How America is Shooting Itself in the Foot

As an anthropologist, I have become frustrated by certain subjects that have come up in recent news stories. News stories about things like; the dangers of technology for children under 12, the growing obesity epidemic, the increased awareness of fat shaming, how the American work week has increased in hours, and of course, the previously discussed topic of pressure on parents to supervise their children 100% of the time.

What I see, from an anthropological perspective, is that all of these disparate things are actually all very intimately interlinked with each other. There is not one issue on that list that is not caused by, affected by, or is the causal effect for something else on the list. America is shooting itself in the foot by focusing on the symptoms, but not recognizing the underlying issue.

Americans are putting more hours in, for less buying power and less vacation/sick time than at any point in history. Because of this, we are experiencing a severe time crunch in regards to outside of work activities (not to mention a spike in stress and depression related illnesses and a decrease in overall health-but that is a topic for another day).

With the expansion of the 9 to 5 workday to a more typical, 8 to 6 schedule, a casualty has been the time to make from-scratch, home-cooked meals. Convenience meals are great for speed and efficiency, but they are typically higher in sodium, fat and chemicals than meals that are prepared from scratch. Also, they are typically higher in price per serving.

We complain about obesity and yet we live in a fast-food, convenience food culture. Our culture demands that workers eat to live vs. live to eat. Take certain European cultures like France, Spain or Greece in contrast. These countries have a thriving culture of  the importance of experiencing food as a family event. Because of this, businesses set aside specific hours to honor that. In America, your average retail worker gets 30 min for "lunch,"  which depending on the schedule, can often be at odd times of the day. Our workplaces are not concerned about our health or our enjoyment of our nourishment, it is merely a means to an end, a necessary step to productivity.

With people having less free time and eating more instant food, or restaurant food, we have a growing problem with obesity in this country. Childhood obesity has specifically be targeted as something that America needs to address imminently. As a result, a host of organizations have sprung up in the past decade in attempt to change things. In rare, but increasing cases, governing agencies have removed children from their parents for being too obese.

The most common answer to childhood obesity? Encourage parents to make sure their kids get outside as much as possible. Then add in all the stressors on parents about not letting children experience too much "screen time" and exposing them to more nature. These articles frequently come in fear-mongering style about how without more nature and less technology your child will end up fat, stupid and riddled with issues like ADD, Sensory Processing Disorder, depression, anxiety, and technology addiction.

But wait! You are absolutely NOT allowed to let them outside without proper supervision, which means that you need go outside with them. They should only have 30 minutes to 1 hour of screen time, which means a huge chunk of time should apparently be given to supervised outdoor play. If you send your child outside or up to the park unsupervised, beware. You will probably receive a visit from Child Protective Services for neglectful parenting because limiting screen time is really only a secondary priority to constant supervision.

Now let's revisit the first paragraph. As previously mentioned, parents are in a time crunch. They barely have time for family and caregiving as is, and they certainly aren't given the space or opportunity to really sit down and make and enjoy a good meal. So how the heck are they going to supervise their children outside for large periods of time? That right, they aren't. Parents can barely skate through their existing responsibilities, much less add intense child supervision to their list.

So, out of fear of that well-meaning call from a well-meaning neighbor to social services about children running around unsupervised, parents lock their kids up inside and pacify them with screens. This is done out of survival, not out of laziness. Then we are bombarded with guilt that we are failing our child somehow. We feel victorious when we get something on the table that doesn't come from a box, and where everyone sits and eats at the same time. We constantly feel pushed and pulled between what we "should do" vs. what we "can do."

Use of convenience foods and lack of exercise lead to obesity. Obesity leads to fat shaming and lack of opportunity. Lack of opportunity leads to long hours in poorly paid jobs.....and we have come full circle. The only way we are going to break this ridiculous cycle is when businesses step back and realize that taking care of caregivers and families, or in other words, taking care of their employees as people, is the sole path to change.

Start "Valuing Families" and many of these "American problems" will self-correct themselves. So writers, I beg you, stop writing about how parents or society can do better and focus on how businesses can do better. Focusing on caring for employees can strengthen a business in the long run, obtain higher productivity and less time out for health issues. It really is a win-win for everyone.

