Dump Dora, and 7 More Tips to Help You Enjoy Reading to Your Young Child

IMG_2974 We all know we’re supposed to read to our kids. And while I often truly love our snuggle time with a book, reading to a child — let’s be honest — can also sometimes feel like a bit of a chore. Especially the third time that we’re both plodding through the same book in a row.

And I’m a notorious bookworm! As a child, I was such an avid reader that I would walk and read at the same time, floating obliviously through the hallways of my elementary school like a bespectacled nerd zombie.

Still, reading is one of those no-compromise parental duties. Despite decades of programs like “Stop, Drop and Read,” many children are not read to enough by parents or caregivers, and the richness of the “print environment” for kids varies widely and tragically among neighborhoods and income levels.

James Trelease’s classic, “The Read-Aloud Handbook,”  notes these differences in fairly stark terms according to social class. He writes about a 2005 study of 42 families over 1,300 hours of observations, and starts with the similarities:

Regardless of socioeconomic level, all 42 families said and did the same things with their children…. [But] when the daily number of words for each group of children is projected across four years, the four-year-old from the “professional” family will have heard 45 million words, the “working-class” child 26 million, and the “welfare” child only 13 million.

That’s a gap of 32 million words, which is a lot for schools to cope with when kids start kindergarten. Trelease goes on to explain that although all those conversations help to develop the brain and interest kids in what can be accomplished with language, spoken words are not enough.

Turns out that kids need exposure to words, images and concepts outside of things like “where are your shoes?” and “finish your spinach.” To better stoke their imagination, equip children with a wide range of “background knowledge,” and keep pace with the fact that kids’ comprehension far outstrips their ability to speak, we must expose them to all the “rare” words in books:

Whereas an adult uses only nine rare words (per thousand) when talking with a three-year-old, there are three times as many in a children’s book and more than seven times as many in a newspaper.

So, how should we think about the job of reading to our kids in a way that makes it fun for both parents and children? And what really matters in the act of reading a book, anyway? While I found Trelease’s book was mostly a screed on educational policies about reading, he did have a few good tips (and includes helpful reading lists by age group at the back).

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Here’s his useful insights plus a few of my own, picked up along the way:

  1. The most important: Make reading a snuggly, relaxed time from the very start. Beginning with your newborn, read as many books as they seem interested in with an easygoing manner. Spread focused times for reading out across the day, and extend the time as the child remains interested. (By the time Maya was 10 months old, we were looking at books for at least an hour a day. It’s easier to find and make this time if TV and other screens are not in the equation.) Don’t force reading time, and discontinue it if your child becomes uninterested. As they get older, talk with them about how nice it is to read together, and make it a habit. We snuggle with books first thing in the morning, before dinner, and at bedtime, at a minimum. Singing your way through Mother Goose is a nice way to be with a toddler, and the rhymes are contagious and help with memory development to boot.
  2. Create a text-rich environment: Leave baskets of books near play areas and around the house where they are easily accessible without adult help. For toddlers, books near the potty areas are a no-brainer. Keep a mix of books, including board books, around, but focus on reading the ones that are more challenging to your child at that developmental moment, and let them look through the simpler ones by themselves unless asked you’re specifically to read those, more or less for old times’ sake. And think about playing with letters and text! Put magnet letters on the fridge, make felt shapes in letter forms for a felt board, play with tracing letters and building them (here’s a nifty set I really like, despite the plastic!), print your names and trace them, etc.
  3. Build patience and stamina for stories by sustaining interest: According to Trelease, by the age of three, most children should be able to endure some stories with longer blocks of age-appropriate text on one page of a two-page spread. Alternate picture books with more textually dense, but well-paced, stories. Audiobooks can also be used to build patience for listening, as they ask kids to use their imagination: start with books they know (we like both The Polar Express, and Blueberries for Sal), and then branch off into new books. When reading, ask questions about the text, prompting your child for predictions about the contents of a new book based on the cover to develop observational skills, or connecting the subjects to something they know (“we picked blueberries, didn’t we?”). Be ambitious in picking stories that keep introducing new subjects, places and kinds of people, and that ask for patience from your child. They will let you know when you’ve gone too far!
  4. Introduce books as beloved creations: Read the name of the author or illustrator, explaining that’s who wrote or drew in the book. Insist that books be treated with care and respect, and ask your child to help keep them neat and organized. Three- and four-year-olds can make books as an easy craft, drawing pictures on folded paper and “binding” them with yarn tied through two punched holes. You can act as scribe for their book ideas, and help them write out a story, talk about and do illustrations, and read it aloud back to them.
  5. Change it up: To combat boredom (mostly for me!) and maintain interest, I like to have a lot of books around to choose from. (While I liked many of the suggestions in the parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, I was staggered by the suggestion that a child needs only 12 books! That’s just absurd.) If you’re like me, you’ll need to find ready sources for cheap books (or time for weekly trips to the library). Luckily, book and library sales, garage and yard sales, thrift stores and used books from online sources are all good options. I like to circulate books, moving them from the playroom to the bedroom and back again about every three months, and getting rid of the ones that are no longer needed. A little re-org on a Saturday morning does wonders for making our collection “new.” Because we have storage space and to keep our many books affordable, books are another thing I buy ahead when I see classics on sale for pennies at the thrift store. When you have limited time to ascertain a book’s quality (or attend as Darwinian a library sale as the one here in Takoma Park — LOL), I’ve found it’s helpful to eyeball the quality of the illustrations. Beautifully designed images or drawings, often by someone other than the author, are a tell-tale sign of more thoughtful execution and expense by publishers.
  6. Dump Dora. Really. Yes, my dear daughter also is drawn to the unnaturally wide-eyed perky wonder that is Dora the Explorer. But over time, I have painstakingly weeded out all of those books, as well as ones starring “The Wiggles,” or containing any Disney princess-y BS or other objectionably idiotic, marketing-driven nonsense. Why? Because they are painfully unpleasant and dull to read, lack a plot or any character development, and are poorly drawn to boot. Anything I don’t enjoy reading is out. I can’t tell you how much this simple principle has improved both our lives since I became a merciless hard-liner for quality reading material. Do it! You won’t regret it one minute. (Still need convincing? Just order or borrow any book by Jan Brett and read it aloud back-to-back with some commercialized dreck that found its way onto your bookshelf like an unwelcome house-guest, and then you tell me.)
  7. Re-write as you read: Since I have a daughter, I can’t help noticing that most books are stuck in, say, 1975, when it comes to gender pronouns. The default of a male persona for animals and other characters is irritating. So I just read them as “she.” I’ll also soften some scary parts of fairy tales a bit to lessen the blow. More fun, though, is playing silly games with substitutions when I find myself reading the same book six times in two days. I’ll sub in preposterous first letters for the existing words (so it becomes “Bleen Beggs and Bam”), and make Maya correct me. Or I’ll add in odd adjectives, nouns or verbs (“Purple Eggs and Spam” ) and insist that they are right. Sometimes pickles just appear at odd moments in the story. The wackier, the better. On occasion, Maya wants the comfort of repetition rather than a game, and she lets me know! But other times, this silliness keeps familiar books alive for both of us, and makes her giggle at me while showing off what she knows better than mommy.
  8. Let imitation be flattery:  When your child talks, don’t correct their language, but do repeat, like a parenting parrot, what they say much of the time by subtly filling in their intentions. For example: “Mom, park today.” becomes, in your words, “You went to the park today?” Fill in and translate emotions for them as well (“Were you sad about that?  You seem sad. You were sad at the park today.”) I’ve used repetition consistently since Maya started speaking until now (she is 3 and a half). While it seemed strange at first to repeat nearly everything she said in a conversational tone, after a little while it felt perfectly natural, and the impact on her vocabulary and grammar is obvious. This modeling of course works the way ’round as well, so let your child catch you reading. Obviously, it’s more difficult to raise a reader if you are not reading books, with interest, yourself. In this age of the digital, young children won’t connect your time in front of a laptop with reading a book. Making sure that books are a feature of your own free time when possible (including reading aloud from recipe books when you cook together!) will bring home the message that books and reading are a life-long pleasure, and a key to life in the larger world.

What’s missing from this list? I don’t think (and research agrees) that pushing academic-style phonics lessons on children is a good idea, unless the child repeatedly asks for more information about learning to read without parental prompting. Fostering a sense of self-directed intellectual curiosity is the point, and that can be stifled by pressure to learn.

While a few very young children do pick up reading easily on their own, and that’s fine, the goal of all this is to ensure that reading is exciting, pleasurable and a point of connection for parents and kids. Stay tuned for my next post on dazzling adventure stories for young children!

Do you have tips for me? I’d love to hear them!

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Parenting Through the Fog: 8 of My Personal “Truths”

IMG_0505 No one can tell you what kind of parent to be. Instead, it’s a long performance, consisting of attempts, failures, mistakes, experiments, accidents, snips, scrapes and sniffles and — when you’re lucky — unexpected harmony and delirious puffs of joy.

