Friday, September 6, 2013

Welcome, visitors: new, old, and not-yet-old!

Atop l'Arc de Triomphe, June 2013.




[Obligatory aplogies for not posting in forever until, suddenly, an opportunity arises to plug one's own work.]

Welcome, anyone who's stopping by after seeing my essay, My Best Stupid Decision on the fabulous new literary site, Full Grown People. If you haven't yet seen it, I hope you'll take a look at my piece, as well as the brilliant other essays on the site. Founder and editor Jennifer Niessein (who co-founded and, for many years, co-edited the wonderful Brain, Child) had the genius idea of publishing essays about adulthood. That's right, not essays for and about some specific Gen—not X, Y, nor any of the other letters in the alphabet that have been assigned to a Gen—nor Boomers nor Seniors nor the Greatest Generation nor the Lost Generation nor any of the cohorts that date back before the time when they would slap a label or letter on tens of millions of people and treat it like it's more scientific than astrology.

Nope, Full Grown People is for grownups. Refreshing, huh? So please check it out, if you haven't already.

Meanwhile, here's a snippet of my essay, which is about my decision to recklessly take my almost-grown sons to Europe, even though any sane person could clearly see that I couldn't afford it.


My retirement savings are a fraction of what financial experts say you need —and that sum is more than twice what I will gross, at my current salary, over the next two decades. Retirement is a dot on the horizon, a distant posse in an old-fashioned Western, inexorably crossing Monument Valley as a silent cloud of dust kicked up by thundering hooves.

This was hardly the time to be jetting off around the globe.

Unless … unless it was exactly the time.

My older son would be leaving in the fall for a college across the country. The younger would be a senior in high school. They would soon move past the stage of their lives—so endless while it’s happening, so telescoped in retrospect—when taking a big trip with one’s mom is a culturally approved option.

... Already, I was too aware of the sound my footsteps made in an empty house.

Like the piece? I'd love to hear from you. Hate it? Think my decision was idiotic? Guess what—I’d love to hear from you, too! Like I always say, the internet is just way too nice.



Saturday, April 14, 2012

Eleven ways of looking at Ann Romney



I’m not going to write a huge amount (UPDATE: I'm going to write more than 1,200 words, so actually that's quite a lot) about Ann Romneygate, because every publication on earth has already covered it with not one but multiple stories apiece. I’ve currently got five on my screen in tabs. I’m already way oversaturated myself with what is essentially a minor kerfuffle, and not particularly eager to add to the glut.

Still, this kerfuffle does center around one of my main issues: how caregiving work is categorized. I’d feel remiss not to address it at all. And I have thoughts about both sides, albeit somewhat contradictory ones.
 
1.)    I call it Ann Romneygate because Ann Romney, in this metaphor, is the hotel where the break-in occurred, not the G. Gordon Liddy of the episode. Liddy, the original Watergate scandal's villainous protagonist, would in this case be Hilary Rosen, a political professional who remarked that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life." Just as the Watergate break-in could theoretically have occurred in any hotel (though thankfully it didn’t, because “gate” is much catchier suffix for subsequent scandals than “Holiday Inn Express”), this isn’t really about Ann Romney per se. It’s about rich ladies who can afford to stay home with their children without worrying in the least about the financial consequences (even, most likely, long term, in the case of divorce or widowhood), and who have the resources to hire out any or all child-care tasks, as they choose.

 2.)    There’s no question that Hilary Rosen’s comment was inaccurate. Of course Ann Romney has worked a day in her life. Many days. Call me naive, but I'll bet that nobody on earth, no matter how privileged or protected, reaches age 63 (as of Ann Romney's birthday on Monday) without doing any work whatsoever, not just single but, cumulatively, multiple days’ worth. Let alone a mother of five. Even if it’s just interviewing potential servants. So Rosen was wrong, not to mention impolitic. Hey political professionals, rather than having to pick apart every sentence before you utter it—and, when you fail to perform this task successfully, having your offhand remarks become three-news-cycle blunders and targets of national ridicule—wouldn’t it be easier just to stop making rude remarks? Yes, even about people with whom you disagree politically?
 
3.)    Sure, I’d like to have caregiving work recognized as, you know, work. So when someone dismissively calls it “not work,” I am obliged to be miffed. People are constantly confusing “doing work that doesn’t bring a paycheck” with “not doing work,” and I’ll take any opportunity to point out that child care does, indeed, entail actual work. Not the hardest work in the world, I'm the first to admit, probably not even as hard most days as being president or running a company, but work nonetheless. You’d think any parent could attest to this. Still, the myth endures.