Top 5 Things NOT To Say To a Mom With A Late Potty Trainer

In my humble opinion, potty training has got to the be the hardest, most frustrating time of parenthood. I understand it doesn't work that way for everyone, but for me I have struggled with not one, not two, but three hard to train preschoolers. I would have had more children, but I waived the flag when I realized that with the time and money that I have spent training my three, I could have trained six "normal" kids. I have gathered a plethora of information on how to handle potty training parents you know who might be struggling. So here is a list of 5 helpful suggestions on what not to say to parents of late potty trainers:

1. "Oh, is she still not potty trained?.....How old is she now?" - Yes, I get it. My kid is still in diapers, thank you so very much for pointing that out to me. Furthermore, your question about age is really just a thinly veiled judgment, rude at best and insulting at worst. You and I both know by listening to her talk and the fact that she is a head taller then a normal sized two-year old clearly means she is "too old" to be in diapers. I get it. This question is in no way helpful and actually makes me feel more horrible about the situation than I already do. Don't. Just Don't!

2. "You know what worked for me..."- Trust me when I tell you that any parent whose child is over the age of 3 1/2 doesn't need to hear this. We have already Googled every method we can think of, read every book, talked to our pediatrician, experimented with strategies, and bashed our heads against the wall at least half a dozen times. There is a very high probability that the miracle solution that you are about to proffer is not something we need or want to hear. Unless specifically requested DO NOT tell me how your magic bullet was the M&M method, bare bottom drills, sticker chart, jelly bean jar, offering him something he really wants or making him want to be part of the big kids. Been there done I have to go change another diaper.

3. "Well I just made them change/clean up after themselves."- Seriously? How does this even work? I attempted this method with my middle child when she was approaching four and do you know what it got me? A bathroom covered in *redacted* and a whole stinkin' (literally) load of laundry. What it did not produce, despite 4 dedicated weeks, was a potty trained child. In fact, I would pay good money to meet the child that this method actually worked on because I feel like they would be akin to a unicorn or the Loch Ness monster - pure fantasy.

4. "Well all children potty train in their own time." - This statement in itself is not actually that offensive, but it so frequently is what is proffered after the three sentences above have already been covered. They start out with, "Oh, not potty trained yet?," and move on to, "well, have you tried...?," and finish up with the lame, "well, you know, kids do things in their own time." If you want to close down an uncomfortable potty training conversation with a poor soul whose child is clearly not as advanced as your precious angel, just say something like, "I am so sorry, that sounds frustrating. I will send good thoughts your way that it is over soon."

5. "My child potty trained in X-days at X-age." - Pretty much anything along the lines of indicating that your child potty trained in 3 days at 18 months is bound to be met with jealously and resentment by anyone still having to change disturbingly large diaper disasters at the age of 4. I feel a little piece of my soul die every time I hear my almost 4 year old say, "Mommy, it is time to change me." It isn't that we don't want to celebrate your amazing success, it is just that right now, in the thick of our frustration we most likely can't dig deep enough to get past our own angst. If you know someone is struggling with potty training it is best to avoid sharing those stories with them until it is all over. Then, and only then, is it okay to say, "I felt so bad for you having to deal with that for so long, you know little Jr. only took 3 days to potty train at 18 months and it was just so easy." It is safe at that point because then we can sit quietly in our own smug superiority and think how we had to fight in the trenches and persevered. We didn't have it handed to us on a silver platter.

I hope this list has helped you. Remember, just like you can't force an anorexic to eat, you can't force a potty resistant child to "get over it" and start using the bathroom. Parents of late potty trainers are often stressed out, frustrated and just a little bit jealous- so tread carefully. We will get there too- eventually. As it is so often stated to me by others, "most kids don't go to kindergarten in diapers."

Moving Beyond the Sandwich Generation

The term "sandwich generation" was coined by Dorothy A Miller in 1981 but was publicized by Carol Abaya, a nationally recognized expert in aging parent and eldercare issues. Her website provides a place where caregivers can find testimonials, information and research on caring for aging family members.

