Children

Don't let kids lose their smarts in summer

Two young children are reading books together outside in a teepee tent for a education or learning concept.
Two young children are reading books together outside in a teepee tent for a education or learning concept.

It's that time of year again. School's out, and summer stretches before us. My parents would have said, go out and play. But we're living in an age when parents are more hands-on, for many reasons: anxiety about getting into college and earning a break on the sky-high cost; unpredictable economic storms, insecure jobs, stagnant wages that create a slippery slide down and out of the comfortable middle class.

As a result, families are more concerned that these weeks of summer include some learning. For people with time and money, summer promises specialty camps, out-of-town vacations, lessons and trips to museums and concerts.

But summer learning loss - the idea that students lose ground academically when they don't engage in educational activities during the break - is particularly acute for children in families with lesser means.

Sociologists at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated this by tracking 800 Baltimore students over two decades. They found that better-off kids retained more over summer break because they were involved in stimulating activities, even if they had very little to do with a textbook and a No. 2 pencil. In fact, by ninth grade, summer learning loss was responsible for two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their better-off peers.

In recognition of this finding, places from St. Louis to Teton County, Wyoming, have started affordable, educational summer programs for low-income families.

But even without communitywide cooperation, families with tight budgets and short together time can create stimulating summers. I asked parenting expert Denise Daniels for her ideas and checked out the suggestions on Educents.com, a website that curates fun learning projects and products.

1. Write a summer bucket list. Parents and kids should sit down at the start of the summer to list a few activities they want to make sure to include before the sunny days end.

2. Look to community organizations for free or low-cost resources. Libraries often organize summer reading contests. Some towns host free outdoor music concerts and other entertainment. YMCAs and JCCs run inexpensive day camps, and many camps will offer scholarships to families that can't afford the regular price.

3. Create your own "camp." Children can choose their five favorite recipes and make them on successive days for a week of cooking camp. Or they can re-enact a scene from a favorite book, making costumes and putting on a performance. Science camp, community service camp - the possibilities are as rich as one's imagination. Or, collect several families to host camp weeks on a rotating basis.

4. Scouts' motto: Be prepared. Have a travel kit to keep kids entertained when you're in transit, or if children need to spend a few hours at a parent's workplace. Keep art supplies in the home. Write out a list for a scavenger hunt. Have workbooks for the appropriate grade level tucked away for odd moments.

5. Mix in academics in fun ways. Get kids to read aloud to their pets. Have them cook or shop with an adult to practice math. Websites offer computer programming tutorials, and kids can subscribe to receive science kits regularly by mail.

6. Just be. In the final analysis, the most important contribution a parent can make to a good summer is 20 minutes of one-on-one time daily. Bedtime reading, especially stories that teach kids about emotions, can be ideal for fostering this connection.

Do you have something to add? Let me know. It doesn't have to feel like a classroom to count as a lesson.

First published on Newsday.com. Anne Michaud is the Interactive Opinion Editor for Newsday.

We need better involuntary commitment rules for mentally ill

This essay was first published in Newsday. Tomorrow will mark three weeks since the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. The wretchedness of that day has touched off a national debate about preventing mass murders -- as it should. But lately the conversation has narrowed to gun control.

In a year-end interview, responding to a question about the political fights ahead, President Barack Obama voiced his support for banning assault rifles and high-capacity clips, and for better background checks for gun buyers. What I didn't hear from the president was a vow to strengthen our mental health system to treat people like Adam Lanza before they descend into madness. Whatever Lanza's technical diagnosis -- schizophrenia? -- executing two classrooms of first-graders is by definition mad.

Gun control is easier to discuss, because there is an identifiable, organized opposition in the National Rifle Association. But mental illness is harder to recognize, reach and heal.

Consider the divergent responses I received to a column that ran right after the Sandy Hook killings. I wrote that in New York, as in most states, the law allows for involuntary commitments of those who are mentally ill. What's more, New York permits someone to alert the authorities to dangerous behavior while remaining anonymous.

Some readers wondered about the potential for abuse of involuntary commitment -- also called civil commitment. "How do [the authorities] know that you are just not furthering a neighborly feud or personal vendetta?" one man emailed.

Others said that even though such laws exist, they are almost unenforceable in practice. A mental-health group home administrator said he has often been frustrated when calling for help: "There is no mechanism for involuntary admission unless the person is either violent or expresses violent ideas in front of a psychiatrist or police."

And so there is the conundrum. The problem isn't the law, exactly, but the judgment, resources and political will to enforce it.

We have yet to find the place where the pendulum should rest since deinstitutionalization began in the 1960s. The idea was to wipe out the abuse of mentally ill people, to respect their civil rights by closing psychiatric hospitals and moving toward community-based care, such as group homes and outpatient treatment. But the system that was supposed to take the place of psychiatric hospitals has never been adequately funded or built out.

The results are cruelly inadequate. Twenty percent of prison inmates, and at least one-third of the homeless, are seriously mentally ill, according to the national Treatment Advocacy Center. Mostly, they are not receiving the care they need to heal, stabilize and lead full lives.

And, as appears to be the case with Lanza, responsibility for care falls to individual families -- sometimes with disastrous results. In two other recent mass murders -- the killing of 12 people and injuring 58 at a Colorado movie theater in July, and the wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killing of six others in Tucson two years ago -- family, acquaintances and school officials had been alarmed about the behavior of the two men who became suspects. Yet no one stopped them.

Most mentally ill people are not violent, but statistics favor stronger civil commitment laws. According to a 2011 study by the University of California, Berkeley, states with stronger laws have homicide rates about one-third lower.

Vice President Joe Biden is preparing a report on preventing mass shootings. If he wants a place to start, he might consider our patchwork of state civil commitment laws -- both how they are written and how they work in practice.

We can no longer ignore need for gun control, care for mentally ill

This essay was first published in Newsday. Make it stop.

That's how I react to yet another horrible mass killing. Like the third-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary School that huddled into a corner - "squished," as one student described it - and the gym students hidden in a closet, I just want to shrink into a defensive posture. Don't tell me any more.

Don't offer any explanations or reasons. We've heard too many. There is no good reason why, when I talk to my children about mass murder, they've heard it all before in their 14- and 15-year lifetimes. As a country, we should not be resigning ourselves to this reality.

We need to face up to two facts we've been avoiding: that we have permitted an outrageous access to guns and level of gun violence. And we are pitifully inadequate at dealing with people in mental and emotional crisis.

It pains me to say this, but we have gone too far in protecting individual rights, and we must pull back and make this society safer. Get the guns out of madmen's hands, even if it means some hunters and self-defense advocates have to put up with more bureaucracy. The cost is worth it.

Strong and savvy voices - those of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg among them - are raised now on gun control. Let's hope they are not muffled by politics yet again.

And what about the mentally ill? We always seem to find out after the fact that someone suspected this person was about to snap. A college mental-health counselor, or a parent, or a friend.

