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How Well Do You Know Your Children?<

Publication Date: 2009-01-23

from the New York Times Magazine


Ohanian Comment: When I was 10, I got up one morning and told my mother I'd had a stomach ache all night. It was Saturday and she figured I was trying to avoid the detested piano lesson. Knowing she was busy with helping my father with his work with an exceptionally busy schedule that morning, I didn't tell her I'd had to crawl to the bathroom during the night.

So when Mom told me, "Go ahead and go to your piano lesson and we'll talk about this later," I went.

Or tried to. I got about half-way to the piano lesson and the pain was so bad I couldn't walk any more. So I sat on a curb. My father found me there several hours later.

Soon afterwards, I was in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The doctor told my parents I was about two minutes from a rupture.

My parents were very good parents but there were a few more incidents involving broken bones over the years, incidents where I just sat and waited for time to take its course rather than make a fuss and insist on immediate attention. Finally, the doctor said to me, "I want you to promise me that when you get an ache, you will call me. Just pick up the phone and call me. Don't think about it. Just call."

I never did. I figured my parents were in charge and they knew best. But I was very impressed that he made that offer.

As a teacher, I held this appendix incident and the broken bones in the back of my mind, as a reminder that we know very little about the children in our care, a reminder to be humble about what I thought I knew and ever alert to cues from the children. I'm sure I failed more often than I succeeded, but I remain resistant to today's easy chatter about "diagnosing" children's needs. Diagnosis, indeed. First, we'd better listen.


by Lisa Belkin

Do you know your children? Really know them?

Research out this month hints that you don’t.

A study released in the Journal of Nutrition and Behavior Education looks at parents’ perceptions of their children’s eating and exercise habits â€" perceptions that turn out to be wrong much of the time. These researchers were looking specifically at nutrition, the I think the broader point applies to the whole of parenting â€" that there is often a mismatch between what we see when we look at our children, and what is really there.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and at Brown University surveyed 172 parents about the exercise and nutrition habits of their children. Those with preschoolers reported that their children ate healthy food and exercised regularly, and those with middle schoolers reported that theirs did not. But when examined more closely, there was very little difference in eating and exercise between the two age groups.

Wrote Hollie A. Raynor, a University of Tennessee nutritionist and an author of the report: “Although preschool-aged children engaged in more healthful behaviors according to parent recall, the preschool-aged children only met 2 dietary recommendations, fruit and low-fat dairy intake. All other parent-reported eating and leisure-time activity patterns did not meet current recommendations.”

In other words, we think we are doing well by them, we want to do well by them, but we are blinded by the emotional connection that makes us want so much in the first place. We, who know our children best, are sometimes too close for a focussed view. Even while we think we are paying meticulous attention (and heaven knows, we have all seen parents who are smothering with their attention) we still miss what is right in front of us.

Within my own circle of family and friends, and in emails lately from readers, I hear story after story: parents who didn’t notice a six year old’s pattern of sloppiness and frustration until a first grade teacher suggested occupational therapy; parents who didn’t hear their seven year old’s lisp until the child himself pointed it out and asked for help; a family who hadn’t a hint that their middle daughter was throwing up after every meal until the plumber explained that’s why the pipes had corroded; an ADHD diagnosis after years of parents telling their child she could do better if she’d just put her mind to it.

In part, perhaps, all this is because we really don’t know what we are doing. We are parents, not doctors or therapists (though one of the above tales happened to a doctor and another to a therapistâ€Â¦) A study out of the University of Rochester last year screened the parents of more than 10,000 9-month-old babies, asking such questions as “Should a 1-year-old child be able to tell right from wrong?” and “Should a 1-year-old child be ready to begin toilet-training?” A third of parents got fewer than five of the 11 questions correct, meaning they had what researchers labeled a “low level knowledge of typical infant development.” (The answer to both those questions is no, by the way.)

Another reason we don’t see what is in front of us, I think, is that we don’t want it to be true. (Which is one reason why doctors and therapists are not supposed to treat their own children.) We’re in denial, pure and simple. And a more complicated corollary to that is “it can’t be true, because if it were, as his parent, I would know.”

One of my most haunting memories is of back when my older son was seven and he hurt his leg on the playground. It wasn’t swollen or discolored. I full out accused him of milking a minor hurt. I even insisted that he walk on it. When I took him for x-rays 24 hours later, the films showed a god-awful fracture. Looking at them I was flattened by one thought: If he was in that much pain, how come I didn’t feel it?


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