The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm
Legos for Girls: Must They Build Hair Salons?
Jan. 3, 2012 Caroline Miller
A lot of parents are seeing pink. It's the dominant color of the widely debated new Lego play sets aimed at girls, which the company is launching in this month with a $40 million marketing campaign. Some bloggers and columnists are gagging on the passivity of the girly new construction sets, featuring a beauty salon and café, which are better designed, they argue, to nurture narcissism and body issues than confidence- and skill-building. They come in pastel colors and the press materials show a Lego girl brushing her hair. And if that's not annoying enough, the new Lego girls have been given tiny busts.
Pink is also the subject of the viral video "Riley on Marketing," in which a very cute, spunky little girl bewails (with a little prompting from dad) the gender divisions in toy stores. "Why do all the girls have to buy pink and the boys have to buy different colored stuff?" she demands to know. "Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like princesses and some girls like superheroes."
I'm with Riley on the superheroes, but I'll bet that left to her own devices Riley likes a sparkly pink tutu as much as the next four- or five-year-old girl. It's a fact that girls and boys tend to have different proclivities in play, and the fantasies that go with it. It has roots in evolutionary biology, not just social conditioning. And girls do tend to go through a pink period, whether mom is a hairstylist or a Supreme Court justice. A little girl who's in love with Ariel isn't doomed to grow up to be Kim Kardashian any more than all kids who want to be firemen at four grow up to be firemen.
But I think what's bothering a lot of us is that the marketing of toys seems to have gotten more and more gender-divided just as the opposite is happening in the world of work and family life. If play is preparation for adult life, it is, indeed, disturbing to think Lego envisions girls in such a limited way. Here's an interesting piece in the New York Times from Peggy Orenstein, who writes, "The environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging—let alone exploiting—stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids' potential than parents imagine." On Babble, Lynn Harris has a smart critique of what she calls the Princess Industrial Complex: "Ultimately, when it comes to princesses, the incessant marketing makes me much crazier than the inherent mythology."
Given the reality of boy-themed and girl-themed toys and their appeal to children, the Child Mind Institute's Dr. Jerry Bubrick applauds Lego for thinking of girls, finally. Building is important, age-appropriate play, and girls shouldn't be left out. But why, he wonders, just the one set? Why not five or ten? And why not Legos-for-girls that aspire to something more ambitious—how about a rocket ship?View Comments | Add Comment
A Father Struggles With Art and Autism
Dec. 28, 2011 Harry Kimball
The Huffington Post pointed us to an interesting photo collaboration: A photographer dad and his son, who has autism. The pictures appear on the National Geographic website, and they are quite stunning (and a bit weird). But what interested me more is the process that Timothy Archibald describes, and the questions it raises. "We" soon had a system. Eli would do something unusual, one of us would notice, and we'd make a photo of it together.
The resulting shots—of Eli with a pair of pliers in his mouth, Eli pretending to sleep in a large plastic storage bin—are certainly artful, perhaps thought-provoking, and maybe provocative. And they prompt Archibald to ask questions that cross the mind of every parent but appear more central, more persistent to a parent of a child with autism. "Working with him," he writes, "I find myself questioning boundaries. Am I his parent now or his collaborator? Am I empowering my kid, or am I overpowering him?"
I don't know the answers to those questions, but they get to a central and ongoing issue in the autism world of whether there is something to "fix" in the brain and behavior of children with the disorder—or whether it isn't a disorder at all, but the expression of a "differently ordered" brain. I'm not sure I like the photos, or if I'm on board with the whole project, but it reframes this debate through an interesting lens of art and parent-child dynamics. Or maybe I'm reading too much into them. But that's a risk in art, and in life.View Comments | Add Comment
An Aspie Love Story
Dec. 27, 2011 Caroline Miller
It's a great holiday gift for anyone who cares about and thinks about and lives neurodiversity: Amy Harmon of the New York Times has written a wonderfully nuanced story about love between two college students who have Asperger's syndrome. The romantic adventures (and misadventures) of Kirsten Lindsmith and Jack Robison are riveting, partly because the two of them are so disarmingly honest about the struggles they have faced in sharing their lives.
Those struggles are not unlike those of any two people who want both physical and emotional intimacy; in their case what they each like (and don't like) and need has to be spelled out pretty literally. He can't stand kissing, holding hands, and massage, but likes to be touched lightly. "Pet me," he tells her. She hates light touch but loves hugs and generally craves more affection than he is wired to give. But they both love being with someone, for a change, who isn't trying to "fix" them.
The story is thrilling and full of hope for parents who worry about their children's romantic possibilities (not to speak of the children themselves). At a panel discussion Kirsten fields a mom's question about the prospects for Asperger's kids being in long-term relationships. "Parents always ask, 'Who would like to marry my kid? They're so weird,' " Kirsten says. "But, like, another weird person, that's who."