Does it seem at all likely that no one around Adam Lanza - whom officials have named as the shooter - recognized his potential to break? If someone in your home were about to murder 27 people, wouldn't you have some hint? Wouldn't something feel wrong?

It's not that we need stronger laws on involuntary commitment. For the most part, we already have them. We just don't use them.

Such laws vary by state. In New York, a person can alert the authorities that someone is dangerously askew, and that person will be taken in for observation and evaluation by a psychiatrist within 48 to 72 hours. The person making the report can remain anonymous.

One ready place to research the commitment laws is on each state's department of mental health website. The New York State Office of Mental Health has hotline emergency numbers on its home page. Police and other first-responders also know where to direct people.

I don't know how often involuntary commitment is used. But it needs to be more widely known-about. The symptoms of someone in mental crisis are most times not subtle: mood swings, abusive behavior, isolation, inability to cope with daily tasks like bathing, loss of touch with reality.

Perhaps it's often just too hard to admit that someone you love is so far gone. I wonder what Nancy Lanza - Adam's mother, who was also killed - was going through.

Too often, we look for a history of mental illness and treatment before we act. We want a diagnosis, some proof - someone who has "gone off his meds" or tried suicide.

But a person who is about to snap for the first time slips out of this net. These are the ones who design and execute elaborate schemes to go out in a blaze. It must satisfy something that's gone wrong inside them, but we should not have to be a party to this any longer.

It sickens me to think that I will have to read about the "reasons" for this horror, as though the torments of the shooter could account for the terrible cost for all of these innocent children, their families, their communities - and our country.

I don't want to see the photos of those Connecticut parents burying their kids. And it makes me die inside to think we could have prevented this tragedy but we didn't get serious enough. About guns, about insanity. We need to make it stop.

Can mommy bloggers harness their political power?

This essay was first published in Newsday. When weighing the good and bad technology has brought us, here's one to add to the plus column: mommy blogs.

The cutesy name is deceptive. These online diaries reveal the messy reality of raising children American-style - which has been relatively isolated in each family home. But these web writers chronicling the ups and downs of parenthood have fashioned community support for millions.

Starting small in the late 1990s, the mommy-blog phenomenon has exploded to about 4 million writers in North America, according to online marketers, and many times more readers. One of the most popular writers, Heather Armstrong of Dooce.com, has over a million followers on Twitter. Mommy blogs have multiplied so rapidly that parent website Babble.com expanded its annual Top 50 ranking last year to the Top 100 Mom Blogs. The 2012 list came out last week.

Of course, the profit motive being what it is, companies with products to sell began wooing the bloggers a half-dozen years ago. Disney, Walmart and Procter & Gamble, among others, recognized them as "influencers" of buying decisions. And lately, they've been attracting political attention as well.

In August, seeking re-election, President Barack Obama opened an annual female blogger conference in New York City live by videoconference. Last month, the premier of British Columbia, Canada, Christy Clark - who is polling badly among female voters - invited blogging moms to her Vancouver office for a chat.

Overtly courting women's votes dates back at least to the soccer moms - married, middle-class suburban women with school-age children - in the 1996 American presidential campaign. Women have cast between 4 million and 7 million more votes than men in recent elections, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. And this year, for the first time since the Gallup Organization began keeping this sort of record in 1952, the candidate that men overwhelmingly preferred lost.

So, are mom bloggers exercising political power? As it turns out, they don't blog about much that you'd call political. They're generally not endorsing candidates or advocating for legislation. Instead, their topics are often mundane - recipes, shopping, cute things the kids did, pets, frustrations - and also personal: depression, sex, drinking, rage, boredom, self-doubt.

Catherine Connors wrote on her top mommy blog, HerBadMother.com: "I am a bad mother according to many of the measurements established by the popular Western understanding of what constitutes a good mother. I use disposable diapers. I let my children watch more television than I'd ever publicly admit. I let them have cookies for breakfast. ... I have thought that perhaps I am not at all cut out for this motherhood thing."

She goes on to reject the idea of a "community consensus" about what makes for a good mother. In the 50-plus years that child care experts have been judging whether mothers are good enough based on employment, sleeping arrangements, grocery choices, self-abnegation and 1,001 other criteria - having mothers confess who they are and receive the acceptance of a vast online community may be among the more political acts of our time.

Perhaps if we can get past the artificial barriers of who's a good-enough mom - call a cease-fire in the so-called Mommy Wars - we could begin to act collectively and exercise some real political power. We could harness those millions of readers to advocate against cuts to child care subsidies and in favor of paid leave to care for infants.

The Internet has given mothers this platform. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.

Focus on pay equity for women misses a host of other important family issues

This essay was first published in Newsday. It's dismaying that pay equity for women is the family issue that emerged most loudly from the recent round of presidential debates. Pay equity by itself is a simplistic measure that obscures more complex and urgent public policy reforms.

Judging how fair our workplaces are by whether men and women are paid equally is like judging a teenager based on an SAT score. That single number doesn't tell you anything about the kid's study habits -- not to mention character or passions.

Similarly, the oft-repeated assertion that women earn 77 cents to a man's dollar says very little. The number is an average of full-time workers, rather than a comparison of men and women in the same jobs with the same experience. A 2009 study by the economics consulting firm CONSAD Research Corporation showed that when the wage gap is analyzed by occupations, regional markets, job titles and more, women make about 94 percent of what men make.

Gender discrimination may exist in that last 6 cents -- and it's important to address that. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which fell two votes short of the filibuster-proof 60 in the U.S. Senate in June, would have required fuller disclosure of salaries. The bill had its flaws, but this disclosure would clear up inequity fast.

However, it's the bigger gap that concerns me -- the difference between women's 77 cents-to-a-dollar and the 94 cents. These numbers show that women are often making choices based on shouldering a greater caregiver burden, either for children or other family. They're choosing part-time jobs, predictable hours and less responsibility. They're staying home with babies -- which significantly discounts lifetime earnings -- or quitting when the work-family tightrope snaps.

Yes, it's true that American men are taking on caregiver roles -- and thank goodness. Having walked in each other's shoes, maybe men and women can fashion a broader agenda for needed public policy changes.

One need is for paid parental leave. Economist Christopher Ruhm examined 16 European countries and found that paid parental leave policies were associated with lower infant and child mortality. California funds parental leave through a payroll deduction -- everyone contributes. Spreading out this cost could pay California back in kids with fewer health problems and lower lifetime health care costs. Mothers could benefit from career continuity -- and steadier paychecks.

Leave for children's health problems or for parents to participate in schooling is another needed buttress. The Healthy Families Act, which has at times been championed by House Democrats, would guarantee seven paid sick days a year to care for ill family members.

Some say such policies would harm the United States' ability to compete economically. But the data tell a different story. Researchers from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution recently compiled a global database of national labor policies and economic data for all United Nations members. The collaboration, called The Future of Children, found that family support policies and a highly competitive economy are often compatible -- in Germany, Singapore, Sweden, Canada and 10 more.

What's more, employers who have adopted these kinds of family-friendly policies often have higher market value, lower turnover among employees, improved customer satisfaction, decreased health care costs, reduced absenteeism and a better esprit de corps.