4.)    On the other hand, I’ve probably said something similar at some point. That’s because in everyday speech, “work” is convenient shorthand for “work outside the home,” “work for pay,” etc. I can understand how the verbal slip occurred. I see what Rosen said as less a damning revelation of disrespect for all mothers than a minor faux-pas (or, at most, a damning revelation of disrespect for Ann Romney).
 
5.)    And let’s not even get into the situation that inspired Rosen’s ill-considered comment in the first place. She was reacting to the news that Mitt, apparently, sends his wife out to find out what is on the minds of that mysterious special-interest group called “women.” Naturally, Mitt can be expected to understand only what regular voters—i.e., men—have on their minds.  ... Where would I start with this?

6.)    I resent Rosen, both Romneys, and the entire mass media for turning this into yet another situation where people opine that only the most privileged women can “afford” to stay home, anyway. Media proessionals are forever indignantly asserting that this is a choice available only to women occupying a narrow stratospheric strata of the socioeconomic tier. First of all, Census studies show that stay-at-home mothers as a group are actually poorer and less well educated than mothers as a whole (many of them, of course, may not have made deliberate choices to opt out of the workforce, but they are working at home). More to the point, I know plenty of stay-at-home mothers of the middle class, women who choose to be with their children even though they have to pinch pennies to do it but also, at the same time, even though they would qualify for good jobs if so chose. You’d think such women were invisible, yet not so far in the past they used to be known to the media and referred to (albeit patronizingly and one-dimensionally) as soccer moms.

7.)    I’m a Democrat. But I’m pretty sure I’d say the same thing if the parties were reversed.


 8.)    All that said, it’s important to note that the experiences of a stay-at-home mother who possesses, for all practical purposes, unlimited financial resources are inevitably going to be drastically different from those of a stay-at-home mother who can’t afford to hire out work. To pretend that insulting Ann Romney in a work-related way is the equivalent of insulting all mothers at every income level in the exact same way is disingenuous in the extreme. Sure, even if you’re Ann Romney, you still have to figure out how to balance a busy schedule (which Ann Romney undoubtedly has) and time with your children, which can be a struggle, emotionally and practically, at any level of wealth. But what you’re not doing, if you’re Ann Romney, or what at least you would not have to do, is the labor that typically comprises at least of half caregiving work. The drudgery. You’re not wiping the spilled mac ’n’ cheese off the floor with a paper towel. You’re not dashing to the basement to throw in a load of laundry at naptime. You’re not running to the supermarket midweek because you’re out of milk and lunch meat, taking the kids with you because there’s no one else to watch them, plunking them in one of those giant fire-engine carts and hoping like hell that the plastic emergency-vehicle inexact replication will keep them entertained long enough for you to grab those items before they start hitting each other or creating chaos in the checkout line. If you’re Ann Romney, you don’t do any of those things. Or I would guess you don’t, anyway—remember, we’re really talking generic rich lady here, as I have no idea what Ann Romney’s actual day-to-day life is like; for all I know she loves pushing a wire cart full of squabbling toddlers through a crowd of frowning onlookers, so always insists on taking care of those midweek runs herself. My point is, she doesn’t have to do those things—or anything else—if she doesn’t want to.

9.)    I debated No. 8 pretty intensely with a friend. For what it’s worth, my friend does not have children. Her income, she says, is just the amount she would pick if she could have her pick of incomes (though this, as an addendum to saying she would not want to be super-rich). My friend argued that it’s not as easy to hire servants as I might think. And that there no longer exists a Downton Abbey-style servant class from which to hire. My counterarguments were a) Oh, boo hoo b) I admittedly don’t know that much about life in the Romnesphere, but I bet that, given 8 percent unemployment, it’s not impossible to find qualified people who are willing to hang out in a luxurious mansion all day doing easy-ish tasks for what must be at least semi-decent pay (because at some point their salaries will probably come under scrutiny). Heck, I know ordinary upper-middle-class people in Minneapolis—affluent, but still within the 99 percent—whose lives are made easier by nannies and the like. Notice I say easier. Probably rarely downright easy.
   
10.)    My friend pointed out that Ann Romney has health problems, which make everything harder. No argument here—I’d take almost anything, including poverty, over poor health. Still, according to Wikipedia, Ann Romney’s MS does not much limit her lifestyle, and she’s been cancer-free since a lumpectomy in 2008.
 