So it’s with that humility in mind that I offer up some insights from the scads of parenting books I’ve perused over the past few years. Through the mist of what made sense to me (an arbitrary lens if ever there was one), I have managed to discern what I could now call a sketchy and ever-subject-to-revision Parenting Approach. Taking all this uncertainty into account, below are a few guideposts from the research I’ve managed to get under my belt that I use currently to light my way.

Some of them may surprise any loyal reader who knows I’m a sucker for fuzzy crafts, because they are not very fuzzy-wuzzy. I’m a strict-ish parent, actually, on matter of behavior. And I’ll be the first to admit that any or all of the below may not work for your family. Every child and parent is different. If one lesson is clear, it’s that paying close attention to our particular child trumps a set of written instructions, any day.

IMG_0503Nonetheless, and for whatever they may be worth to you, I find the following insights both helpful and difficult, often at the same time:

1) Permissive parenting is actually harmful. Several major studies are really almost unanimous on this point: Authoritarian parenting — or overly strict parenting — is actually less damaging than parenting that is overly permissive. Authoritarian (though not abusive) parents generally communicate a lesson to kids that they are cared for and safe, while permissive parents, despite perhaps their best intentions, can leave kids wondering if they are the ones in charge and why. But of course authoritarian parenting also does damage: it undermines self-esteem, and can create life-long scars. The goal is a middle ground: authoritative parenting, which communicates love while holding its ground and conveying firm and consistent expectations for behavior.

2) Emotional intelligence — including hard-to-define and achieve qualities like character, grit, and capacity for failure — will be more important to your child’s success than IQ. Put down the flashcards! What will more likely matter to your child is whether they have the social skills to succeed and the inner resources to keep trying. And parents of young children should not wait for a child to mature to work on these essential skills, because the neural networks in the brain that form the infrastructure for emotional reasoning basically take shape by six years old. Even if you’ve missed this window, though, programs providing coaching to troubled adolescents show that new habits like resilience and resourcefulness can be taught, albeit with a lot of work to catch up to their peers.

3) Attachment is only half the job. It is indisputably critical that parents create an emotional bond with their child, called attachment. This is formed by early and attentive responsiveness to the needs of a new infant. This foundation of trust and mutual love, however, is insufficient by itself as a child grows. The purpose of attachment — to make children feel sufficiently safe in the world — can be undermined if parents do not also encourage and foster responsibility, independence and sound judgment. Being endlessly attentive and nurturing to a needy three-year-old is a recipe for both exhausted parents and bratty kids.

Balancing attachment by making space to say a respectful version of “no” to children is critical. Indeed, helping them create a robust capacity for emotional self-regulation is essential. Emotional regulation is also important to cognitive development, because the more time that kids spend in an agitated state, the less time they have for calm receptivity to input from the world.

4) Too much praise can send the wrong signal and cut off the conversation. This is a hard one, given our need to recognize our child’s achievements as part of our own: empty words like “good job” come out of my mouth far more often than I would like. Substituting acknowledgment for appraisal is a subtle but important shift that can mostly fill in when kids ask us. For example, by saying, “I see you.” instead of “good work.” Or even just engaging in a real conversation by observing the facts: “You’ve used a lot of yellow here.” Praise is a conversation-stopper, after all, leaving nothing more to say, while facts leave room for more facts, and for the child to play observer as well. If you must praise, complimenting effort rather than result is a better thing to say: “You are working so hard on that!”

You can also subtly ask your child to internalize their own framework for self-appraisal by focusing on the child’s feelings rather than the parents: “Did that make you feel proud?” Asking questions and making comparisons to their own past can be another way to engage: “Was that scary?” “Did you climb that part faster than you did yesterday?”

IMG_05075) Our own emotional responses — even negative ones — can be put to use. We  generally do not do kids a favor when we overlook confrontational or obnoxious behavior and ask ourselves, as parents, to exhibit super-human restraint. Irritating behavior can sometimes be a good way to understand when a child needs more limits. So long as we are not clinically depressed, super-tired, sick, or otherwise overly prone to irritability, our own response to our child’s behavior can be a sound guide for imposing a set of (age-appropriate and individualized) expectations for that child.

I also believe this to be the case: As parents, we will spend a significant part of our lives in conversation with our child, and it helps with the sometimes-oppressive tedium of parenting if we enjoy more of this time, rather than less.

While we don’t need to lash out, certainly, and a calm response is preferable to an angry one, noticing our child’s behavior is a clue that something needs to change. A child who is constantly stirring the pot, behaving selfishly or taunting, who often lacks emotional and bodily self-control and can never take no for an answer, is a child who will have difficulty forming friendships, and who may repeatedly “check out” of opportunities for calm attention and learning. These emotionally sensitive and volatile children may need more sensible and consistent boundaries than other kids in order to thrive. At the same time, that child may need more connection with the parent in order to tolerate the new boundaries, so both limits and time together will be critical.

Of course, a rapid uptick in outbursts in an otherwise calm child may also provide a valuable clue that something is wrong, and require investigation. One of my favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, calls on parents to look for signs of soul-sickness and approach these with the gentle healing we might a cold. Again, this kind of judgment call has to come from knowing our kid and what’s normal and needed for them.

IMG_05026) Our specific language and choices as parents matter a ton to the development of our child. The brain is surprisingly elastic and supple, and is so deeply responsive to parenting cues that the brains of children actually resembles those of their parents in scans. So what kinds of intentional communication with them should we have?

Words that seem oddly “corporate” have sometimes been helpful to me, because they do the work of making a difference of opinion seem less personal: “My agenda here is to get you to put on your clothes, while your agenda is to play. What can we do?” or “I’m trying to understand your goals here.” They can also be useful for asking for more resilience and generating options: “That seemed like a good strategy. What would be another one?” “What’s your plan to fix this problem?” “I would like you to make a different choice.”

Picture-language that paints a clear image of concrete aspirations for behavior also works well for me: “I would like you to have a big, open, generous heart with your friends.”Or, after a fall: “I hope you have a scrambly time at the playground, and climb all over the jungle gym like a brave spider.” And specifically encouraging them to overcome frustration, even through time-worn clichés like, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” can be helpful to establish a “mental voice” for old-fashioned stick-to-itive-ness.

Rather than barking orders, owning our own perspective is more respectful of a child’s still-developing sense of agency. While it can feel a bit bulky, saying: “I am asking you to do put that down” in lieu of “put that down!” is what I aim for. Similarly, saying “I don’t like it when you stand on your chair because I’m concerned you might fall and hurt yourself, and it’s my job to keep you safe.” clues kids on your motives and role. Even owning our more unpleasant emotions can be helpful: “I’m irritated that you are doing that right now, as I have asked you two times to make a different choice.” (Just don’t be surprised when your child also is able to identify that she is “irritated” by something you do!)

Using please and thank you when making a request is also important in my view, though some books advise against it. As I want my child to use good manners, I personally feel it’s only fair to use them myself when addressing her.

IMG_05067) Getting out of a child’s way is sometimes the best thing we can do. All of us have experienced a state that scientists now call “flow:” a state of productive engagement in which we feel relaxed and time seems to disappear. Creating an environment in the home which allows children to play in a way that facilitates this kind of moment — and being sure not to interrupt them when it is happening as cooperative or solo play — is essential to putting them in touch with their deepest capacities for self-engagement.

This is the main reason why we limit screens in our house. Although we make some exceptions for special circumstances (getting her to sit still for nail-cutting, for example, or for travel on a plane), in general there are no videos or TV at home. This has been helpful with our busy days, as it forces all of us to relax, to have play time or reading or craft time instead.

Some of the job is just creating open space for children to self-direct their activities. Being sure to leave kids alone when they are “in flow” is important. It’s also important, to belabor this point from above a bit, that when they (inevitably) ask for us to look over what they’ve created, we respond with something deeper than a slap-dash pat on the head. The conversation should lead naturally to what could be a follow-on project, and thereby provide them with the next compelling invitation to enter this particular window onto human happiness.

8) Bargaining is bad — except when it isn’t. Capitulation during a meltdown or due to the fear of a meltdown is not a good idea, as it provides the wrong incentives for emotional outbursts. In our house, we think that never bending due to the intensity of an emotional response is sound policy. And reasoning with a child in the midst of a meltdown or temper tantrum, when their responses are coming from their lizard brain, is asking the impossible, because their executive functioning has literally been cut off by the emotional surge to those flight-or-fights parts of their primitive brain.

On the other hand, allowing problem solving that engages the executive functioning of the brain — called the cerebral cortex — is good. So when a child is calmly suggesting alternatives that also meet the objectives of the parent (“Can I take two bites of carrot instead of broccoli?”), that is to be encouraged. This kind of logical negotiation is a basic skill, and may provide a way out before a melt-down gets triggered, even though at times it may drive me a bit batty.