Why aren't U.S. presidential candidates talking about policy supports for middle-class families? Certainly, they're a factor in pay equity for women. But they're harder to fit on a bumper sticker than "77 cents to a man's dollar."

Easy college loans could be next 'mortgage crisis'

This essay was first published in Newsday.

The parallels to the mortgage lending boom pre-2007 are eerie. People are qualifying for large loans with no regard to their ability to pay. For borrowers, there's no income check, no need to verify employment, and no disclosure of how much other debt they've taken on.

Welcome to the booming field of college loans 2012. As reported earlier this month in a joint investigation by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education, the federal government gave out $10.6 billion last year in Parent Plus loans, which average about $11,000 per student per year. Adjusted for inflation, that's $6.3 billion more than in 2000. Just under a million families signed on for Parent Plus loans last year -- almost twice as many as in 2000.

The U.S. Department of Education, which runs this particular program, should not be in the business of knocking down families into poor credit and poverty. Yet, Parent Plus loans -- like the no-money-down mortgages of a few years back -- appear to run the risk of that very outcome.

The journalists' report tells the story of a woman making $25,000 a year in 2000 who took out $17,000 in loans for her daughter to attend NYU. Today, with fees and interest, the mother owes $33,000. Her credit has been so badly damaged that she can't qualify for a loan to send a second daughter to college. Student loan debt for Americans, as a whole, now exceeds credit card debt.

This tale of easy credit for people with little means is all the worse when you consider that one in five Parent Plus loans went to students who also received Pell Grants -- need-based financial aid for households with incomes under $50,000 that don't have to be repaid.

Is there a role for the Department of Education to tighten this lending? Should the department perform better credit checks on families? The answer to that question depends in part on your faith in the future. Lending to the parents of bright young students could give them the opportunity they need to step up the social ladder.

But there's also a gloomier prospect -- and another parallel to the mortgage disaster. The housing bubble inflated because people counted on housing prices to continue climbing skyward. With similar sunny optimism, families have been depending on graduates to emerge into careers with steadily growing paychecks.

Yes, college graduates earn 75 percent more, on average, than their peers with high school degrees. But that's if they can find a job. Some estimates say that 54 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed -- meaning, they would prefer to work more hours or could take on more responsibility.

Another problem with Parent Plus is it allows colleges to keep raising tuition and fees. The bill for bigger student centers, fancier dorms, and higher faculty and administration salaries is being shifted onto middle- and working-class families. Colleges often steer families toward Parent Plus loans -- some include the loans in financial aid award letters -- when the colleges could be giving students a break on tuition.

Surely, colleges believe that families will safeguard their finances and forgo a loan that puts them at risk of defaulting. But is that asking too much of parents, who may be excited about an acceptance from a child's dream school? Pride and easy credit are a dangerous combination. I wouldn't want to deny a child the chance at an education that might mean everything to his or her future. Upward mobility is hard enough in this country -- and getting tougher all the time.

Yet the Department of Education and colleges need to close this lending spigot. Strict lending rules aren't punitive. They're just good sense.

Teachers are testing new evaluation system

This essay was first published in Newsday. Stories of silly test-taking are filling the halls of the public high school and middle school that my daughters attend. This fall, our school district is testing kids on topics they haven't learned yet.

Teachers are placing geometry and chemistry questions in front of students who haven't ever studied the subjects. Kids new to Spanish class are being asked to leer y escribir.

What's the point? To measure student growth in this new age of evaluating teachers, apparently one must test kids at the beginning of the school year, and then again once they've finished the class. The difference in scores will show the growth students have achieved.

Generally, I love our school district, but this is a disheartening approach. Kids are joking about filling in the little ovals in a Christmas tree shape, or choosing all "B" answers. One foreign-language teacher told the class she wouldn't be unhappy if they bombed on this initial test - it will make her and the students look that much better in the spring.

Such a cynical approach is bad for students. Tests ought to be sophisticated enough to measure growth from one year to the next without presenting kids with impossible questions. Teachers should take a more sober stance toward teacher evaluation, and work with administrators to create a serious system to weed out the bad teachers, assist the struggling and honor the good. Teachers have everything to gain by elevating their craft's status in the public eye as a professional calling.

My opinion isn't teacher-bashing, it's teacher self-interest. When underperformers keep their jobs, other teachers have to do remedial work with students the following year.

Standards elevate. At times, there has been talk about creating professional certification for journalists, with an ethics board to kick out the miscreants. That might hoist our approval ratings out of the trough. But journalism's denizens haven't been able to decide on the terms of evaluation. Sound familiar?

I wonder if other school districts have found a better approach to the state Education Department's directive to create a teacher evaluation system. Districts are supposed to base 40 percent of a teacher's grade on test scores - 20 percent on student results on standardized state tests, and 20 percent on tests created by the district. The remaining 60 percent will be based on administrators' observations.

What could go wrong? Well, a lot. Say an administrator dislikes a teacher for personal reasons, or has cause to favor another. This is all the more reason for teachers to engage in how the evaluation process is written, and what results it produces in these early years.

My kids' district, by giving them tests they can't hope to do well on, is reinforcing suspicion of authority: The administration is making us do it this ridiculous way. But imagine if all the adults in school seemed to be cooperating in their quest to educate. Wouldn't that send a healthier signal to students? We would be telling them that the people who are in charge of their world agree on what's good.

I saw an inkling of this on meet-the-teacher night in the gym class. In both the middle and high schools, gym teachers explained that they are working fitness into the curriculum - teaching kids about staying strong and lean, instead of just instructing them on the rules of the game. The idea made sense, and if the gym teachers resented this change, it didn't show.

It's going to take time to work out the bugs in this new, national effort to grade teachers. For the sake of the good and dedicated ones, teachers should be engaged and insist on wielding their own marking pens.

What's up with the U.S.'s declining birth rate?

This essay was first published in Newsday. End-of-the-world scenarios have been circulating forever. Some think the world will end with the Mayan calendar later this year. But I believe I've seen the real doomsday. Our species will simply fail to reproduce.

That's my conclusion from two news items. The first is from the U.S. Census Bureau, which announced a baby "bust" last fall. The census shows that, in 95 percent of counties across the United States, the share of the population younger than 18 was smaller than in 2000.

There are now more households with dogs than children.

The other piece of evidence is a book published this month from feminist author and blogger Jessica Valenti: "Why Have Kids?" A new mother herself at 33, she looks at the unhappiness among parents with young children and asks this very relevant question: Why do it?

According to interviews, Valenti concludes that it's the chasm between the idealized parental life and reality that causes so much woe. Americans glorify the mother alone at home raising kids.

It may be tempting to tut-tut Valenti and tell her that she'll get used to the lack of adult conversation and the jobs that require either 24/7 commitment or unemployment, with nothing in between. But her perspective may well spring not so much from her phase of life as from our time in history. Or, as we've begun to say about this economy that refuses to improve, her complaint is the new normal.