11.)    Verdict: Umbrage in a teapot.




Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why do a right-wing legislator and a French feminist agree about the wage gap?

Wisconsin Sen. Glenn Grothman

Yesterday, a Facebook friend from Wisconsin posted a link to the story below, commenting, "Really? Here we go again.”


Wisconsin State Senator Says Women Are Paid Less Because ‘Money Is More Important For Men’


I clicked on the link to Think Progress, ready to start fuming over the latest Republican anti-woman idiocy. And sure enough, here was news that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had repealed the state’s equal pay law. Yep, plenty to be enraged about.


But what about that ridiculously stupid quote by the faintly Gingrichy looking state Sen. Glenn Grothman? I initially assumed he was referring to the antiquated idea that men need money more "because they have families to support." Instead, Grothman declared that the existing wage gap results from women prioritizing childrearing over breadwinning.
“Take a hypothetical husband and wife who are both lawyers,” he says. “But the husband is working 50 or 60 hours a week, going all out, making 200 grand a year. The woman takes time off, raises kids, is not go go go. Now they’re 50 years old. The husband is making 200 grand a year, the woman is making 40 grand a year. It wasn’t discrimination. There was a different sense of urgency in each person.”
Now this is truly horrifying. Really, deeply horrifying. But it's not because Grothman’s quote is so idiotic.

It's because I agree with him.

I rarely find myself siding with a Republican these days about anything, especially regarding women. Especially a Wisconsin legislator, one who would dismiss a wage-gap study by calling the nonpartisan American Association of University Women "a pretty liberal group.” I’m nodding along with this guy? Just kill me now.

Oh, I don’t totally concur with Grothman—in the Daily Beast story that Think Progress quoted, Grothman said, “What you’ve got to look at, and Ann Coulter has looked at this, is you have to break it down by married and unmarried. … (then) the differential disappears.” Oh god, please tell me I’m not agreeing with anything Ann Coulter ever said.

Luckily, no. Grothman and, presumably, Coulter are both wrong. The AAUW study found that even after controlling for marital status, hours worked, number of children and all kinds of other factors, there was still an unexplained 5-percent difference in the earnings of male and female graduates one year after graduation, and an unexplained 12-percent gap after 10 years in the workforce.

But let’s face it. That’s not the full wage gap (which is 23 percent). And Grothman’s quote about the lawyer couple is, unfortunately, supported by simple logic. If a woman drops out of the workforce while her husband keeps making money—earning raises, getting promoted—then down the line, when she eventually returns to work, there’s a good chance she’ll be earning less than he does. And in some way that gap, as Grothman says, resulted from “a different sense of urgency in each person.”

What that doesn’t explain is where the “sense of urgency” comes from.

As a group, women unquestionably do spend less time working—for pay, it's important to stress—than men do. Stay-at-home mothers outnumber stay-at-home fathers more than 30 to one. Research by economist Karine Moe and anthropologist Dianna Shandy, both of Macalester College, showed that even when mothers don’t drop out of the paid workforce entirely, they often sacrifice earnings on behalf of their children: they work part time, go into lower-paying careers with flexible hours, waive promotions to more time-consuming jobs.

Meanwhile, even as we liberal, progressive, feminist women get all up in arms over Grothman’s ill-informed sexism, we (some of us, anyway) are applauding a French feminist intellectual for saying essentially the same thing.

French feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter
In her new book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (a best-seller in Europe) Elisabeth Badinter argues that today's mothers sacrifice careers and self-fulfillment for unnecessarily time-intensive nurturing involving lengthy breastfeeding, attachment parenting, providing children with nearly constant availability and attention.

I haven’t read The Conflict, though judging by what I have read about it, including a New Yorker profile of Badinter, I probably wouldn't agree with every single thing she says. But overall, Badinter makes a good point. And she’s addressing the kind of mothers who typically wouldn’t be caught dead agreeing with right-wing Republican senators.

Just moments after my Facebook friend posted the Grothman story, another Facebook friend posted a link, with favorable comment, to a Slate blog item about Badinter’s book. Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte examines “the taboo around criticizing the oppressive nature of competitive mommy devotion” reflected in the anticipated backlash against Badinter’s ideas, mainly from progressives defending women’s choices.
“The problem," Marcotte writes,"is that said choices are usually made on pain of being considered bad, unnatural mothers if you opt out of them and choose to keep a bit of your life and body for yourself."
Now, Grothman and Badinter disagree about one really important thing. Grothman implies that this decision comes from within; he seems to feel we females are naturally hardwired to care less about money than mothering. Badinter blames mothers’ behavior on parenting trends and external pressures. Grothman may be partly right—it's possibe women are somewhat more inclined that way by evolution and biology—but the impulse can’t all be innate, or how do you explain our spending more time with our kids than our mothers and grandmothers did?