But this romantic comedy doesn't have a fairytale ending. Their relationship is working for them because they're making it work, with lots of support—she takes medication for ADHD and sees a therapist, Jack's father is Aspie writer John Elder Robison—and lots of courage and effort. If there's a magic ingredient here it's acceptance of themselves and each other, which seems to empower them to try to be better partners. In fact that's pretty much the basis of all good relationships, whether you're on the spectrum or not.View Comments | Add Comment
The Real Luxury of the Holidays: Downtime
Dec. 22, 2011 Caroline Miller
My mother was a talented homemaker, in the style of the '50s and '60s, when there was a great deal less outsourcing of family life. The holidays now upon us always make me think of her, with my sister and me as eager assistants, making cookies with colored sprinkles, decorating wreaths with spraypainted pine cones, and, especially, wrapping presents. She'd cover a ping pong table in our suburban basement with a dizzying array of papers and ribbon, and we'd spend hours there, laboring with scissors and tape over our childish creations. The gifts I got and gave in those years have faded in my memory, but I vividly recall the thrill of learning to make "grown-up" bows.
A lot fewer of us are full-time moms now, and whether we celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, both, or neither, we have a lot less time to spend on conjuring up holiday magic for kids. But it's also true that as time together becomes scarcer and scarcer in family life, holidays become more and more valuable, not for the expensive presents, but for the luxury of relaxed time spent together.
With all the talk on parenting sites about how many gifts to give kids, how to achieve gift parity, and how to teach kids to enjoy giving as well as receiving, I think it's worth focusing instead on what you can do with this gift of extra downtime. What are the most fun and memorable things you can do with kids over this holiday week? Make something together, cook together, read together, watch movies or TV together, ice skate together, swim or take a walk on the beach together? Whatever your family's favorite activities, I predict that over time what you do with your kids during the holidays will be as memorable for them as what you give them. And the gift of that undiluted time and attention is one that your family can share—so at least in this case you don't have to worry about "parity" under the tree.View Comments | Add Comment
Fighting Two ‘Monsters,’ One Day at a Time
Dec. 21, 2011 Harry Kimball
Sophie, a patient at the Child Mind Institute, describes her battle with OCD on our website, and how she overcame "LEAF," her name for the disorder. "I fought LEAF," she says of the "big cheese" that "makes me feel like I want to die." In the end, "I beat LEAF."
We're reminded of this fight by a recent article in the New York Times' ongoing series on people living, and often thriving, with severe mental illness. Antonio Lambert landed in prison at the age of 21 after nearly a decade of hair-raising drug use, gangbanging, and violence on the streets of Portsmouth, VA. It was only in prison that he received a diagnosis of depression, but he didn't seem to improve on antidepressants. "I was incarcerated even when I was free," he says in an accompanying video.
Later, the article and Lambert appear to suggest, the diagnosis was changed to bipolar disorder. Out of prison and trying to help others with dual diagnoses—psychiatric disorder and drug addiction—he does well on mood stabilizers, but also has a crucial understanding of the severity of his situation.
"I know my own mental illness and my addiction are real," he tells Benedict Carey. "I feel like they're out there right now, doing push-ups, getting ready to take me down again. That's why I got to have my own system for staying strong."
Lambert's "system" is a bit idiosyncratic; in addition to medication, he treats his illness with peer support, religion, and by talking to himself. But he's very aware of when his system fails, like it did last fall when he got high and stole from his workplace. He immediately checked himself into a hospital and faced up to his problems, which is the first step in getting better, and something that is very hard for kids with mental illness. "I know when it's time to reach out for help," Lambert says. And that's an important message to take away, no matter who you are.View Comments | Add Comment
'Parenthood' Meets '24' in New Fox Show
Dec. 20, 2011 Caroline Miller
Word went out today about a new Fox drama called Touch debuting in January. The news sparked the interest of both Jack Bauer loyalists and parents of children on the autism spectrum—an odd coupling occasioned by the fact that the show stars Kiefer Sutherland as the single father of a nonverbal boy who has autism.
Parenthood meets 24? Not too far off. While the boy, Jake, doesn't speak, what he does do, we are told in the preview, is see patterns others can't see and communicate via numbers—if only dad can figure out what he's trying to say. Make that: If dad can figure out what he's trying to say in time to stop something really bad from happening. Today at 3:18. It seems that his special talents allow him to see the future.
Jake is about the same age as Max on Parenthood, and looks a bit like him. But judging from the preview, Touch seems to be less a drama that includes a child on the spectrum than a thriller that gives Sutherland a costar who's cute but hard to communicate with—oh, and he has superpowers.
Touch runs with the notion that some children on the spectrum have unusual gifts—in this case, to quote Fox, "of staggering genius"—and that they may be open to experiences not accessible to the neurotypical. Someone tells Sutherland in the preview: "Imagine the unspeakable beauty of the universe he sees." I'm eager to see how parents and people with autism feel about what the Touch press materials call a "hopeful" blend of "science and spirituality."View Comments | Add Comment
A Baseball Player Fights ADHD at the Plate
Dec. 20, 2011 Caroline Miller
Andres Torres, the New York Mets' new center fielder and leadoff batter, has a pretty dramatic personal story. For more than a decade Torres languished in the minor leagues, just not able to put his game together, despite obvious potential. At some point he was diagnosed with ADHD, but for five years he blew off treatment. Finally he was persuaded by a coach that his ADHD could be seriously undermining his performance. He took the medication that had been prescribed. Within a season, his batting average soared. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants, where he helped win the World Series in 2010.