Raising children well has become increasingly difficult. I blame it on my generation - those of us who have teenagers, as I do, and older kids. Instead of banding together to wrest better policies from government and employers - or to create strong communities to assist one another - we've indulged ourselves in divisive "mommy wars." We have bickered about which is better, attachment parenting or free-range? Stay-at-home mothers or moms with paychecks? Opting out or having it all?

In 1996, we heard that it takes a village to raise a child, and we looked the other way.

Now, Americans are having fewer children. In 2007, according to the census, the average number of births per American woman was 2.1. That's just enough to hold the population steady. Last year, however, the birthrate fell to 1.9, the lowest in decades.

Have we decided that it's too difficult to go on - at least in the United States? France is still reporting somewhat higher birthrates. Perhaps the French crèche system of universal day care - which, by the way, supports an employment rate of 80 percent among French mothers - has a lot to do with providing young families with the resources they need to feel happy and hopeful enough to keep having children.

The reasons for the decreasing U.S. birthrate are many. The financial crisis of 2008 made parents fearful of another bill. The annual cost of center-based day care for an infant in 35 states - New York among them - is higher than a year's in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college.

Wages have been falling for 40 years, which means that many household budgets require two, three or more jobs. Forget about quality family time with that schedule. One New Jersey town recently hired soccer coaches because it could no longer count on parents having the leisure to volunteer. Not only will we have fewer kids in the future, it looks like we can forget about fielding a team for the World Cup!

We could reverse these trends, if we believed that saving the species were important enough. We could fight for better policies. Or we could accept the situation and look on the bright side: It will be a lot easier to navigate store aisles without all those annoying baby strollers.

Less homework is a good thing

This essay was first published in Newsday. As school doors swing open, it will be time once again to engage the homework battles.

A major front, every year, is the parents' complaint that schools give too much homework. This campaign has received recent reinforcement with the publication of "Teach Your Children Well" by Madeline Levine, a psychologist who treats adolescents in affluent Marin County, Calif. Levine says that high-pressure parenting with Ivy League goals can leave kids feeling empty inside. Family rituals that generate enthusiasm and contentment are being lost.

Canada has gotten this message. The nation's education minister has directed schools to make sure students are not overloaded. Toronto schools, with nearly 300,000 kids, have limited elementary school homework to reading, eliminated holiday homework and adopted language endorsing the value of family time.

U.S. schools are also experimenting with reduced homework, but there is no national directive like in Canada.

The Banks County Middle School in Homer, Ga., stopped assigning regular homework in 2005. Grades are up, and so are results on statewide tests.

The Kino School, a private K-12 school in Tucson, Ariz., allows time for homework during the school day. Kids can get help with the work if they need it, or spend the time socializing and do their homework later. Giving kids this choice teaches them to manage their time.

Not all the experiments are positive, though. In the 2010-2011 school year, the schools in Irving, Texas, stopped counting homework as part of a student's grade. After six weeks, more than half the high school students were failing a class - a huge increase. The kids seem to lack the judgment and experience to know on their own when additional studying or work outside class is needed in order to pass tests and complete projects.

There ought to be a middle ground. Mandating "no homework" days or weekends, or setting guidelines for how much time children should spend on homework according to their age, seems reasonable.

One leading researcher, Harris Cooper at Duke University, recommends 10 minutes of homework a night for each grade a child is in. In other words, 10 minutes in first grade, 30 minutes in third grade, etc. For middle school and high school students, Cooper found no academic gains after one-and-a-half to two hours of homework a night.

Couldn't teachers assign homework only when the work really can't be accomplished in school? Say, for a project where kids are interviewing various people on a topic?

Cutting back on homework can make the difference in whether some students even attempt the assignment. And teachers who assign large amounts of homework are often unable to do anything more than spot-check it. Shouldn't teachers have the time to read homework closely, so they can see whether kids are learning?

One problem is that parents have trouble even finding out what the assignment is. This sounds straightforward, but parents for the most part only know what kids tell them. In this digital age, schools should communicate better.

Poorly thought-out assignments can make students cynical about school and crush their love of learning. I'm sure you've heard the perennial question, "Am I really going to use this after I graduate?" Some countries teach their children well without much homework. In Finland, for example, which ranks near the top in science worldwide, a half-hour of homework in high school is the norm.

Like many things in life, homework may be a case where less really is more.

Is marriage becoming extinct?

This essay was first published in Newsday. As poverty grows and the gap between rich and poor widens, there's a narrative developing that women may have taken this equality stuff too far.

Today, 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside of marriage, compared with 17 percent in the 1980s. The decline in marriage leaves parents - mostly mothers - to struggle alone financially. Depending on which study you read, sociologists believe that single parenting accounts for 15 to 40 percent of a family's likelihood of living in poverty.

Even Isabel Sawhill, who directs the Center on Children and Families for the moderately liberal Brookings Institution, wrote in May that former Vice President Dan Quayle was right 20 years ago about Murphy Brown: Unmarried motherhood is a bad choice. Children who grow up poor more often act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of high school.

But this narrative implies that the rise of women's rights is to blame for all these changes - or that it is reversible. The bad news story also ignores the gains arising from the greater earning power of women, the looser divorce laws and the reduced social censure that have enabled so much single parenthood. The rate of domestic abuse has dropped steadily, for example, and women are less likely to commit suicide or be killed by an intimate partner.

Many single parents are raising wonderful children - I know several - but they don't have an easy job. We need to acknowledge that we are headed for a post-marital world, and adopt policies that will give the children of such families a better chance at a secure middle-class adulthood. Such policies will lighten the single parent's load, too, although that's no reason to oppose them.

First, we could educate teenage fathers about their responsibilities to their children. There's a lot of advice out there for girls but very little for guys. A man has the right to know whether he is the father, and to seek to be involved in raising the child. Men have a responsibility to provide financial support, and to see that decisions are being made in the child's best interest.

Counseling for couples planning to marry should be easily available. So many of us marry without a realistic view of how to live together. A handful of states - Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee - have passed legislation providing financial incentives for couples to participate in formal premarital education.

We must find other ways for kids to have more parental figures - if they can't have both biological parents - in their lives. For example, some builders have begun designing homes to accommodate multiple generations. Family rooms and dining rooms are larger, and the homes include two master bedrooms at opposite ends of the house, for privacy. Overall, the American housing market is trending toward smaller - but this home-sharing concept is part of the mix.

Living near extended family, having community centers and places of worship that attract all generations, extending the school day to accommodate extracurricular activities and homework help - these are also crucial.

If I hadn't met my husband and formed a traditional family, I may have had a child on my own. I was considering it in 1992, when the veep made his quip about Murphy Brown. Life's drive to recreate itself is very strong. That's something people don't mention often enough in these discussions.

If American marital norms are morphing into something we wouldn't have recognized 20 years ago, well, so be it. Let's take what good marriages have taught us about children's need for belonging and the influence of caring adults, and make sure we meet that need - no matter what forms our families take.