Research shows that modern mothers as a group devote 40 percent more time to their children than mothers in 1965—even though we also spend way more time at paid work. The study found that employed mothers carve time from other activities—housework, leisure, sleep—to devote to their children. Yet half said they felt they still weren’t doing enough with their kids.

As the pressure builds, it stands to reason, women will want to  cut back on paid work, or give it up entirely. Sure enough, a 2007 Pew Research study found that only 21 percent of working mothers want full-time jobsdown from 10 years earlier, when 32 percent liked the idea of working full time. Preference for part-time work was up over that same period, from 48 percent to 60 percent. (And this is no grass-is-greener situation: stay-at-home mothers became less interested over that decade in working outside the home, full or part-time.) Among men, meanwhile, a solid 72 percent say full-time work is ideal.

It's undeniable that women, as both Grothman and Badinter say, feel more compelled than men to sacrifice pay for time with their children. The reasons are complex, multifaceted and, I suspect, involve a mix of internal and external motivators. They deserve much further study. There simply isn’t enough honest public discussion about this stuff.

Wait—what?   Don’t we talk about this stuff pretty much constantly? After all, the so-called “mommy wars” (the supposed battles between working and at-home mothers) certainly get their share of media coverage. So does “helicopter parenting,” the idea that today's parents spend too much time controlling every moment of their kids’ lives. But both of these discussions typically center on how these choices might affect the child, not the parent (in the latter case, children are perceived to be warped by too much coddling, but the effect on mothers' lives and livelihoods is generally not part of the discussion).

These media obsessions distract from other real, pressing issues: like whether children really are such delicate flowers that they require (or are harmed by!) constant parental attention; how much financial security mothers should be expected to sacrifice to provide it; why it’s mostly mothers, not fathers, who make such sacrifices; and why as a culture we encourage women to make them without fully connecting their “choice” to its potential results, including women’s far greater likelihood than men to live in poverty.

Bashing Republicans is fun and usually warranted. But in this case a bumbling Wisconsin right-wing state lawmaker and an esteemed French feminist intellectual are at least somewhere on the same page. And their point is worth closer examination.

Friday, March 2, 2012

At AWP

Sorry I didn't announce this earlier, but I'm at the 2012 AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair in Chicago, where in 2 hours and 45 minutes I'll be speaking on a panel called "Barefoot, Pregnant and at the Writer's Desk." Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Kate Hopper, Jill McCorkle, Hope Edelman and I will be discussing the challenges of writing in motherhood.
If by any chance you're reading this AND you're at AWP, please stop by. If you're not here in Chicago, it's not too late to hop on a plane!
 Sorry, kidding, it probably is too late, especially if there's traffic on the way to the airport and the security check-in line is as long as it was for me on Wednesday and you're flying from any farther than, say, Rockford, Ill.
Instead, I'll tell you about it afterward.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Work-family balance isn't an artisanal cheese


Midway through an engaging book review by David Remnick in the Jan. 16 New Yorker, I happened upon a brief but disturbing remark.

Remnick, who is editor of the magazine, was reviewing Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, but the remark in question had little directly to do with the First Couple. Here is the significant paragraph (emphasis added on the disturbing part):

In some respects, the Obamas resemble a post-sixties version of the Clintons. They are graduates of some of the richest institutions in the country. In Hyde Park, they lived among other highly educated, liberal, earnestly well-meaning, and self-regarding people, with all the requisite concerns about “family-career balance,” “doing good and doing well.” They lived with the small hypocrisies and pleasures of their milieu, bringing together some hyper-wealthy friends and unabashedly progressive causes. It is a liberal aesthetic raised to a style of life.

By “family-career balance,” Remnick apparently means what’s more commonly called “work-family balance” or “work-life balance”—that is, management of the competing demands of jobs and childcare. Since those responsibilities sometimes conflict to the point of being mutually prohibitive, work-family balance is indeed a requisite concern for many people. Especially for women, who tend to shoulder a greater portion of the “family” part of the equation and sacrifice economically because of it, but also for men, who often feel more pressure to prioritize work and consequently miss out on time with their kids (both of which scenarios probably apply to the Obamas, come to think of it).