Parenting with Neuroscience, and a Laugh

Parenting via infographic, #8.

I’ve recently read two helpful books that use the latest findings by neuroscientists to help parents — more to come on those soon.

In the meantime, here’s the most helpful tip I learned. While I’ve long had the urge to tickle my daughter mid-fuss, and found it often took the tension out of the situation, now I have the science to know why it works… at least some of the time, when the fuss is basically over nothing much at all.

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If you feel a little at a loss when irritated to reach for the funny, and tickling is not working or feasible, here’s a few more tried-and-true mommy stratagems from my own personal arsenal:

  1. Scold an inanimate object, the fake-meaner the better (“Diaper, why are you so uncomfortable?” “Door, why do you keep slamming yourself so hard? You know that’s not allowed…”).
  2. Sing a song the child knows well, but make the words super-silly (“Pi-ickle, pi-ickle, little star…”) If you can get them to correct you or quiet down to hear your next silly substitution, storm over.
  3. Make up a silly simile to communicate what you need to change about the situation (“Is that whiny noise the creaky door? Do you hear a creaky door? ‘Cuz that can’t be a child that sounds like that….” or “You are clinging to my back like peanut butter on a rice cake. Peanut butter, you are toooo sticky.”)
  4. Bumble something. Play like you are trying to reach for them but miss and end up hitting your own nose instead. Nothing is funnier than a grown-up missing the mark.

And here’s 7 more great ideas from another toddler mom. Chances are good that if you can get a child to crack a smile, the emergency will dissipate a bit, giving you both a chance to start over.

And the bonding from laughing together is the best stuff there is, really. It’s magical. Then you can have a conversation about what needs to happen next, with less rigidity from either of you and a little more fun.

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Safer Cosmetics and Personal Care Products: Avoiding the Dreaded “Icky 11”

IMG_1559If you’re on a search and destroy mission for toxins in your home (and you are — right, friend?), a pretty good place to start is the bathroom.

Personal care products are rife with nasty and suspect stuff. If you still harbor any doubt we’re all citizens of a Chemical Age, just try reading aloud the ingredients of a typical bottle of shampoo. Then, when you’ve finally untwisted your tongue, you may want to reconsider your beauty routine.

Not So Pretty in Pink

In 2007, Stacy Malkin sounded the alarm with her landmark book about the “ugly side” of the beauty industry, linking common products to cancer and a host of other serious health problems. Since then, the cosmetics industry has been on notice that consumers want better, safer products in cleaner, greener packaging. The good news is that even in comparison to a few short years ago, many better options now exist, some of which are listed below.

Still, many products are still loaded with suspect chemicals. An environmental health group just last week sued several retailers for allegedly failing to label shampoos and otherproducts that containing a known carcinogen, cocamide diethanolamine (cocamide DEA). The Center for Environmental Health said it has a list of 100 offenders which allegedly run afoul of the excellent right-to-know label laws under Prop 65 in California.

For another example, here’s the list from a “natural” oatmeal lotion marketed for use on babies that contains at least 4 chemicals of concern (the “ick” you’ll soon learn how to spot yourself!):

IMG_1618 Under the government’s watch, tens of thousands of chemicals have made their way to store shelves. While many of them remain untested, some of them have known links to cancer and reproductive health impacts. Shockingly, the FDA can’t require companies to test for safety.

Some unlucky folks also have far greater exposure to harmful beauty products on the job. Salon workers, for instance, face many of the nastiest chemicals—formaldehyde, pthalates and others—hour after hour, day after day. Grassroots groups have started pushing for safer working conditions in salons, and wonderful, active coalitions like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are doing great work to make products safer for consumers. Congress is taking note, though the bill currently being proposed to fix the problem still needs some work.

IMG_1573Revenge of the Nerds: Becoming a Label Scanner

In the meantime, you should know what’s safe and what’s, well, not so much. So I’ve compiled my own list of the worst offenders, as a rough guide. I also recommend checking on stuff in the incredible database on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website. It allows you to search for products, providing a detailed analysis of ingredients and any chemicals of concern. You can also search by ingredient if a product’s not listed.

Because it’s hard to shop for better products when you have a toddler nagging at you, I’ve found that committing a few key abbreviations for certain chemicals to memory and learning how to do a quick label scan is an invaluable asset. Although its not an exhaustive list, the below is a half-decent crib sheet for when you’re standing in the makeup aisle cursing under your breath. (That’s probably me next to you, squinting at the teensy print and cursing audibly.)

Like with food, better products these days often have fewer ingredients, and organic ingredients, labeled as such. Their labels tend to include parentheticals with real words in them like (coconut) or (flax oil). On the other hand, if you see a long list of chemicals (especially those with numbers or a string of capital letters), that tends to be a good product to avoid. I read up from the bottom of the list, because that’s where the worst offenders often hide out.

IMG_1575 Key Chemicals to Avoid: The “Icky 11”

1) Phthalates

Phthalates are widely used in perfume, nail polish, soap, shampoo, moisturizers, soap and hair spray. They’ve been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and can cause reproductive and developmental disorders. They are listed under a variety of names, and two of them—dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate—are banned from cosmetic products in the European Union but are still used in products in the U.S.

Pthalates are also used to make plastics more pliable, including in polyvinyl choloride (PVC), as in this staggering list from the National Library of Medicine:

flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap. Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.

So they’re everywhere, and worth avoiding when you can. As to cosmetics, here’s what’s tricky: sometimes they’re added to products under the generic term “fragrance,” so in addition to avoiding any ingredients with “phthalate” in the name, you should also steer clear of products containing “fragrance.” This is especially true for pregnant women, pre-teens and young adults, and babies, who are more vulnerable to their health hazards. Pick “no-scent” or “no fragrance” as your go-to whenever possible, and stay out of the department store perfume aisle! 

2) Parabens

Like phthalates, parabens come under a variety of names. The four that most commonly appear in cosmetic and bath products are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben. They’re added to shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions to kill microbes.

Parabens are found in adundance on store shelves and have been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. They’re absorbed through the skin: U.K. researchers found detectable levels of six different parabens in twenty human breast tumors in a 2004 study.

3) Lead or Lead acetate

Lead acetate is a toxin that affects reproduction and development. It’s not as common as parabens or phthalates, but it’s a doozy. It scores a terrible “10” in the Skin Deep Database, and has been linked to cancer and is banned from cosmetics in Canada. Currently the FDA allows it in the U.S. except in products applied around the eyes. Do not buy any products containing this chemical and toss any you might own.

In addition, a recent study found shockingly high levels of lead in lipstick (especially the dark reds and browns I wore all though the late 1980s and early ’90s, trying in vain to steal Molly Ringwald’s look from “the Breakfast Club”). I will just note that this puts a potent neurotoxin on your lips, kinda’ close to your brain.

Kids shouldn’t play with your lipstick, either. And while we’re on the subject of lead, I have more bad news. Face-painting make-up used for kids has been found to have dangerous lead levels and should be avoided: a 2009 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in 10 out of 10 face paints tested. This is a hard one, as it’s on offer at every durn festival we go to and is popular at Halloween. If you want to pack your own safer stuff or have it on hand for dress-ups at homes, you can make your own or buy this product, which looks to be the safest I’ve found.

4) Formaldehyde and toluene

Formaldehyde and toluene are found in nail products like polish, treatments and strengtheners. They’re also found in hair dyes and the now-notorious hair-straightening products called “Brazilian Blowouts.”

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory toxin. Toluene is a neurotoxin that can impair breathing and irritate the skin. They’re both terrible for you, and pregnant women should be especially careful about exposure because of the threats they pose to developing fetuses. Staying out of salons while pregnant is a great idea for a number of reasons.

5) Coal tar

Coal tar is found in a number of dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and skin lotions. It’s a black, viscous liquid that’s produced during the distillation of coal. It’s a known carcinogen and bioaccumulating respiratory toxin, but despite these health concerns, it was deemed safe for consumers at typical levels of use. Because it poses such grave consequences for health, I would highly recommend avoiding it.

IMG_15706) Aluminum chlorohydrate

Aluminum chlorohydrate is used in anti-antiperspirants. It’s suspected of causing breast cancer, and subject to restrictions in Canada. While EWG only gives it a 3, a raft of finding linking effects on breast cancer tumors to aluminum are worrisome enough to include it as a precaution.

7) Triclosan

Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent found in many deodorants and soaps. It’s been linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity and skin irritation. It also can encourage development of drug-resistant bacteria. Definitely to be avoided.

8) Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA)

These chemicals are used to adjust the pH in products like shampoos and hair dyes. Each carries a number of concerns, but DEA (including cocomide DEA mentioned above), is a likely carcinogen as well as skin and respiratory toxin, and is the most dangerous of the three.

9) Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)

EDTA is found in shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, soap, body wash and moisturizers, to prevent spoilage and as a way of keeping clear liquids from getting cloudy. It makes chemicals more absorbable through the skin, which is a reason to avoid it as well. It has a low hazard rating from EWG but has been classified as expected “to be toxic or harmful” by Environment Canada. It is known to cause liver damage and skin irritation. It has killed patients in large doses using it for chelation in alternative medicine and appears to increase lead absorption in patients.

10) Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate (SLS)

Along with other sulfates with very similar names–sodium lauryl sulfate, for instance—SLS is used in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes to cause the product to foam and remove debris. SLS has a bad reputation but EWG gives it a relatively low hazard ranking. Though it can cause skin irritation, the primary concern is that SLS can be contaminated with two really nasty chemicals—ehtylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen, and 1,4-dioxane, which has been linked to cancer and is banned in Canada.

11) Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene glycol can be found in makeup, sun screens and body washes. While it gets a relatively low hazard score from EWG, like SLS, there’s a chance of contamination with ehtylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which pose grave health concerns. It’s often followed by a number.

IMG_1561Weird Science: The Label Lies

So there are a lot of nasty chemicals out there. And the “good guys” are hard to find. Due to lax marketing laws, many items labeled as organic actually contain few organic ingredients. Even worse, some more natural products, like those deodorant stones, are not as green as they seem.

Second, there is massive greenwashing in this area: terms like “all natural,” or “green” or “nutrient rich” are not defined in law, and therefore should not be taken seriously by you at all. (Just do as I do and pronounce aloud “wah wah wah wah” like the teacher in Charlie Brown’s class while standing in the aisle. Stores love that.)

Third, some prominent “natural” brands have actually been acquired by much larger companies, including Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine, and some of the products have been reformulated to be less of a sure thing (though both companies remain far better than the average).

Sadly, the medical establishment is of little use here. When I took Maya to a skin doctor recently, I was shocked to see that the lotions with medication in them the doctor was handing out samples of all contained some of the worst offenders on the Ick List. Then I went home and read the bottles of our other children’s products, like the liquid suspensions of ibuprofen. All of them had suspect dyes and parabens. Nothing like dosing children with a sip of potentially hazardous yuck to fix a minor health problem!

toxic-docBecause of all this, the best approach is to simplify your routine. Just decide what products you really need on a daily basis and for the occasional special event, and toss the rest. I use much less stuff than I used to, and really, truly don’t miss it.

Then you’ll also have more time to look up the facts on what you do need: just check in the EWG database. They have great lists by product category starting with 0, or no known risk from chemicals. I aim personally for nothing higher than 2, and mostly 0s and 1s. I’m even stricter with kids’ stuff, and prefer 0s or 1s for that. I also check the individual listings for each product so that I know all of the ingredients are a-OK.

Of course, you can always make stuff yourself. There are a ton of great recipes on the interwebs for everything from toner to lotion, bath salts to body scrubs. There are also suggestions about cleaning your skin with honey, which was lovely when I tried it, or with food-grade oils, which I also found to be easy and effective when I gave it a go. And it works for babies too!

Olive and coconut oil make great hair conditioners (and detanglers for kids’ hair), and organic shea butter has been a life-saver for us for treating Maya’s mild eczema. Farmer’s markets are another good source for simply made products and home remedies.

IMG_1568Some Kind of Wonderful: Products We Actually Like

Below are a few of my favorite companies. These are items we’ve actually used and liked. In addition, I’ve indicated some more widely available and affordable substitutes from major retailers as stuff I’ve used in a pinch or when I wasn’t feeling spendy.

The blog for one of my favorite companies, Bubble & Bee, is amazing and very much worth checking out for its wealth of interesting information from Stephanie, the company’s thoughtful founder.

Baby and kid products:

Adult Personal Care and Cosmetics:

Companies that I have not yet tried, but hear good things about:

A few better brands from big retail stores (but check by product!):

Note: None of these links are commissioned, though Sappho Cosmetics was kind enough to send me free samples of their make-up when I returned to work. While much appreciated generally, this did not influence my evaluation of their products.

Additionally, for reasons that elude me, the headings all ended up referring to ’80s movies. If you have more to suggest on that score, or products you personally use and like — no commercial posters allowed — then please weigh in! If there are other chemicals you avoid, I’d love to know that too.

IMG_1569Other posts you may like:

 

Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep

IMG_0365I’ll concede off the top that it takes a, well, special level of pickiness to go through your own kitchen cupboards with a gimlet eye, wondering which of the assorted containers, cookery, food processors, and other paraphernalia might be slowly poisoning you, a little bit at a time.

And it can be an expensive proposition to make over your kitchen to be less toxic, so unless you happen to be pregnant or chemically sensitive, its likely best tackled piecemeal or as you have the mental and physical energy to consider the changes and concomitant expense.

The two biggest offenders are plastic containers and nonstick-coated anything. The easiest, most general guideline I can offer is to ditch both of these.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. Plastic appears in places you might not expect it, like coffee-makers and food processor bowls. Some dishwasher racks are even made of PVC! And non-stick surfaces now cling persistently to bakeware and rice cookers, as well as specialty appliances like sandwich presses and waffle makers.

So I’ve pulled together the following list of common offenders and some safer alternatives. There’s a lot that can be said on each of these topics, so please consider this a cheat-sheet, for use when you’re rooting through your cabinets, muttering to yourself that it just shouldn’t be this hard….

IMG_6184Offender #1) Plastic food containers.

No plastic has definitively been found to be safe, and some have been shown to contain dangerous chemicals that are absorbed by food. The worst are those marked with a “3,” “6,” or “7.” The safer plastics are “1,” “2,” “4” and “5.” In fact, some now think that the BPA-free substitutes may be just as bad, or even worse, than BPA.

You may look around your fridge at the ubiquitous plastic containers from the grocery store, and doubt the purpose of this exercise. And you would have a point.

So here’s my best explanation for why you should bother: the single-use plastics in the fridge are not washed, heated, or run through the dishwasher, generally speaking. Plastic is inert when cold, but breaks down when subjected to heat and sunlight.

For this reason, you should never microwave in plastic, you should hand-wash any plastic lids or other items you do keep around, and you should not re-use plastic water bottles or other flimsy plastic items intended for single use. More to the point, you should think about replacing repeat-use plastic items or plastic food storage containers with more durable materials like glass or stainless steel.

If you can afford it, you may even want to replace your plastic-lidded glass containers with options that have no plastic at all. Why bother? Well, I wrote persnickety letters a while back to both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking about the contents of their plastic lids. Their answers were less than reassuring. Although I had only asked for the type of plastic, and not the “full ingredients,” the response from Pyrex was remarkably obscure, and left open the possibility that they use BPA substitutes (like BPS) that are equally harmful:

Thank you for contacting World Kitchen, LLC
We appreciate your concern regarding our products.  Our Pyrex brand lids are a composite of ingredients that, in the amounts included in the lids, meet all FDA requirements for food contact materials. We are sorry that we cannot provide you the exact ingredients in our lids. The actual list of those ingredients is proprietary to World Kitchen and its supplier. However, our supplier has confirmed that these covers do not contain any of the following ingredients. We hope this is helpful.
Polystyrene
Phthalate
BVP
PVC
Polychlorinated Vinyl
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Polycarbonate
For further assistance, please contact our Consumer Care Center. Sincerely,
World Kitchen Consumer Care Center

By comparison, Anchor Hocking was more transparent and informative, at least identifying the types of plastics used, which mostly appear to be the “safer” kinds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Anchor Hocking Company. Anchor Hocking strives to maintain high quality standards to provide the finest glassware and accessories available.  We are proud of our products and responsiveness to our consumer questions. The plastic covers for our ovenware and Kitchen Storageware products are made from a combination of LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and a material called POE (Poly Olefin Ester).  The plastic center for our “TrueSeal” and “TrueFit” product is polyethylene with the perimeter of the cover made from thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).  The custard cup covers are made out of Linnear Low Density Poly Ethylene (LLDPE). Our Bake N Store gasket fitment is silicone.  All materials used in our covers and fitments are Federal Drug Administration (FDA) acceptable.  Additionally all old plastic covers and fitments do not contain bisphenol (BPA). Plastic fitment to our storageware offerings is a poly and ethylene material composition (PE).

IMG_4760Greener alternative #1: Glass and metal containers.

The upshot for us is that we are gradually trading out our plastic lidded containers for either tiffins, these awesome plastic-free food storage wraps (about which there is more below), and rubber gasket stainless steel containers, all of which work well. The geniuses at Life Without Plastic have a number of options in this regard (like these), which we are slowly subbing in for our bevy of plastic-lidded glass containers.

Canning jars are another option, but many of them have BPA under the lids. Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely.