Tougher life choices for this generation

This essay was first published in Newsday. Entering adulthood used to be like wading into a gently sloping lake. You got your feet wet with a degree or job. Then maybe you found an apartment, and eventually a life partner. Soon, you were swimming in deep water.

But today, it feels as though the water gets deep fast. Young people can't just splash around and "find themselves" anymore. The world has changed.

Work can disappear with little warning. Skills grow obsolete fast. Lifetime employment and corporate loyalty are mostly things of the past. Compared to two decades ago, the average American worker puts in an extra 164 hours per year on the job, according to economist Juliet Schor. And adjusted for inflation, middle-class U.S. workers make less than they did in 1971.

These pressures mean that anyone who wants to "have it all" - career, family and leisure - needs to look way ahead. We parents would be wise to talk through the choices very explicitly with our children, especially the majority who are likely to want both work and kids.

We can explain the need for a sharply different perspective on career planning. For example, a friend of mine in her 20s who just got married says that she and others her age won't rely on working for an employer. The long hours and lack of security aren't worth it. Her plan is to run her own business and live frugally. Great idea; I hope for her sake it works out.

Another option is to choose an explicitly family-friendly career, something women have been doing for ages - a career with predictable hours and even some job security. Men increasingly are doing likewise; they make up ever more of our nurses, school teachers, bank tellers and food servers.

Even for the most ambitious, there are ways to craft a career that allows for more family time. A study of nearly 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard College between 1988 and 1991 showed that, 15 years after graduation, the ones who became doctors and lawyers had an easier time combining work and family than did those who later got an MBA. The doctors and lawyers had shifted to part-time work, opened their own practices with like-minded colleagues, or moved into the nonprofit sector or government work. The businesswomen, by contrast, faced an either-or choice: Put in grueling hours or quit.

Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo chief executive, is an example. She's 37, will give birth this fall, and plans "a few weeks" of maternity leave during which she will continue to work. But if you want a different sort of work-family balance for yourself, then perhaps you shouldn't plan on following in her footsteps.

Stories about families working together to make hard choices are encouraging. Austrian tennis player Sybille Bammer, for example, had a child at 21 and quit competing. She went back to tennis after her life partner, and the child's father, became her coach, hitting partner and Mr. Mom. For a while, they lived on $500 a month.

Then there's Angela Braly, chief executive of health benefits giant WellPoint, whose husband left his family business for a more flexible schedule in real estate and teaching. They have three children. How do we discuss the complexities of the modern balancing act without blunting our kids' ambitions? I can hear them mocking us now: Settle for the mommy track early, dear, and save yourself a lot of angst. But that's not the message. On the contrary, what's important is figuring out what you want and planning for it, precisely so you don't end up sidetracked.

Couples considering a family should talk openly about their expectations, too. You know the old saying: If you don't know where you're going, you're sure to get there.

The 'lost generation' of teenage workers

This essay was first published in Newsday.

I well remember how my first job made me feel: capable, creative, in charge. I was a summer counselor at a YMCA day camp, and still practically a kid myself, just out of 10th grade. I made a lot of mistakes.

As the arts and crafts counselor, I blew most of my $200 budget on Popsicle sticks and gimp. We ran out of arts and crafts supplies halfway through the summer, and so taking long "nature walks" became our fallback. I wonder what the campers' parents thought.

Making mistakes like that is partly what early jobs are all about. We learn, and then make better decisions when the "real" job comes along.

So it's troubling that teens today are facing their third straight summer of bleak employment prospects -- in fact, the worst since World War II, when the government began keeping track. In April, the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds approached 25 percent. And the unemployment rate only counts those actively looking. Many are too discouraged by the dismal economy to try.

Parents may debate the merits of teens taking jobs bagging groceries versus studying or pursuing music, sports or college-level courses. But the poorest Americans don't have that choice, and to double down on their woes, they are hit hardest by teen unemployment. Last summer, just one in five teenagers with annual family income below $20,000 had a job, according to a report by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.

Not only aren't these teens earning needed cash -- or learning the life lessons I got at the YMCA -- but the joblessness they experience now may drag them down for years. One study in the United States and Britain said that 37-year-old men who had sustained a year of unemployment before age 23 made 23 percent less than their peers. The equivalent gap was 16 percent for women.

College graduates who took jobs beneath their education or outside of their fields often never got back to where they might have been, according to what the Japanese learned from their "lost decade" of economic doldrums in the 1990s and early 2000s. When the Japanese economy recovered, employers preferred graduates fresh out of school, creating a generation that suffers higher rates of depression, heart attack and suicide, and lower life expectancy.

These structural problems with capitalism -- the ups and downs of the business cycle -- should not be borne by individuals, but collectively. That's why we have unemployment insurance, for example.

Other countries seem to have a better understanding of this. Germany's renowned apprenticeship program, a training period of two to four years, attracts roughly two-thirds of vocational school students there. They're often hired afterward, one reason Germany has a far lower youth unemployment rate than us, at 9.5 percent. Firms and government share the apprenticeship expenses.

The Netherlands, also keen on averting a lost generation of workers, is dividing full-time private sector jobs into two or three part-time ones, with government providing supplemental income for part-time workers. When the economy improves, Dutch 20-somethings will be ready with skills and experience.

The New York Youth Works program has the right idea. On Long Island, at least 64 employers have signed up. The program offers them tax credits for hiring low-income youth. Given that unemployment among teens is more than twice the 7.4 percent rate for adults on Long Island, we should expand this program.

When teens work, it teaches them independence, responsibility, a good work ethic and how to get along with others. Our collective future depends on investing in their success.

Summer is education's weak link

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Ah, summer. Lazy grassy afternoons, damp towels, the scent of chlorine. It's a sweet scenario, but for working parents summer is a treacherous season, filled with wrangling and expense over how to fill the 10-week break with worthwhile activities and good supervision.

Like many full-time working parents, my husband and I spend more than $7,000 a year on day camp for our two children. We employ an afternoon baby-sitter, too, who also has to be paid. Every October we start saving to meet the cost.

And we're among the lucky families. Pat Lenehan, a single father in Deer Park, told Newsday that he may have to leave his 11-year-old home alone if Suffolk County eliminates the family from its subsidized child care program. High demand and lower state funding may force the county to drop 1,200 children this month.

Yet increasingly, children are being raised in homes where all the adults work. In 2010, nearly half of households with children were headed by two working parents, and another quarter were single-parent homes.

The answer isn't more child care, it's more school. That would solve a much bigger problem than what to do with the kids during the summer: the need to improve education.

Most students lose academic skills over the summer. And we've known since 1964, when standardized tests began comparing students worldwide, that our kids rank poorly -- currently in the bottom half among 30 developed nations in problem-solving, reading, math and science.

Many school reforms have rolled through our classrooms in the past four decades, but one thing we haven't tried on a large scale is more time in class. At 180 days a year, Americans have one of the shortest school years. Germany, Japan and South Korea average 220 to 230 days.

By eighth grade, American students have spent roughly 400 fewer days in school than kids in those countries. Not coincidentally, perhaps, middle school is where Americans begin to fall behind their peers.