But look how Remnick presents the term, framed with scare quotes amid wry phrases like “earnestly well-meaning, and self-regarding” and “small hypocrisies and pleasures.” Requisite, of course, literally means necessary. But Remnick is suggesting that in this case the necessity isn’t quite real, that the concerns are a puffed-up product of class expectations. He implies that “family-career balance” is a fashionable issue over which the privileged and progressive may furrow their brows as a matter of propriety, not a really source of serious tension in their glamorous lives.

As if figuring out how to both do your job and raise your kids were a task on the order of, oh, selecting an artisanal cheese.


Esther Fein and David Remnick
Remnick isn’t being mean-spirited; his prĂ©cis is only lightly sardonic, not to mention otherwise spot-on. (Don’t you just know people like that, even if those in your orbit rank somewhere below the Obamas? Heck, I’ve had neighbors whom this describes to a T except for the “hyper-wealthy” part.) He pokes friendly fun at those people—and, implicitly, at himself. The New Yorker is politically liberal, arguably the country’s most esteemed periodical, and famously well-paying. As editor, Remnick occupies the same sort of glittering, left-leaning environment he gently mocks.

He is also a husband (to New York Times reporter Esther Fein), and father of three children.

Who knows how the Remnick-Fein household handles its child-caring duties. Maybe for whatever reason the matter has never posed much of a problem, despite the parents’ demanding careers. A 2006 profile of Remnick in the Guardian (back when his sons were teenagers and his daughter seven) depicts his family stuff as ordinary but remarkably stress-free: “He does his fair share of ferrying to music lessons and little league games. Asked to explain how he manages to balance these things, Remnick shrugs and says he doesn't do anything other than spend time with his family and work. 'It's not like I build toy ships, or travel to Tahiti. I don't go surfing. I don't know: what do people do?'”

Well sir, many of them struggle with work-family balance, even if they’re financially successful. Or so I assume, anyway. Because, sure, wealthy people can afford great childcare, but many also work long hours and travel for business, and even wealthy parents want to spend time with their children.

But the rich are hardly the only ones facing the problem. If juggling work and children is tough for the 1 percent, imagine how it is for people who have not “careers” but plain old jobs, people who can’t afford great childcare and for whom staying home with a sick kid might mean not only forfeiting a day’s pay but possibly getting fired.

Remnick is aware of all this, of course. But maybe it doesn’t all click together; I suspect he doesn’t connect “family-career balance” to the shortcomings in our system—problems with family leave, daycare, job flexibility, health care and so on—that can lead to genuine desperation, financial sacrifice and, in some families, economic disaster. His use of “career” rather than “work,” together with his light-handed tone, suggest he is imagining hyper-responsible parents checking off quality time with little Abigail and Aiden between conferences and fundraisers, just another aspect of the “liberal aesthetic raised to a style of life.” After all, it was under Remnick’s editorship that, in a 2004 New Yorker review of books describing this dilemma, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, “Choosing between work and home is, in the end, a problem only for those who have a choice. In this sense, it is, like so many ‘problems’ of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems.”

Maybe I'm making too much of Remnick’s offhand phrase in a piece that’s mostly about something else.

But I can't help thinking that if even the brilliant editor of one of the country’s most influential publications doesn’t fully understand why work-family balance is a serious issue for a lot of people at every socioeconomic level, then those of us for whom it’s an honest-to-God requisite concern have an long way to go.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why so much fitness and parenting advice is bullshit



Et tu, Psychology Today? And you, Dr. Michael J. Breus? What’s your excuse, Thomas Friedman?

You never have to look far to find flagrant violations of the “Correlation does not imply causation” law. They abound in newspapers, magazines, TV programs, parenting and diet books—anywhere, basically, that covers topics like parenting or fitness, and thus relies heavily on behavioral research. In the past month, you could find examples of the problem, among other places, on the website of the country’s leading popular psychology monthly, in a piece by the triple-Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist, and in a psychologist’s column on Huffington Post.

As many of you may recall from your old science and psychology courses (or from a Brain, Child piece I wrote last year), just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean that one of them caused the other. For example, if there’s a correlation between A and B—more of A tends to go hand in hand with more of B—that’s no proof that A caused B. It might have. Or maybe B caused A, or some combination of the two, or a third factor, C, caused both.


In a Psychology Today blog post titled “Parents: Your Words Matter,” University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock writes about a correlation between the way parents talk to their preschool children and the children’s later problem-solving skills. Researcher Susan Levine, Beilock reports, found that the more parents talked about spatial characteristics of objects—using words like “big, tall, circle, curvy, edge”—the better the child performs, years later, on spatial problems.
 