The term, "sandwich generation," primarily refers to individuals, typically in their 40s and 50s that are sandwiched between caring for elderly parents and their own children. Additionally, Carol Abaya has added the following terms to more specifically describe subsets:
Traditional: those sandwiched between aging parents who need care and/or help and their own children.
Club Sandwich: those in their 50s or 60s, sandwiched between aging parents, adult children and grandchildren. OR those in their 30s and 40s, with young children, aging parents and grandparents.
(Term coined by Carol Abaya) 
 Open Faced: anyone else involved in elder care.
(Term coined by Carol Abaya
The descriptions of the sandwich generation assumes that the individuals dealing with aging parents are most typically parenting older children, however, with the recent increase in maternal and paternal ages for first-time parents, those children are often much younger. Or, in other words, the Club Sandwich group is growing exponentially.

So, what does that mean for families?

In the past, young parents could count on the help of their family and their community in order to make it through the draining years of raising infants and toddlers. Now, however, with two-income families, older families, later retirement for grandparents and families separated by distance, that help is simply not there. Additionally, the American workforce has put little, to no emphasis on providing flexibility or job security for caregivers. With Americans delaying childbirth, they are increasing the chances that they will be caring for small children and aging parents simultaneously, thus doubling the strain of maintaining reliable income production.

So, what are we supposed to do?

Things like the Family Medical Leave Act, Short Term Disability, Flextime, telecommuting, job sharing, and part-time options are all fantastic starts to allowing family members to balance their work with their caregiving responsibilities. But, with more parents being sandwiched we need to expand those options.

9to5 is currently working on "the FAMILY Act, a national paid family and medical leave insurance program that would allow workers to take paid leave to care for a new baby, a seriously ill family member, or their own medical needs." which would be a huge boon for families struggling to balance competing demands.

We also need to encourage companies of the value of embracing the benefitted part-time employee. By allowing workers time to meet their (often non-negotiable) caregiving responsibilities without stretching themselves so thinly, the company is ensuring a dedicated and focused worker.
A worker who feels valued will in turn value the company. A worker who feels cared for, will care in return. And if all else fails, a worker with strenuous caregiving responsibilities will not walk away from the rare gem that is quality part-time work.

I could quote the many studies that have proven that America's obsession with long hours actually equates to very little increase in actual productivity, but The Economist said it best with their article, "Proof that you should get a life." Cutting work hours just makes sense for everyone. We don't need to "prove" ourselves as dedicated worker bees by being present for long hours, we should judge and be judged on the quality and output of our work. By giving everyone a little breathing room, we may find it improves everyone's lives.

Take Action
  1. Click on the 9to5 link above and find out how you can take action to support the FAMILY Act.
  2. Encourage businesses and employers to embrace benefitted part-time work
  3. Find a family struggling with caregiving responsibilities and offer to help out in some small way
 We can only build our community one brick at a time, but change starts with you. When America can finally recognize the value of our workers as people and not just the bottom line, we all win.

And as always, remember to throw out Family Values and start Valuing Families!!

The Danger of Choices

Anyone who is, or has parented a toddler can tell you that giving them too many choices is like taking the fast-train to Meltdown City. There is a reason for that. Children can get overwhelmed and stressed out by too many choices. Give them too many, too often and they can begin to expect them, developing a Machiavellian-sized sense of entitlement and of their ability to influence the world.

But, news isn't that much different for adults.

When I was living in England I was eating a small cafĂ© with a friend when I ordered a sandwich, "could you please hold the tomatoes and can I get that on the whole wheat bread instead of the onion bread?" Yeah. I am pretty sure the look the waitress gave me at that point was because she was trying to decide if I was some sort of royalty in disguise, an alien from outer-space, or perhaps both. Then she said, very politely, "Perhaps you would prefer to order something else then."

And there it was. She didn't say "no," but it was implied. I cringe when I look back on myself at that moment, at the entitlement and offense in my response. I turned to my friend and started griping about how incredibly rude the waitress was and how "it wasn't like I was asking her to remake the entire sandwich, just make a couple of small substitutions." And there it was, right there in my belief  that exceptions had to be made for me for no other reason than I wanted them.