Low-income students tend to suffer more summer learning loss, according to sociologists from Johns Hopkins University who tracked 800 Baltimore students over 20 years. The better-off kids retained more over the summer break. Their minds were stimulated by trips to the library, to museums and concerts, and out-of-town vacations. They participated in organized sports and lessons.

But the lower-income students in the Baltimore study fell back. Researchers blamed summer breaks for two-thirds of the achievement gap seen between low-income students and their better-off peers by ninth grade -- a persistent and debilitating drag on American public schools that often translates into Hispanic and black students doing worse than whites and Asians.

Some cities have organized summer learning programs for low-income kids. Summerbridge in Pittsburgh is high-energy and hands-on -- which must be a nice contrast with the regular classroom. In Indianapolis, 11 charities pooled $3 million to create a summer program that builds on the city's patchwork of day camps, community centers, sports camps and summer jobs programs. It is staffed by volunteers from fire departments and 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, a group that mentors young people.

Long Island could make similar use of our recreational abundance. Better yet, we could do it in cooperation with school districts. That sort of innovation would require thinking collectively instead of every parent for himself or herself.

For some kids, summer breaks can be lonely, boring and even dangerous. We should put our imaginations to work to find better solutions for those lazy, grassy afternoons.

Must the state drag parents into piercings?


Column first published in Newsday. The New York State Assembly passed a bill last week requiring parents to sign a consent form for their kids younger than 18 who want to have a body part pierced.

I don't normally react badly to nanny state imperatives; I don't miss the trans fats in my New York City restaurant meals one bit. But the body-piercing age limit struck me as intrusive.

It happens that the week before this bill passed, my 14-year-old told me she might like to pierce her upper ear or navel. Those seemed pretty tasteful to me, and more reversible than a tattoo.

"I suppose I should act shocked so you won't take your rebellion phase any further," I joked.

But this is serious. What right does the state have to insert itself into my job as a parent? Forcing my kids to ask permission would turn casual discussions about boundaries and style into high-stakes negotiations.

As a mother of teens, I see how important it is to them to develop their identities. And if everything they do to express themselves has to have a parental sanction - well, that's no longer self-expression, is it? At least, not a self-expression they are in charge of. It takes the freedom of choice out of the teen's hands and puts parents in the role of censor.

Would I be more concerned if my daughter wanted something awful, like nipple or genital piercing? Or an ear gauge? Absolutely. But then, she wouldn't be likely to talk to me about it. Let's face it, this bill could pretty much put an end to body piercings under age 18.

The bill is in the State Senate now, and it looks likely to pass before the scheduled adjournment on June 21. Legislators are under pressure after news stories in April revealed that kids as young as 12 were able to get body piercings for $20 in the East Village.

Some shops won't do the procedures on anyone who can't prove they're 18, and local laws in some places back them up. But there's no statewide minimum age, and if one parlor refuses to honor a young customer's wish, he or she can always shop around.

There is a certain logic in the body-piercing bill, since teens younger than 18 cannot get a tattoo, even with parental permission. The tattoo artist who breaks this law can fetch a class B misdemeanor, meaning a fine of up to $500 or as much as three months in jail. The body-piercing bill would carry the same penalties.

It's certainly hard to argue against parents being informed about body piercing, since it comes with health risks: allergic reactions, infections and scarring. Piercings can be easy to hide, but parents can watch for health problems if they know about them.

And piercing-shop owners may welcome the law. Who wants the legal liability for maiming or sickening a young client? They would probably be glad to be rid of the pressure to give a 12-year-old a tongue stud.

Katie Ragione at Tattoo Lou's in Selden says the shop already requires notarized parental permission for body piercing, and of those shops that don't, "we tell people to watch out for them." She's concerned that shops that cut parents out could be taking other shortcuts.

But it could also drive body piercing underground. Some piercers would still perform the work without parental permission, maybe at a far higher cost. Or, kids could simply grab a needle and an ice cube and do it themselves. If teenagers are determined to pierce something, they'll find a way.

Most other states have passed laws restricting body piercing for minors. Some Canadian provinces set the age at 16.

That lower age may just strike the right balance, and New York's legislators should consider that compromise. That would keep the younger kids out of the piercing parlors - and prevent the nanny state from treating older teens like babies.

Mom and dad's electronic tether to campus

Column first published in Newsday.

As college students return home this month for the summer break, their parents might not notice much of a difference. In a sense, for many of them, their kids never really left.

That's because some parents and college students keep in touch several times a day through cellphones, email, Skype and other technological marvels. A horrified English literature professor writes about this constant communication in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, in "Don't Pick Up: Why kids need to separate from their parents."

"One student - a delightful young woman whom I know to be smart and levelheaded - confesses that she talks to her mother on the cellphone at least five, maybe six, even seven times a day," writes Terry Castle, who teaches at Stanford University. The student says she calls her mom whenever she gets out of class to tell her about the professors, the exam - whatever's going on at the moment.

"I'm stunned; I'm aghast," Castle writes. When she was an undergraduate, from 1971 to 1975, "all we wanted to do was get away from our parents! We only had one telephone in our whole dorm - in the hallway - for 50 people! If your parents called, you'd yell, 'Tell them I'm not here!'"

Castle never says whether her current students are different from those she taught in the past - more docile, perhaps? More obedient? But she does say that the willingness to defy or just disappoint one's parents is essential to emotional and intellectual freedom. Is the Class of 2012 at risk of remaining in mental chains?

The online responses to her essay are fascinating. One says that with parents paying as much as $55,000 a year for college, you bet they are going to check in. Another says this is probably a problem only at elite universities - the implication being that you needed to be a helicopter parent in the first place to get your kid into a top school. Another says parents are anxious because of the recession and feel they need to try extra hard to help kids find their place in the world.

Melissa Bares, who just finished her junior year at Stony Brook University, says she has friends with too-concerned parents who she describes as "babied." "They can't even make their own schedule without checking with their parents first," she says in an email.

Bares, a psychology major, speaks with her parents about school a couple of times a week - which seems normal to me. Both Bares and James Kim, another Class of 2013 student at SBU, defend parental involvement - but not over-involvement. "If a parent nags, it brings a lot of pressure," says Kim, a double major in chemistry and Asian-American Studies. He calls home about once a week. "If it's the right amount of nagging, you see students excel more."

He mentions a friend - a slacker - who could use a lot more parental oversight.

Jenny A. Hwang, who heads up mental health services at SBU, says parental involvement is crucial and can protect against alcohol and drug abuse, as well as depression and even suicide. But technology has made it so easy for parents to reach out that one of her roles is to counsel moms and dads about a healthy amount of communication.

"Parents can remain available and help students problem-solve," Hwang says, "without responding to that pull that's always there to make it all better."

Castle, the English professor, cites fictional orphans - Dorothy Gale, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins - who are heroes of their own stories, to argue that psychological distance from parents is essential for kids to grow up.

That may be true, but distance, like many things, is better in moderation.