Sadly, most food processors are also plastic, and most older ones have BPA in the food area (and adverts for newer ones do not say the substitutes for BPA being use, which could be as bad or worse). I use my glass blender whenever I can by adding more liquid, or wield a stick blender in a stainless pot. I also use a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything. And when I invested recently in a real juicer (bought used off Craigslist!), I chose a high-end Breveille, with a stainless steel body and parts except for the compost bin that collects vegetables and fruits after use.

If you can’t get rid of all your plastic containers, remember to handwash them, as the chemicals can leach out due to the heat of the dishwasher.

IMG_1728Offender #2) Non-stick cookware.

As much as it makes me cringe to remember, at one point I loved my Teflon pans. They were a breeze to clean and like many people, I thought I was safe if I avoided scratches and dings that caused the surface to flake into food. But one of the primary chemicals used in non-stick surfaces is a nasty carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and even a pristine pan undergoes a dangerous material breakdown when raised to temperatures frequently reached in cooking.

Greener alternative #2: Enameled or plain cast-iron and stainless steel pans.

Enameled cast-iron is easy to clean and doesn’t need to be seasoned. We’re also happy with stainless steel and occasionally use well-oiled cast iron. Pans from Le Creuset or one of their many competitors are expensive but last forever and come in shapes and sizes that are a breeze to use for many types of dishes. They are our go-to for pans and large casserole pots. We also have this great little two-part pot and pan set sold only by Sur La Table, which includes the smallest enamel pan I’ve found and is amazing for eggs.

Le Creuset also makes a wonderful reversible enameled griddle for gas-top stoves, which seasons just like cast iron and looks dark like cast iron, but is in fact enamel-finished. (I questioned store reps at the Bethesda location on this point last spring.) I also love the Dutch ovens they sell, with one adjustment: I replaced the knob with a stainless steel one (annoying that it’s sold separately) because I didn’t want a plastic knob going in the oven, even at temperatures that the company said were acceptable.

You can also find them sometimes at yard sales, on Craigslist, at outlet malls and discount stores or on sale after the holidays for considerably less. When using stainless steel or regular cast iron pans, we’re not afraid of having to scrub it on occasion. As readers know, I’m also simply mad about my crockery tagine.

For other pots, 18/10 stainless steel in basic shapes like this Dutch Oven works well. For cookie sheets and pie pans without teflon, look to professional bakeware marketed for chefs, most of whom would never dream of using non-stick. Here’s a link to the reasonably priced the cookie sheet I recently scored, and a pie pan made of high-quality stainless steel, both by Norpro.

Because no one’s really clear what’s in it, I part ways with many greener folks by remaining skeptical about silicone bakeware and spatulas or other kitchen items as well (though anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry agrees with me on this in her terrific book).

IMG_0369Offender #3) Drip coffee makers.

Most of the coffee makers I see sitting on kitchen counters are composed almost entirely of plastic. This is a terrible choice of construction material. Hot plastic releases toxic chemicals and coffee, which is naturally acidic, only makes the chance that chemicals will leach all the more likely. In the comically titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the authors intentionally raise or lower their blood levels of BPA by drinking out of a plastic drip coffeemaker.

Greener alternative #3: Chemex.

In the past we’ve used a stainless steel electric kettle and a tempered glass french press. It was a head-and-shoulders improvement over our old coffeemaker, but we have a new favorite: a Chemex. It contains no plastic. Clean up is easy-peasy. The coffee tastes great and can be refrigerated and stored for iced coffee.

If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop and opted for a “pour over,” this is what the barista probably used to make your premium cup of joe. Other plastic-free options are stainless percolators like this one. And there are porcelain one-cup cones like this one that go on top of a coffee cup. There are several kinds and sizes, so you may want to compare reviews. When buying paper filters, remember to get the unbleached variety.

IMG_0387

Offender #4) Some ceramic crock pots and ceramic dishes.

While I love slow cookers, some of them can leach lead due to the glaze used for their ceramic bowls. There hasn’t been a conclusive survey of which brands do and do not contain lead glazes, and the only information available is anecdotal. The best way to determine if your slow cooker is lead free is to buy a testing kit and give it a swab. Our Rival crockpot came up negative for lead, so I hope the test was right!

For a long time, lead was a common ingredient in glazes used for ceramic kitchenware. Most manufactures phased it out when it was shown to leach into food, but it still turns up with shocking frequency, especially in imported products. So swab your dishes down as well, and look for assurances that what you buy is specifically labeled lead-free. Be aware that cookware and dishes handed down from relatives should be swabbed before being used!

IMG_0378Greener alternative #4: Stainless steel pressure and rice cookers, and glass and stainless dishware.

Pressure cookers are wonderful, but most of them on the market are actually made of aluminum, as was the one we used for years before figuring this out. Aluminum has been found to leach out of cooking vessels, and while the link to Alzheimer’s is disputed, is known to be neurologically toxic at higher levels and among workers (PDF).

Thankfully, there are a few models on the market made of stainless steel, like this one we now own. Pressure cookers cut cooking times to a fraction of what they would be on the stove. Dried beans are a breeze to cook, which means you can stop buying prepared beans in BPA-lined cans. If you cook rice as frequently as we do, you can also now easily find affordable stainless steel rice cookers, like this one.

As for dishes, lead exposure is especially dangerous for young children, who have developing nervous systems and are more to susceptible to effects like learning disabilities and brain damage. Both out of this concern and to avoid plastic, as I discuss below, we found a stainless steel dish set from Lunch Bots that we like. It’s dishwasher and oven safe, lead and BPA free. Maya also enjoys her bus plate from Innobaby, of stainless steel. More recently, we’ve used Duralex dishes made from tempered glass, as pictured above (best prices I’ve found are here).

IMG_4040Offender #5) Plastic tableware and to-go-ware for kids.

Speaking of un-fantastic plastic, sippy cups, even, the ones made from “better” plastic, should be no exception, especially if you’re in the habit, like basically all parents, of putting them in the dishwasher. And those cute decorated white plastic, or melamine, dishes for kids are also dubious. In a recent study:

researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small — up to 8 parts per billion — melamine is a known carcinogen.

While it’s true that the FDA, in all its wisdom, says blood levels of melamine would have to be much, much higher to definitely cause cancer, why add to a toddler’s blood levels of a known carcinogen?

Plastic to-go items, like character lunch boxes and thermoses for kids, are also depressingly laden with harmful chemicals. Many of the plastic lunch boxes are actually made of PVC, a poison plastic! Soda cans are lined in BPA, milk and juice boxes all have a thin lining of polyethylene inside, and plastic sandwich baggies are often also made of PVC.

Greener alternative #5: Stainless steel bottles, and glass and stainless dishware and to-go ware.

As I’ve written before, my favorite cups are the Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles. They come with a silicone nipple and tests show no leaching of metals. There are also more grown-up versions available of both these and glass bottles; those made of a stronger glass like borosilicate are best. Lifefactory bottles, which are both kid and adult-friendly, come with a protective sleeve made of silicone that doesn’t contact the liquid inside.

I’ve added suggestions and links on dishes to Section #4, just above. To the extent we buy plastic wrap or bags, we look for ones labeled “PVC-free.” Other better options for to-go food that we find work include:

  1. Wax paper bags for dry items like these;
  2. Organic sack lunch bags like this cute dinosaur bag or this friendly one;
  3. Almost entirely stainless steel insulated containers from Klean Kanteen;
  4. Stainless snack containers from To-Go Ware or Kids Konserve;
  5. Stackable lunch tiffin from To-Go Ware and a sandwich-sized box from New Wave;
  6. The coolest lunch box ever from Planetbox (though I wish they were organic fabric!).

We’ve also ogled the organic sandwich bags at Mighty Nest from EcoDitty, the adorable organic lunch sacks from Hero Bags, a U.S. based fair trade company, and the kits and stand-alone stainless steel containers from Ecolunchboxes, but have not yet tried them. Life Without Plastic also has a large number of options for kids’ tableware.

IMG_0360Other good stuff I’ve found…

Once you’ve tackled the big stuff, you can look around your kitchen and starting nit-picking the little stuff and tossing the odd old plastic spatula. If you have stuff you’ve found, please share! Things I’ve picked up as needed or as they wore out include:

  1. A stainless steel baster;
  2. A stainless steel ice cube tray (which was great for freezing portions of baby food);
  3. Stainless steel popsicle molds;
  4. A no-plastic wrap that is amazing for cheese and sandwich storage and also deforms easily over the top of any pot or bowl;
  5. A reusable bamboo utensil set;
  6. Awesome, versatile stainless steel cooling cubes for drinks, coolers and endless other uses;
  7. Canvas (rather than “vinyl,” which is PVC) bags for cake decorating;
  8. …. and so on…

IMG_0370Note: None of the links in this post are commissioned. Happy cooking!

Hot Reads: CA Takes Back Its Dumb Rule, Chemical Reform Under Contemplation, and More

Wicker Picnic Basket Grass 6-1-09 1

(Photo credit: stevendepolo)

Kick up your feet: this couch won’t bite!

