybe say pass to this idea? I recognize that this is censorship, and I am opposed to censorship, but when do we draw the line and say enough already? Do we allow XXX films in mainstream theatres? No. Perhaps we should not allow films that allow comparable levels of violence in mainstream theatres as well. I am about as left wing as they come, but really, I can see no good coming from these type of movies. They are just like XXXporn in disguise.

Bottom line: I do not want my kid or yours to see it or be the unwilling victim of it. What do you think?? How do we as a society deal with the issue of free speech without trampling on somebody else’s rights but not hurting the rest of society either? PS Check out my new website/blog on parenting from the left-wing perspective: www.leftathome.com


The Story that Illuminates All the Studies

Forgive me the pompous title, but this story was a revelation to me. In a nutshell, it explains why parenting studies that reinforce traditional gender roles generate WAY more press than parenting studies that challenge traditional gender roles. The studies that reach your eyes and ears are cherry-picked and cleave to the Cleaver model.

I’m an obsessive reader of studies, in spite of the fact that I suspect there’s a study out there to prove and disprove just about anything. And in spite of the fact that research is often shabby and flawed, or reported in a sensationalist, distorted, and over-reaching manner. And yet still I read, hoping to glean some truth about the human condition and the best way to parent.

The article tots out examples of groundbreaking studies that evaporated into oblivion because the message didn’t generate “buzz.” There’s a study that showed a correlation between kids having emotional and behavioral health problems and dads who didn’t take any paternity leave. There’s the studies that found a positive correlation between greater gender equality and better overall health. But who wants to read that junk? Apparently, we want to feel bad about ourselves and our choices because anxiety sells.

Now, there’s a number of reasons why the tradition-validating studies get more play in the press, and former journalist Caryl Rivers spells them out in her new book, Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women:

When I was a young reporter, women were held in such low regard as makers and consumers of news that their concerns were usually relegated to a low-prestige “women’s page.” Today, one of the most desirable demographics among news consumers is affluent women, and stories that create anxiety over women and achievement sell well to that demographic. The news media today sell anxiety to women the way that advertising sells insecurity about their faces, bodies and sex appeal. Tell women that their children are going to be wrecks if they take their work seriously or that men will reject them if they get a good job, and you’ll get their attention fast. Or tell them that they are out of the new mainstream by not wanting to focus their lives on husbands and family and you’ll get “buzz.”

In the following chapters, Ms. Rivers goes on to explain how this anxiety is created and sold, in fields ranging from childrearing to electoral politics. But note that while affluent women are the targets of these anxiety-inducing articles, they also provide a great service to the social conservative movement. In any case, these “buzz-generating” stories can capture more than one market segment at the same time.

Too bad that they so often fail to capture truth.

Thanks to Rivers for sponsoring my epiphany! I’m glad to understand another aspect of the Mommy Wars, which is the pinball ricochet of research findings around the media sphere, studies that tell me that feminism will make me sick and that being a working mom is harming my child. That buzzing sound is the sound of my adrenaline pumping, the sound of hearing ugly gossip about myself.


The Eye of the Beholder

Last weekend I read a story in the SFChronicle about About-Face, a SF-based organization dedicated to improving females’ body image and self-esteem. Sounds good in theory. In practice, it gets a bit tricky.

The San Francisco nonprofit is determined to equip women and girls with the knowledge they can use to dismantle these messages that tell them they must be tall, thin, blond, tan and sexually available to have any value.

“We give them the tools they need in order to understand what they’re seeing so that in a way they can start to inoculate themselves against any negative images that the media perpetuates,” says About-Face Executive Director Jennifer Berger, “and there are plenty.”

About-Face runs media-literacy workshops for San Francisco schools and groups like the Girl Scouts and the American Association of University Women.  When I taught middle school kids, I created a media analysis unit  that had a broader focus than About-Face’s. The students really enjoyed mucking about in pop culture and talking back to TV, radio, and magazine ads. I asked them to analyze the admaker’s intentions: How do they want to make you feel? How effective are they at making you feel that way? My aim was to cultivate in the kids a more critical and cynical eye, to put a little distance and dispassion between them and the ads that bombard them.

But the unit included a twist. I taught at an arts magnet school, and a good many of the students had dreams of someday making a living doing their art. The truth is, many creative people end up in advertising: writers, filmakers, singers, artists, dancers, musicians, set designers, costume designers, and actors. I wanted the students to learn to be critical of both the message and the artistry of ads. And to be able to tease those aspects apart. I can appreciate the beauty of a clothing ad without feeling anything about the product or about my deficiencies. That seems like a good place to be.

About-Face is going for the same end-goal, which is “inoculation” against manipulation, but they advocate a much more activist approach. They encourage women and girls to begin campaigns against the advertisers that create offensive ads.

What constitutes an offensive ad is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Check out About-Face’s Hall of Shame, where they’ve posted ads they consider toxic. Some of their analyses jive with my own. I am repulsed by ads that suggest violence against women or pedaphilia. But others just don’t rate with me. Like this one for Oil of Olay lotion. I interpreted the message as “Don’t waste your time on complicated beauty rituals. Just use this simple cream.” They interpreted it as dissuading women from pursuing their dreams and discouraging a work ethic. Of course, I also never read the small print on body care ads.

Some of About-Face’s merchandise also felt off-the-mark to me. One T-shirt reads “implants are a bust.” Tell that to the cancer survivor who has had breast reconstruction. Why is that empowering to women, when it is shaming a particular subset? Likewise, another T-shirt reads “Goddesses have Hips.” I don’t have much in the way of hips, so I guess I’m no goddess. Can women only feel good about their own body type by putting down other body types?

I wish that advertisers used more body types. But I feel that it is terribly unproductive to aim vitriol at skinny models. Those are women, too, and while some may starve themselves, others are just built that way. They probably endured taunts and ugly comments about their features and bony frames for years before they staggered onto a catwalk. I don’t know the secret to widening our culture’s standard of beauty, as depicted in the media. But I know that hating a subset of women with a particular genetic profile won’t accomplish that.

I was a late bloomer who bloomed minimally when I bloomed at all. Here are some of the nice descriptors that adult women called me during my prolonged adolescence: “stork,” “annorexic,” “beanpole,” and my favorite, “concentration camp survivor.” No one is immune to destructive body image messages that ricochet from every direction, undermining female confidence and solidarity.

While I’m calling out the aspects of About-Face’s work that I don’t resonate with, they actually do compile a lot of good information, and I appreciate that they encourage women to act. For instance, you can learn about Bratz’ new padded bra for 6-year-olds and they provide the company’s phone number so you can register your outrage.

I also resonate with About-Face founder Jennifer Berger’s message about women shifting their body focus from form to function:

…(I)t’s really hard for women to think of their bodies in terms of how they help them live: Legs that give them the power to walk, lungs that give them the ability to breath, etc.
“As John Berger, the historian, has said, women watch themselves being looked at. We see ourselves from the outside all the time. It’s really difficult to inhabit your body and thank it for the things it does for you.
“Talk about not stylish — that is so not cool to think about all the things your body does for you! I sound like a kindergarten teacher when I say that, but it’s completely necessary to think about your body that way. Once we start thinking about our bodies that way, we’ll stop abusing them the way we do, with constant dieting and constant criticism…”