“What Dr. Levine and her colleagues found was that children's spatial abilities are in, large part, driven by what their parents say,” Beilock writes.


If that’s what Dr. Levine and her colleagues really found, there’s no evidence of it in Beilock’s post, nor in the abstract of Levine’s article in Developmental Science. Based on what they present, it could just as easily go the other way around.


Now, I’m not going to argue that parents words don’t matter (though in research I’ve conducted in my own household, I found little correlation between parental instructions to take one’s dirty dishes into the kitchen and the likelihood that one’s dirty dishes will actually be taken into the kitchen). It may seem logical that a child who’s always hearing her parents talk about objects' sizes and shapes might be more attuned to those qualities and, thus, better at solving problems involving those concepts.


That might make intuitive sense, but intuition isn’t proof—another lesson from those college psychology courses. Besides, it’s just as intuitively logical that parents who are good at spatial problems are more likely to perceive the world in spatial terms and (unconsciously, perhaps) pepper their language with spatial words. And that their children tend to inherit those skills and later prove, unsurprisingly, to be good at spatial stuff, too.


One big moral of this story is that simple correlations between parental actions and children’s behavior rarely proves cause and effect if the parents and children are biologically related. In most stuations, it’s too difficult to rule out the possibility that genes, rather than parenting, are the cause. 

Thomas Friedman forgets that, too. He writes about a study in which 15-year-olds whose parents read to them when they were little scored higher on a test than kids whose parents didn’t. From this, Friedman concludes:
We need better parents. Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.

Spot the correlation/causation error here? Again, it's a problem of ignoring possible genetic influence. What kind of parents read books to their kids? Probably those who like to read themselves. What kind of people like to read? Usually people who are good at reading. What kind of parents involve themselves in their child’s education? Most likely parents who did well in school themselves.


So it’s no big leap to imagine that children who are read to also inherited their parents' reading skills and academic achievement. Yet neither Friedman nor the researchers seem to have considered that possibility. But hey, even if their conclusion were 100 percent scientifically sound, they still would hardly justify this comment, quoted by Friedman, from the guy who oversees the testing:


[J]ust asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.

First, judging from the monosyllabic grunts I usually get in answer to that question, it seems doubtful. Anyway, how would he know this? I’m going to step out on a limb and guess that there probably aren't many parents alive who purchase “hours of private tutoring” for their children yet don't bother to ask how school is going. So who would be the control group here?

Finally, in his rhymingly titled Huffington Post piece, “Sleeping Late, Eating Late, Leads to Gaining Weight,” Michael J. Breus similarly jumps to a conclusion, based on a correlation between sleep patterns and weight gain.

A message to night owls: There's news that your bedtime -- and those late-night snacks -- may be preventing you from dropping those stubborn extra pounds.

 Again, it’s not hard to think of another explanation for this correlation: That people who like to stay up late are often also people who like to eat a lot. As a card-carrying member of both groups, I can vouch for this. But Breus, a.k.a. “The Sleep Doctor,” doesn’t even consider that possibility. Wonder if this could have anything to do with the topic of his recent book, The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan: Lose Weight through Better Sleep.

Even if those writers and researchers are leaping to conclusions, you might ask, where’s the harm? Why wouldn't you want to ask about your kid's school day, whether it got him better test scores or not? (Do you ask about your partner's work day, even if you don't think it will get him or her a raise?) Besides, if there’s any chance, however slight, that it would improve their school performance, why not go for it? Asking the question is pretty easy.

The spatial language situation is a bit more difficult. You might be willing to stop and think about every word you say to your child and deliberately insert spatial terms into the mix. (Although what if by doing that you’re squelching some other form of communication that might be equally important? I used to play word games with my then-preschool kids. On the day when I asked one to name the opposite of “short” and he came back with both “long” and “tall,” I knew he would be good in language classes, and voila, he is. Yet I can't say his language skills are the result of playing word games; very likely, he and I both liked playing word games because we’re both good at language.)


But the most damaging result of all of this misinterpretation and misinformation is guilt. It's the guilt you might feel if you take Friedman seriously when he proclaims, “We need better parents.”

Don’t most of us—at least, those of us who comprise the audience for these articles, i.e., people interested in figuring out how to be better parents—already do plenty of fretting about what we’re doing wrong? Must we really be told, once again, that we’re never good enough?