Fantastic news from California! It looks like beginning this winter, furniture makers will be able to jettison toxic flame retardants from their products. Currently, manufacturers use these chemicals to comply with a stupid CA state law, even though the flame retardants are linked to learning deficits, cancer, lowered IQ and other issues and do little to protect against fires.

A proposed rule allows manufacturers to discontinue the use of flame retardant chemicals in January 2014, with all manufacturers required to achieve full compliance by January 2015. This is an issue that has been driving me crazy for some time, and I’ve written about it obsessively a lot. I’m looking forward to the day when we can all breathe a sigh of relief, lie down on our couches, and take a long, peaceful nap.

Be aware that whatever the final implementation date, manufacturers will still need to change their supply chains, which may take a while. In the meantime, here’s my FAQ on flame retardants, here’s some options I found, and here’ s a handy-dandy cheat sheet of purchase options from the folks at Green Science Policy Institute, which also has their own FAQ.

It’s about time: A Quick Take on Last Week’s Chemical Reform hearing

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It was a joke almost from the get-go: while it purported to assure the safety of thousands of chemicals in common household products, in reality the chemical industry got the government to give tens of thousands of them a free pass. Since then, the number of chemicals in our live has gotten larger but government regulation covers only a fraction of a percent of them. A key example: asbestos, which we know causes mesothelioma and a host of other health problems, cannot be banned under the law!

Finally, after 37 years, Congress is considering updating chemical safeguards, thanks in part to the incredible leadership of the late Senator from New Jersey, the Honorable Frank Lautenberg. This should have been done a long time ago, but the gathering momentum and discussion of a proposed new bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), offers some (limited) hope, following a marathon Senate Environment and Public Works hearing last week.

Sadly, as the testimony from panel after panel made clear, the new proposal is not as strong as it should be. Given the persistent gridlock in Congress, I was cheered to hear Senators from both sides of the aisle agreeing on something essential: that there is a pressing need to reform the chemical oversight law. Some lawmakers floated the notion that they are willing to work together, which is a refreshing change, and gives me hope that the bill can actually be fixed.

More cynically, I see it as a clear signal that the chemical industry is ready to deal, and that they have finally decided that some rules to reassure the public of the safety of their products may be better than the Wild West. In the current environment, companies are never sure about whether a product is going to land them in some scary headlines and tick off moms like me. In addition, most multinationals are already complying with stricter laws in Europe, so perhaps uniformity has advantages in terms of costs for them. Ominously, there was a not-so-subtle suggestion from a few GOP lawmakers that the current proposal is the best that will be offered, which would be a crying shame, given that none of the many environmental and public health organizations on the panel supports the current version.

What are the flaws and omissions in the proposal? Sadly, there is still lots of work to be done. Many witnesses raised the important issue of the need to provide protections for state laws that are already on the books and to ensure that whatever federal standards are developed do not over-ride the state provisions. This issue — called preemption by lawyers — is needed because the states have stepped into the breach during the long winter of federal inaction on chemicals and many have their own rules that should remain in force.

In addition, nothing in the proposed law provides specific protections for vulnerable people, such as children, or pregnant and nursing moms. But we know that exposure to chemicals cannot be judged on an average basis, because there are simply windows of time in our lives when exposure to even a relatively small amount of chemicals may have devastating health effects. That’s why advocates have been so concerned about findings of chemicals in umbilical cords and cord-blood of brand-new babies: this is such an intense period of cellular development that the impact of chemicals can be far greater than it would be for an adult. In addition, environmental justice concerns about how chemical facilities and releases are concentrated in low-income areas means this kind of assessment must be done for basic fairness.

Third, because the name of the game in DC these days is paralysis by analysis, I was excited and cheered to see so many folks raise the need for hard deadlines in the law. There is clearly no stomach for another 37 years of delay. Witnesses also spoke to the importance of developing a clear and simple process for any new rule, and some even called for an assessment by the current regulators of how long, exactly, it would take under the law before the first new standard could get out the door.

The bottom line is that the bill has to be improved before it moves forward. Senator Boxer (D.-CA), the chair of the committee, provided wonderful clarity on this point and definitely seems like she on the case. But she needs our support, so here’s how to help:

Let’s be clear: this is more energy towards real chemical reform than we have seen in years, and a moment that is not be wasted. So let’s all do what we can to keep raising the costs of failure and inaction on this critical public health issue, for your kids and mine.

Water, Water Everywhere

Is your water safe to drink? Maybe, but maybe not. If it passes through PVC pipes it might contain vinyl chloride. And lead is unfortunately still a concern. Check out these tips from Healthy Child Healthy World. They list dangers to watch for and measures you can take to ensure that you and your family are staying hydrated and toxin-free.

Hot Fun in the City? Not so much.

Sunscreen, plastic pitchers of lemonade, insect repellant and a red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloth. Sounds like a great picnic, right? Sadly, no. All of these products contain dangerous toxins, so before you fire up the grill for a couple end-of-summer barbecues, do a little research to make sure you aren’t unwittingly exposing yourself to harmful chemicals. To help you avoid toxin-tainted products as the summer wraps up, the folks at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families have put together an informative graphic and released startling new test results on a bevy of summertime fun products.

There are more offenders than you might think, in places you might not suspect. Check it out and chuck the plastic and folding chairs, so that you are chilling in the dwindling days of summer in a toxin-free environment. And while you’re picnicking, please contemplate the nuttiness of a world in which the red-checked tablecloth is poison, and the blue-checked one is fine. Another reason we need that federal reform law!

Don’t Spank Your Toddler. Full stop.

Given my recent post on respectful communication with a child and developing resilience through trust, I was shocked to learn this week that 94 percent of toddlers are spanked and fifty percent are spanked three or more times a week. Really, what lesson does spanking teach? What does it demonstrate to children except that physical violence is appropriate behavior? And what effects does it have on the relationship between a parent and a child?

StopSpanking.org put together this incredible video about their efforts to ban spanking. The video is proposal for a full-length documentary, and funds are being solicited to produce it. Watch the video. It’s eye-opening.

Childhood obesity: down?

Good news for once: recent studies actually show a drop in childhood obesity. Hello! Let’s figure out why please, and do more of that.

The tragic costs of regulatory resistance

I wrote last week about the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a train carrying crude oil exploded and killed 47 people. Now the victims’ families will suffer more. When the costs associated with the crash were estimated at $200 million this week, the company responsible for the disaster—Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway—filed for bankruptcy because it was carrying only $25 million in insurance coverage. Appalling.

Extra! Extra!

The week began with a bombshell: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, made arrangements to purchase The Washington Post. At first glance, the story had all the trappings of a modern-day tragedy. A man who made his fortune on the internet was buying a newspaper that owed its demise to that very same cornerstone of the digital age.

But the more I read about Bezos, the more I wondered about his motives and what they might suggest for the future of the paper. The Post, like much of print journalism, has seen better days. Its revenue has fallen 44 percent over the past six years and in 2012 its operating loss topped $50 million.

So why did Bezos, a calculating businessman, fork over a quarter of a billion dollars for it? Was it a vanity purchase to raise his intellectual cachet? Was it a hobby buy to feed a love of letters? An act of philanthropy? An ego move to show he could succeed where others failed? Or an attempt to purchase a mouthpiece on federal policy and influence federal lawmakers in support of his left-libertarian views? Only time will tell.

And that’s a wrap for this week. Hope you are having a lovely August!

The Resilience of Children, and All of Us

Photo of Maya by Jay Premack, www.jaypremack.com

Maya…in…space, photo by Jay Premack, http://www.jaypremack.com

From the time a child is born, there is the struggle: to know, to do, to become. As a parent, we spend a baby’s earliest days answering to their cry, becoming trained ourselves in an extraordinary responsiveness.

As infants become toddlers and then, far too quickly, young children, we watch, amazed, as they master new skills, as they alternate between the drive to autonomy that makes them insist on doing something themselves, and their quick collapse into tears and frustration when the button won’t slip through the tiny hole. A certain amount of retraining has to occur for parents, to still our impulse to help them through each small challenge, to step back and wait to see if they call us to act.

I’ve been reflecting recently on several articles, including one which detailed a self-confessed helicopter mom’s struggle to let her child take risks, and another which clarified a crucial question about happiness. In the first, with laudable honesty and self-reflection, the mom works with the author of Free Range Kids, a book about over-parenting in modern life, to recalibrate her family’s boundaries for her two kids.

She makes a list of risks she has disallowed, like using a hammer or playing in their front yard with access to the street, and works with the coach to address her own anxiety. She mentions the exhilaration in her son’s eyes as he tackles each new possibility, and how he perseveres with the hammer even after whacking his thumb.