Study: More young women than men consider career important

Essay first published in Newsday.

It looks like Supermom is here to stay. Women ages 18 to 34, in a new survey, rated "high-paying career" high on their list of life priorities. For the first time, women in this age group outnumbered men in considering it important - 66 percent of women, compared with 59 percent of men. The last time this question was asked of this age group, in 1997, the sexes ranked "career" roughly equal in importance (56 percent of women and 58 percent of men).

At the same time, being a good parent and having a successful marriage continued to rank significantly high on everyone's list. "They haven't given any ground on marriage and parenthood," said researcher Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the study. "In fact, there is even more emphasis [on home life] than 10 to 15 years ago."

The story line over the past couple of decades has been that, for the most part, women would prefer to stay home with children. Those who could afford it were "opting out" of the workplace for home. The recent stir over Ann Romney's stay-at-home motherhood reawakened culturally conservative voices claiming that her choice is superior for women, and certainly better for kids.

But Parker believes that young women's expectations about the need to earn a paycheck are changing their attitudes. They were surveyed as the damage of the 2008 recession - dubbed the "mancession" for how men lost jobs disproportionately - was still playing out. "The reality is hitting women that they cannot rely on a male breadwinner," Parker says.

On a brighter note, she adds, young women have seen older women reap the fruits of workplace success and "are motivated to take on big roles." Women have been outpacing men for some time in earning college and graduate degrees. There are now three women on the Supreme Court, women play major roles in government, they're running large companies and building media empires - all of this inspires.

Pew also surveyed men and women aged 35 to 64, who responded at roughly the same rate (43 percent and 42 percent) that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is important. In 1997, middle-aged men greatly outranked women: 41 percent to 26 percent.

The big rise in middle-aged women who care about their careers probably reflects both opportunity and necessity, Parker says. But, you'll notice that young women are more positive about work than their middle-aged counterparts. Parker believes that the allure of "having it all" wears off once women are faced with the reality of supermotherhood. In fact, moms who work full time have told numerous pollsters that they would prefer part-time employment if it were available to them.

Often, scaling back from full-time work means a loss of health benefits, seniority, security and status. Employers as a whole could be doing a better job to help moms cope - and as the women in the 18-to-34 age group move up and have children, perhaps there will be more reason for employers to do so.

Governments could also be doing more to raise the quality of child care and birth leave support for both fathers and mothers.

Finally, individuals need to do a better job of thinking through their competing desires, and choose careers that accommodate parenthood well. Doctors, lawyers and accountants - and people who are willing to shift into lower-paying nonprofit or government sectors - often find more flexibility in their schedules.

Supermom is great as a concept - using all of your human abilities in a lifetime. But there's a lot more that can be done to take the risk and stress off parents' shoulders.

Adrienne Rich: A pioneer in writing about motherhood

Essay first published in Newsday.

The world knew Adrienne Rich, who died last week at 82, as a poet - influential, political, feminist, lesbian, anti-war, Jewish.

But her profound impact on my life came in the form of prose: a 1976 book called "Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution." Rich, who was a wife until her 40s and the mother of three boys, trained her rebel's eye on the mixed feelings that come with caring for babies and young children.

To be sure, Rich had her predecessors on this ground: Betty Friedan, even the humorist Erma Bombeck. And Rich inspired thousands who came after, from Susan Maushart, who wrote "The Mask of Motherhood," to the many parent-lit moms and dads writing and blogging today.

It's not that parenthood is awful, of course. It's that mothers were to an excessive degree expected to be "beneficent, sacred, pure, asexual and nourishing," as Rich described it, or they would risk disapproval. Rich was instrumental in shattering these public myths that made women feel privately inadequate and unnatural if they discovered any forbidden feelings in the nursery.

More important, this long march away from the perfect angel mother toward a more nuanced - if darker - portrait of parenting paved the way for recognition of postpartum depression so that women and their families could get help. Even the impossibly perfect Brooke Shields published an account, in 2005, of her postpartum depression, "Down Came the Rain."

Rich wrote looking back. She was 46 when "Of Woman Born" was published, and her eldest son was 21. "I only knew that I had lived through something which was considered central to the lives of women, fulfilling even in its sorrows, a key to the meaning of life; and that I could remember little except anxiety, physical weariness, anger, self-blame, boredom, and division within myself: a division made more acute by the moments of passionate love, delight in my children's spirited bodies and minds, amazement at how they went on loving me in spite of my failures to love them wholly and selflessly."

She included journal entries from her days with babies; at one time her three sons were all younger than 7. The entries are startlingly candid: "Degradation of anger. Anger at a child. How shall I learn to absorb the violence and make explicit only the caring?"

"Of Woman Born" is sometimes overlooked amid Rich's 30 books of poetry and prose published over six decades. Its radical take on women's domination in a patriarchy is and was controversial. But the beautifully rendered descriptions of the inner life of this one mother, a poet, is what makes the book so reassuring to parents who can relate to the loss of independent identity and the isolation that comes with caring for a child.

What parent taking a phone call wouldn't recognize this passage? "As soon as [my son] felt me gliding into a world which did not include him, he would come to pull at my hand, ask for help. ... And I would feel [it] ... as an attempt moreover to defraud me of living even for fifteen minutes as myself."

Rich was born in Baltimore, and her father, a pathologist, encouraged her to read poetry from childhood. Her mother was a concert pianist. After graduating from Radcliffe College in 1951, Rich published her first book and soon after, married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard University professor.

They moved to New York in 1966. Four years later, Rich left her marriage, and within several months, Conrad took his own life. It's tempting to see the negative aspect of her writing as a product of this unhappy biography.

But most parents will recognize Rich's ambivalence as truth-telling.

'Hunger Games,' young adult films, reflect a grimmer culture

Essay first published in Newsday.

'Kids killing kids." That's how the trilogy "The Hunger Games" is summed up by critics of the forthcoming film, premiering March 23. And it's not an untrue or inaccurate description. That arrow absolutely hits its mark.

As much as I'm a values-enforcing mother of two teenage girls, I have to admit, I love "The Hunger Games." I've read 21/2 of the three books, partly in an effort to have conversations with my 14-year-old. But it may be easier to accept the violent story line on the page than it will be to see it come to life on the big screen.

In an age when Columbine is still much more than a Colorado high school and, just three weeks ago, a student emptied his handgun in a school in Ohio, killing three students, should we ever be sanguine about kids killing kids? The idea makes you want to pop in an escapist Disney DVD - you know, the one with the happy ending. Oh, right, that's every Disney film.

In fact, we've spent generations feeding kids happy endings. Fairy tale characters may face grim obstacles, but they almost always prevail in the end. More recently, our culture has been walking up to darker themes. Voldemort tried to kill the hero in the "Harry Potter" series. The birth scene toward the end of "Twilight" was gruesome.

Are kids ready for all this?

The "Hunger Games" series is set in a post-apocalyptic future, in which the country of Panem is divided into 12 fenced-in manufacturing or agricultural districts, ruled by a hyper-powerful Capitol. Capitol residents obsess about their attractive bright pink hair or sequined skin, while district dwellers are often desperate for medical care or enough to eat.