"With the medication, everything started clicking," Torres tells the New York Times. "From then on, it changed." He was traded to the Mets last month.
The interesting point here is not that ADHD medication can turn a weak batter into Babe Ruth. Stimulant medications, by the way, are illegal in baseball, unless you are diagnosed with ADHD. The point here is that school is not the only arena in which kids with ADHD who don't get treatment are likely to flounder. Focus, concentration, follow-through, impulse control—the functions kids with ADHD need help with—are important in the rest of life, too.
Too many people think ADHD is a disorder that only affects school. But it affects all kinds of endeavors, from sports to arts, from starting a career to sustaining good relationships with friends and family. We need to empower kids to corral their talents effectively in whatever arenas they want to participate, out of the classroom as well as in it.View Comments | Add Comment
Parenting and Autism: Uncommon Empathy
Dec. 19, 2011 Caroline Miller
We hear that one of our favorite websites, the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, has a new book out today, a collection of pieces by their thoughtful and emotionally astute writers. You can buy it here, and they say the Kindle edition will be available soon.
It's a good excuse to try to describe what's so valuable about the voices collected on TPGA. I think it's the power of personal experience combined with hard-headedness about information. It's the combination of warmth and realism: you feel the love the writers have for their kids (and other people's kids) even while (or exactly while) they are telling the truth about how difficult it is be to be a parent to those kids, and how imperfect we all are at it.
An excellent example is a post from Friday by Deanna Shoyer, the mother of 5-year-old twin boys, both on the autism spectrum, called "I'm Not a Bad Parent ... Right?" Shoyer writes about struggling to respond effectively to one twin's aggression towards the other. She agonizes over what in her parenting arsenal she could use to diminish the behavior.
Then one day it happened; I cracked. I came out of the bathroom and Oliver was pulling Owen's hair and kicking him. I shouted at Oliver to stop but then I found myself yelling, "Why? Why are you doing this to Owen? I don't understand!" I was holding Owen and crying and then the look on Oliver's face made me cry more. I knew I couldn't handle this behavior effectively any longer and to avoid getting upset with Oliver again I started putting him into time out.
You can read the piece to see what response did prove to be effective—no, it wasn't time-outs—but Shoyer wasn't satisfied just to see the aggressive outbursts diminish. She wanted to understand what was making Oliver lash out at his brother, and she wasn't going to feel right about it until she found a way to feel what he might be feeling. That's the kind of insight that goes much farther than just tips for how to manage problem behaviors.View Comments | Add Comment
James Durbin Sings at Atlanta Falcons Game
Dec. 15, 2011 Caroline Miller
James Durbin's fans and supporters want you to know that he'll be singing at the Atlanta Falcons football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars tonight.
You already know that Durbin, the American Idol rocker who has both Asperger's and Tourette's, has an album out, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, which our source, Patti, urges you to buy or give as a gift for the holidays. If a killer scream and incinerating guitar riffs aren't right for anyone on your list,but you want to support the passionate young man who's become a hero to a lot of kids challenged by psychiatric disorders, she suggests you donate a CD to the troops serving overseas. Here's a link to Tunes 4 the Troops.
Speaking of screaming, there's a lovely interview with Durbin in Psychology Today in which Kymberly Grosso, the mom of one of those kids who idolizes Durbin, asks about a song on the album called "Screaming." Durbin describes coming home from school as a kid, after a day of frustration and bullying, and screaming as loud as he could into a pillow. How lovely that that practiced scream is making him a rock star.
"There is a reason he is a role model," writes Grosso. "He experienced adversity yet he prevails with exceptional music and riveting, live performances. "View Comments | Add Comment
Suicide Hotline Goes Digital on Facebook
Dec. 14, 2011 Harry Kimball
Everyone who uses Facebook, young people and adults alike, should be aware of a welcome new feature aimed at suicide prevention. Well, it's not all new—Facebook has been partnered with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline since 2006, according to CNN, and this past summer the social networking site began allowing users to flag suicidal content. After a review by Facebook staff, the at-risk person receives an email with NSPL information and the phone number: 888.273.TALK
But now the government service and the site have opened a new line of communication between users and trained suicide counselors: chat. Users who have had their comments flagged and evaluated are given the option of a live instant message conversation with a crisis worker.
Before anyone accuses us of gigantic-Internet-company favoritism, Google is also on the bandwagon and provides links to the NSPL and the hotline phone number when suspicious search terms are entered. So, kudos to these companies for trying to help their most vulnerable users, and doing it in the lingua franca of the 21st century. Of course, there is so much more to be done.View Comments | Add Comment