Her candor provides a ready guide for parents who have gone overboard, as a means to re-introduce reasonable risks to children’s lives. As the research shows (for example, here), there is a widespread concern that some kids — read: children with an attentive family — are being coddled in ways that threaten their development, and even, over the longer term, diminish their feelings of self-worth. Perhaps it’s because we have fewer children per family, or because the 24-hour internet is always tripping our alarms, or perhaps even because so many of us work (indoors, in antiseptic environments) that we both view childhood as more precious and can judge risks with less accuracy.

But it was the second article, on the common confusion between the search for meaning and our quest for happiness, that really clarified my thoughts. The article recalls an important, ancient distinction: between “hedonic” happiness (i.e., satisfaction from acquiring status or stuff) and the more challenging terrain of doing work that is meaningful to you and the larger society. The medical research shows, amazingly, that people pursuing happiness without meaning are creating the same kinds of stressors in their bodies’ immune systems as people experiencing chronic adversity.

This is both an astonishing result and blindingly obvious. Who hasn’t looked at a paunchy investment banker and thought their pallid complexion belied their public success? This is physiological evidence of what creates resilience in our lives.

We know that people who serve others seem more vital and grounded — we admire them for their drive and their service, both. In movies and books, we celebrate them as heroes — as long-toiling, unheralded, creating meaning out of darkness. If so many people did not choose this path of simple respect for hard work and quiet dedication, nothing would work: our mail would never get delivered, scientific discoveries would not be made, and dinner would never get cooked.

This is necessary work, and life is work. Of course, the work of children is play, and exploration. And while they grow, we would like to protect them from harm. Some days, though, we would even like to shield them from fear or disappointment. Balancing our need to protect them with an understanding that resilience is a learned response, and trusting that they are active agents in the co-creation of their lives, both capable and aware, is the challenge.

Complicating the task, as yet a third prescient article pointed out, is the rarely acknowledged fact that living is inherently traumatic. Even now, at two, Maya will worry about Swiper, the most innocent of villains in her (idiotic) Dora books, or bring home concerns about whether the lions in the zoo can come to our house. I reassure her as best I can, but I know that one day relatively soon she will see through the facile surface of my soothing tones, and come to doubt my word if I over-promise. I can tell her today that the lions aren’t coming, but I can’t promise her much else.

Fear of loss is written into our lives, and figuring out what information is appropriate for which child at which age is a constant act of careful judgment and re-balancing. Of course, grief and loss interfere more often than we care to admit with the lives of children, most commonly when they must dealt with the death of a loved one or a beloved pet.

In these difficult conversations, our own apprehension can mean we just talk too much: interpreting their questions, which can turn out to be quite simple, as a need to understand the whole picture from an adult perspective. Slowing down to really hear what they are asking and assess what they need to know in response turns out to be essential, so that we don’t overshare inadvertently. Often what is required is the simple facts.

We also have to acknowledge that many children live in daily peril of experiencing more tragic events like abuse and violence. Leaving aside awful, sudden tragedies like Newtown, there are entire neighborhoods today that deal with constant trauma from gun violence, as This American Life showed in its stunning two-part investigation into a Chicago high school facing a local epidemic of violence. These kinds of events are, of course, unacceptable, and should be prevented with far more foresight and care than we bring to them currently. Among other needs, what happened with the failure to enact better gun control is shameful.

But if we can set these types of unbearable circumstances to one side, it seems important to allow far more ordinary risks and failures. Imbuing our children with a sense that hard work is essential to success, that some frustration is an inevitable part of pushing through, that even real disappointment is part of the package, strikes me as a key task for parents. To the extent that some philosophies of parenting are interpreted as requiring parents to prevent children from struggling in a healthy, natural way with things that require sustained effort to accomplish, they do a disservice to both parents and kids.

The teachers I have remembered most (Patrice, I mean you) are the ones that invested in me by expecting better of me, all the time. A generous appraisal and belief in one’s capacity is an intensely supportive and empowering form of care, involving as it must such a close assessment of what is enough, and what is too much. And a simple statement of the results following a failure and a discussion of what could change for future attempts is often of more service than cheerleading, brassy dismissiveness, soothing talk or otherwise diminishing the significance of the goals, because any of these provide false comfort and undermine ambition.

Of course, there is a fine line between a show of power and a show of genuine caring. As a guide then, I take a few lessons for my own parenting choices:

1) Fear: Although I will try to keep inappropriately frightening content away from my child, I will also try to address her fears with honesty as appropriate. I will calm myself first, listen carefully to what she is actually asking, and provide a simple, factual response.

2) Disappointment: Although I will never manufacture disappointment (lord knows, children are whimsical enough to do it themselves many times in a day), I will attempt to deal factually and directly with the disappointments that inevitably occur: “No, we don’t have x, you may have y or z.” I will have patience with the melt-down that occurs, and understand it as a lesson in the facts of life: as her new teacher says, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” In this way, I will hope to avoid late-night travels in search of a particular color of strawberry ice cream, as I heard from a friend she once ruefully did…

3) Risk: I will regularly update my assessment of my daughter’s capabilities, allow her real choices, and support my child in doing hard things, because this is where ingenuity can happen and self-confidence can be built. I will make space she needs as she gains independence, and support her ambitions tangibly, without overpraising and without being afraid for her of the always-present possibility of failure.

We should wish for our children that they try and fail at many hard things, to help them discover the things worth working for — and what they are truly good at — from within. As it turns out, sustaining a quest for authentic meaning in our lives, even if doesn’t always lead to happiness, is healthier for both bodies and hearts. If parenting means anything, surely it means this.

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Below is an original poem, from an adult perspective, on the trials of this effort, and its many demands. It’s a bit darker than the above, of course, but I was re-reading it the other day and it struck me that it speaks to resilience as well as hardship.

Creatures of Appetite

There are many ways to be brave.

There is the small fortitude of refusing an invitation,
saying, tonight I will stay at home alone and
do something of no consequence.

There is the tiny  – almost imperceptible – act of not flinching at a threat to someone you love.

There is the courage of yielding gracefully to a moment of inevitability, when it finally fails.

There is this grieving, too much of the time.

There is the stirring of a small obstinacy in the face of incredible tedium,
the getting up, cleaning, the taking down.

There is the fortitude of trying to stay in love or even just
to be kind when love is the farthest
unreachable place.

There is the stubbornness of looking someone in the eye
who is about to hurt you and letting them,
though you will study that hurt like a bone with its secrets.

There is a tacit acknowledgement that what you hoped
is irrelevant, and in the face of such knowledge

there is the strange persistence of how it asks and keeps
asking whatever you have,

how it empties your hands, just to move on.

A Conversation that Could Change the World

Some Things Never Change

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we buy stuff for our homes — like food or personal care products — many of us, including my own family, try to do the best we can for the planet and our own health. Conscientious consumption, or a genuine attempt at it given the limits of our budget and information, is a glossy new trend, as we can see from shopping sites like “Ethical Ocean” that have recently sprung up and claim to tailor offerings to your values. (On my recent visit, not all of the things for sale at EO were as good on public health grounds as I would like, but most were more thoughtful than average.)

Yet outside the home, we all find ourselves in situations with far less control, even around food. We end up in hotels, airports, restaurants — spaces, which appear cold, impersonal and impervious to our desires for a better way of being in the world. I’ll often take a minute at the start of a conversation with a waiter to send them back to the kitchen with a pointed question — one that risks comparisons from colleagues to that truly hilarious Portlandia episode in which they track down the provenance of a chicken, including his name (Frank).

Still, I’m undeterred by the joke, and try not to be cowed by the need to seem cool. It’s not about hipsterism, really to ask basics like: “Is the salmon farmed?” “Is the coffee fair trade?” “Are these eggs from free range chickens?” Even when the answers come back as unpleasant ones, as they normally do, the kitchen has been put on notice.

Michael Pollan put it this way last night at his eloquent book talk here in DC, “Food is about our relationships with people, animals, the environment.” You have a relationship, for the moment you are ordering in a restaurant, with the choices they are making for you, with the waiter and the people behind them. Why not use it, just a little, and trade on it, in order to make a statement for good?

Of course, many stores are no better. I can still vividly recall one day, not long after Maya was born, when I walked into a local CVS convenience store and realized with a sudden shock that there was almost nothing in the store I would consider buying. I wandered the aisles piled high with plastic and chemically-laden baby products in a stupor, coming to the slow, somewhat painful conclusion that the state of my own information had far outstripped where the marketplace was. I felt discouraged at the amount of work ahead of me, the decisions that would have to be made about what options were, truly, better ones. And yet I was also determined, even proud, that I was taking a stand, that I knew better than to buy the stuff on offer and slather it all over my newborn.

Being me, I also had to suppress an urge to stand in the aisle and preach to other shopping moms, about whom I felt a little sad. While other parents are wonderfully potent allies in this fight, as I’ve found on this blog, any attempt to convert unsuspecting shoppers with our missionary zeal is more like to alienate than educate. In many ways, our fellow customers are the wrong target, anyway, stuck as we all are with the choices in many stores and with the markup for better things that would decimate too many family budgets.