Each year, two district representatives - a teenage boy and girl - are chosen by lottery to fight in the Hunger Games, a futuristic "American Idol" in which the 24 "tributes" fight to the death. Kids killing kids. Capitol and district residents alike watch the Hunger Games televised. It is their chief entertainment - like the brutal Roman games of history.

The series is imaginative and well-written, and the protagonist is a cunning and brave teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen. Clearly adults everywhere are impressed by the books: The series is assigned reading in eighth grade in my school district.

Katniss wrestles with all the moral questions the plot implies. Why is there an exempt class of Capitol residents who are never required to compete in the games? How can tributes be allies and friends, and then be required to turn on one another? Katniss' love triangle raises further questions of loyalty.

Loyalty is an overarching issue for middle-schoolers, who are often breaking old elementary school bonds and discovering new packs. So it's easy to see why the books were chosen for an eighth-grade audience. If the film portrays these issues well, it will be worth watching.

But morality is harder to convey on screen than gore. If filmmakers go the blood-and-guts route, emphasizing the considerable violence, "Hunger Games" will have failed its fans. Movies with PG-13 ratings, like this one, often push up against the envelope of R - and no ratings system seems adequate to prevent plain bad taste. Will Ferrell has convinced me of that.

At some point we have to trust our kids to understand the difference between reality and dystopian fantasy, and I believe most of them can. In some parts of the world, in the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda, for example, leader Joseph Kony forces children to murder - a real-life "kids killing kids."

It's not as though this idea has never entered the human imagination.

First couple Obamas make time for family

First published in Newsday.

We've come a long way, baby, when the president of the United States is worried about getting home in time for dinner at least five nights a week.

That's my takeaway from "The Obamas," a new book by journalist Jodi Kantor that promised a close-up account of the first couple's marriage. The book has stirred a number of tempers, including that of first lady Michelle Obama, who told talk-show host Gayle King that she hadn't read it, but what she had heard made her seem like an "angry black woman."

The Obamas probably have had to defend themselves against that stereotype their entire public lives. But anger has several welcome cousins: determination, strong will, commitment. The first couple, in Kantor's tale, employ these to wrestle with the time binds that constrict many modern families: how to have two careers, raise "normal" kids and find together time.

We're a busy country. The average American has added around a month's worth of work - 164 more hours per year - in the past two decades. The number of dual-income households has risen, as has the number of people working multiple jobs.

Glimpses of life with "The Obamas" gives us a comparison we Americans seem to love: Our celebrities' struggles are somewhat like ours.

Except in special circumstances, Kantor reports, the president turns down cross-country trips, dinner parties, gala invitations, fund-raising or working dinners that would keep him from the family table more than two evenings a week. By 6:30, he walks the few minutes' journey from the Oval Office upstairs to have dinner with Michelle, Sasha and Malia.

Barack Obama is one of several parent coaches for Sasha's basketball team - not at the games, where his presence would be a distraction, but at practice drills. Kantor writes, "Finally, he was what his own father had never been, what he had never been, what his wife had always wanted: the kind of dad who was around to coach basketball."

Michelle Obama is the parent who keeps standards high. If the girls take a trip, they are required to write a report about it for their parents. When they ask for a snack, the first lady questions whether they are really hungry - or just bored. That's probably a tip she picked up from her campaign against childhood obesity.

The girls are not allowed to surf the Internet or watch TV during the week. And they are very active: swimming, tennis, soccer, lacrosse, basketball.

Certainly it's easier to keep such a busy schedule with the help of a White House staff. But they could also be sitting on the couch watching "Big Bang Theory" or "Two Broke Girls."

To be sure, the good father image works for President Obama politically. When he was running for president, polls said that was one of the things voters liked best about him. At the time, scandals were engulfing other men in public life: Think Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards.

Other presidents have been doting fathers. George W. Bush certainly comes to mind. But it's rare to sneak such a peak behind the scenes while a first family is still in the White House. Kantor is to be commended for looking through the eyes not only of a political reporter but also of a wife and mother.

The Obamas of this book are good role models, not only making time for each other but determined to create a rich, rounded childhood for their girls - even in the extraordinary circumstance of growing up in the White House.

The rest of us have our own circumstances - and for most of us, far fewer resources - that make family life challenging. But we shouldn't give up on these ideals, either.

Another mother leaves a great job

First published in Newsday.

People leaving jobs for reasons they don't want to discuss often say something hackneyed about spending more time with family. But it appears that Michèle Flournoy literally means it.

Flournoy, 50, is a top Pentagon policy adviser and potential first female defense secretary. She announced this week that she will quit after the New Year to have more time with her three children, ages 14, 12 and 9. Her work for the Defense Department often runs from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and over many weekends.

Flournoy's work sounds fascinating. She testifies before Congress, and is strategizing troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot to give up for three kids.

Which is why I love that she stated her reason so baldly: The work of being a mother is important, too.

It's possible there's more to her story -- who knows? But her public affirmation of motherhood is brave. It risks the anger of those who argue women can "have it all." Flournoy invites the envy of parents who have to work for financial reasons; she's married to a top deputy at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She risks instilling doubt in the junior women -- perhaps also mothers -- whom she sought to mentor and inspire. And she courts ridicule by the ignorant. Remember when talk show host Mike Gallagher called Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's three-month maternity leave "a racket"?

Highly visible women should keep talking about the importance of parenting, because they can have repercussions for working moms and dads who aren't among the power elite. There are many parents who don't have the protections of money or status to assert something so basic as the need for time away from a job to raise children.

And working people have ever less leverage now, as the depressed economy has "excessed" so many into the unemployment line. In the spring of 2009, a House subcommittee on Workforce Protections, chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), heard testimony from advocates that the dismal economy was pushing parents out of the workforce because their opportunities for flexible work schedules were drying up. Parents who had worked a four-day week, for example, found their employers suddenly requiring five days.

Sometimes, employers were trying to stretch to make do with the current workforce, because they didn't want to hire anyone new. But the result was often to upset a delicate balance and force the parents out.

Flexible schedules are rarely set down in writing and can disappear when an accommodating manager is replaced by someone less family-friendly. Another possibility -- and the one that most concerned Congress -- was that employers could be using the bad economy to discriminate against pregnant workers and parents.

Recognizing how precarious the work-family balance continues to be, some companies have begun making flexible work arrangements more formal. For example, KPMG, the audit firm based in Idaho, with offices in Melville, has a flexibility website where employees can explore compressed work weeks, telecommuting, job sharing and more.

Of course, accounting firms like KPMG battle notoriously high turnover, so they look for ways to retain employees. At other kinds of jobs, many workers don't even have paid sick days -- in fact, 47 percent of private-sector workers, according to the Department of Labor. We have a long way to go as a country that supports parents.

People like Flournoy should keep up the drumbeat about the importance of child-raising, reminding employers that parents have important work off the job, too.