The real target for our attention and action should of course be the corporations. And it could be so simple! I was moved and inspired by my recent action to tell Safeway to “Mind the Store” by asking them to work through their supply chain to rid themselves of toxic chemicals. All Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force and I did was to look over some items in the store and present a letter to the store manager during our brief and friendly conversation. We were nervous, because any kind of confrontation inherently makes humans nervous, but really, it was all good.

Since that day, I’ve been mulling over how to do more of this addictively easy, heady but minimalist activism. It took 3 minutes! And it made me feel great. You should do it too, IMHO.

As I”m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a world in which 300 people just died in a building collapse in Bangladesh, after major international brands like Walmart, The Gap and H&M refused to agree to a union proposal that would improve the safety of factories. (Most piercing detail: two women in the factory were evidently so pregnant that they gave birth while trapped inside the rubble.) This refusal continued even after last year’s devastating fire, in which more than 100 workers were killed after being locked into a building by managers.

So I’m sure your inner skeptic is whispering in your ear, as mine does, asking, why bother? Just how powerful is it to do this kind of thing, in terms of actually getting changes? That’s a fascinating question.

Most of us are passive about the things that make us unhappy. We listen to the skeptic before we even know what we’ve listened to. Paradoxically, though, this means that those who do speak up are understood as voicing the views of potentially hundreds of other people who didn’t bother to raise the point. Because companies hear from so few customers, you have more power than you may know.

One classic study on how businesses should respond to consumer complaints urges companies to see them as “gifts” that provide a company with the chance to improve and continue the dialogue with consumers. Even companies that lack responsiveness to individual complaints will see a pile of them as a possible new trend that threatens their business model, and will, if they are any good, eventually pay some attention.

Because I tend to go to places with the possibility of healthier food or better products, there’s even more interest there in real dialogue. I’ve given lists of better children’s products to my local co-op, requested product additions from Whole Foods, bothered the management at Trader Joe’s repeatedly with complaints about the BPA lining in their canned goods, and complained at local eateries about styrofoam to-go packaging. Just this morning, I asked the manager at Panera about their eggs, which disappointingly show no sign of being organic or even “free range.”

While it does require a little nerve, and a few minutes of your time, if we all did it instead of assuming that our conversations will be met with indifference, I think we would amaze ourselves at the pace of changes in some (better) companies.

You could also print and hand them a little, friendly card making your point. Or make your own on the spot with a napkin or scrap of paper. It could say: “Hi there, I would be a more loyal customer if you would do X.” Making a record of the interaction makes more of an impression, and links you to others who may be doing the same. And of course, there’s always social media — a FB post or tweet takes seconds, and a video or photo of the action can speak volumes, influencing everyone else in your networks to do the same.

For certain companies, their leadership regarding the environmental practices is on the line. And they’re not always doing all they can. Flor carpeting, for just one example, has excellent sustainability practices in general but lines the bottom of its products with PVC, a so-called “poison plastic.”

For these kinds of companies, as well as all the others who are not even trying, we should hold their feet to the fire and push them to pioneer truly better products and packaging.

First, we have to get over our skepticism, our natural feelings of embarrassment, and our shame in all of the choices we’ve already made. We have contact with literally hundreds of companies every time we shop or eat out, and those relationships are within our power to change, if we only we were to take that power seriously. Its our assumption that how we feel doesn’t matter — and that we have to live, silently, with our complicity in these systems we know enough to despise — that will kill our spirit, in the end.

If not now, when?

If not us, who?

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Tell the Manager: Your Company Can Do Better

Three simple thoughts on the nuts and bolts of shop-tivism:

1) Break the stereotype: be nice. Most of the time, the person you are speaking with has little power to impact the situation. Be clear and be heard, and ask them to act as they can, but a little smile and eye contact can make it more likely they will.

2) Make a record. If you have a minute, write down your issue with specifics so someone can pass it along. It makes much more of an impression, and helps to ensure that someone up the food chain hears from you. Below are some examples:

3) Follow up as you have time. Told to contact corporate HQ? Do it if you can, when you can. Emails, tweets, Facebook are also all great.

If you are voting with your feet — you can let stores and restaurants know that as well: for example, a note to the manager saying this kind of thing can be powerful: “I’m not a customer of yours — Wal-mart, H&M, Gap — because I don’t shop at businesses that won’t ensure the basic safety of workers in their factories around the world. I’m appalled at your anti-union activities and the working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and enough is enough.”

Last, please share your stories: let me know if you’re as inspired as I am to get out there and get heard!

(A special shout-out to my new friends in Reno — Lindsay told me you are out there, which was so lovely… so stop lurking and say hi!)

Related posts:

A Greener Easter

IMG_6266

Around here, the holidays of whatever sort are mainly good reasons for crafting. (We’re devout Unitarians, meaning that we go to Christmas Eve services religiously every year. Ha.)

This year, I eyed Easter on the calendar and decided, as is my wont, to de-plastic and unjunk the basket. No Peeps for us peeps. And none of that irritatingly static-y plastic grass, which is a pointless use for various poison plastics (including PVC), if I ever saw one.

I found a spare basket at the thrift store for .60 cents, rounded up green shredded paper (though paper from the actual shredder or a little tissue paper would work just fine), and picked up a few small but adorable toys from the stuff sold by Maya’s new Waldorf school, including this cute egg made by Fairyfolk and a chick finger puppet inside from Folkmanis.

IMG_6294I also allowed myself to finally buy these long-coveted pastel Tegu blocks, ostensibly for Ms. M, but really for me to play with.

IMG_6295IMG_6296I liked the idea of a real toy in the mix, and these are gorgeous, sustainably made open-ended building blocks unlike anything we have now. (I paid around $60 at a local store, Trohv, which is about half their current price on Amazon. That is still very expensive, but I believe in buying better toys for all these reasons if you can afford it, especially by not wasting your money on other kiddo junk. And I’ll get hours of fun out of them at least!)

We’re planning on dying eggs, of course, using this natural, food-based dye from Earth Paint, and decorating them with these smooth-as-silk and high quality beeswax crayons that the great mom who runs Stubby Pencil studio just sent me to try.

But that seemed predictable, somehow. So I decided to take it up a notch by making felted Easter eggs last Sunday morning. I’m pleased to report that this is totally the kind of project that is fun and manageable for a toddler, and that the only messiness involved is some soapy water, which is hardly a problem.

IMG_6269To make your own gorgeous eggs, you’ll need:

  • Some wool roving in nice colors (Fairyfolk sells it, as does Amazon)
  • Some wool or acrylic yarn in a light tone (tail-ends of knitting projects work nicely)
  • Some hot, soapy water
  • Some old pantyhose you are willing to ruin
  • A tray or towels to catch the water
  • A washing machine and dryer and laundry soap
  • Embroidery thread (optional)
  • Tennis balls (optional)

(Some directions call for you to use plastic eggs as the base, taped shut, but since my purpose was to have an Easter without plastic, I used yarn egg shapes instead. I would recommend using a thick but light-colored yarn, as the red yarn I used showed through on some eggs.)

First, set up your soapy water in a bowl on top of a towel and make your “egg” base with yarn by wrapping the yarn thickly around two fingers held together, then slipping it off and wrapping in the opposite direction to produce an oblong shape, until it is large and thick enough to form an egg even with some shrinkage. The toddler can help with this process as well.

IMG_6240IMG_6239Dip the egg baby into the bowl and squeeze to start the felting process. Next, grab a clump of roving wool and gently pull out some felt strands, flattening them a bit. Wrap the egg in the roving.

IMG_6246IMG_6253Next, wrap a second flat handful of roving around, with the fibers pointing in a perpendicular direction to the first batch (this is not nearly as hard to do as it sounds). Dip the ball and get it good and wet, forming it into an egg shape.

IMG_6251IMG_6248Decide what decoration you would like. For this one, we used a little yarn. You can also do stripes or dots with different colored roving, use multiple colors of roving to make the egg, or wrap embroidery thread around as well (as in the picture up at the very top).

Next, carefully maneuver your egg into the toe of an old cut-off stocking and use something to bind it off. (Yarn works and could allow you to re-use the nylon. I just knotted it and later cut it open, after struggling with yarn on the first try.)

IMG_6249IMG_6256When you’re done making your eggs, stick them in the washing machine on a hot setting with the tennis balls if you have them around and some soap. Check them to see if you want more than one cycle (I did mine for two), and toss them into the dryer when you are happy with the shape. Dry them until no water comes out when you squeeze, and then you may want to put them in the sun to ensure they will really get dried out. You could also sew embroidery, beading or decorative thread and ribbons on after the fact for additional cuteness.

IMG_6261IMG_6301Happy Easter!