Luckily for me, my friend was very understanding and explained what I should have already remembered; that I was in a foreign country and I certainly wasn't in Kansas (or any other American state) anymore. Apparently in England (and possibly everywhere that isn't America, I can't speak to that) you order what is on the menu. Period. If you don't like something or are allergic to something, then you order something else. Because it actually isn't as simple as it sounds to make constant substitutions. The thought being, constant substitutions increases the possibility that the product quality can decline or mistakes can be made.

My friend lovingly and patiently explained this to me and then told me to, "either order something else, or pick the tomatoes off the sandwich, and stop being so bloody American." This then led us to discuss the new Subway opening up in London and how it was such a novel concept. The idea that you could build your sandwich with so many combinations was mind-boggling to her (and as she reiterated, so typically American). She thought that perhaps she might never go there because the choices would be too overwhelming. She also said the same thing about coffee houses which were not popular in England where they tend prefer pubs instead.

"You Americans have too many choices," she said. "You seem to need all those choices because you all are so set on being unique. You founded your country on freedom, but then you just let it run wild. You expect that everything in your lives has to be customized, reconfigured or rebuilt to each person's unique tastes and preferences. That is just madness."

I thought about and realized she was right. After I moved back to the states I started noticing how much more customized everything was here. We customize our phones, our shoes, our food, our television, we customize anything and everything. We even market it that way.

Take Burger King's famous "Have it your way" slogan. Or the ridiculously American notion that "the customer is always right." We give consumers too much power sometimes, too many choices.

Buying a cup of coffee is no longer an act of being thirsty or needing a jolt of caffeine; it is a chance to flex your unique triple-shot, non-fat, no-foam, vanilla latte, hold-the-whip-self. Brides are forced to agonize over what centerpiece will truly reflect their authentic selves. We have to decide what to watch when we have access to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Xfinity On-Demand, and 150+ channels. If you are like me, then some days you just spend an hour endlessly flipping not really taking in anything. We waste so many hours trying to pick the perfect phone, shoe, t-shirt, or car that will reflect our personalities. We do this, because if we choose wrong, then we aren't projecting what makes us, well us--anxiety ensues.

We are all a bunch of toddlers with too many choices (yes, even me).  Barbara Meltz, a fairly well-known parenting consultant writes, "...children of all ages feel most secure when they know what their (again, age-appropriate) limits are, when those limits are consistent and when there are consistent consequences for infractions." I would argue that it isn't just about children. Adults can get overwhelmed from too many choices. We spend needless hours on picking just the right -- whatever it is we are buying. Think of how much time we would get back if we limited those choices.

Apply this quote from Meltz to adults and you will find it doesn't sound too far off; them choices and/or control for the wrong reasons, they end up feeling anxious and insecure. And that, in turn, can contribute to a whole array of behaviors that could include tantrums and sleep issues.
Anyone who has ever worked a customer service desk can tell you all about adult tantrums. Even I have not been immune to it; I lost it at a counter once because I had been to three different stores with the promise that the next one would have what I wanted, a very specific color of dishes (this was before England). Did the color really affect the food? A dish is a dish. It is the intense pressure of all those choices. Everything has to be perfect.

So here it is, an idea that is bound to be wildly unpopular -- Perhaps we shouldn't allow people to customize their own gear like Nike does. Perhaps we should just order the sandwich offered and pick off the tomatoes, or go back to the menu and order something else.

Maybe, ultimately, we might even been happier.

**disclosure: the event described happened over 15 years ago, British culture and opinions on choice may have changed by now.

Guest Blogging Opportunities This Summer

It has come to my attention that we have kind of a crazy summer planned here at our house. It is crazy in a good way, but still crazy. As a result, it dawned on me that I should consider opening up my blog to feature some new voices.

A few years back I had the opportunity to guest post on The Mom Pledge Blog when she opened up her website for a similar reason. I jumped at the chance and it was a really fun experience. I garnered some new readers for my own blog, got a little exposure and as a result, met some new people I still occasionally exchange emails with today.

So after much discussing with The Husband, who is annoyingly right in almost all things (although please don't actually tell him I told you this, because he will be even more unbearable than he already is) I have decided to take his suggestion to accept guest authors here at The Two-Penny Soapbox this summer.

If you have an idea about parenting, culture, making work easier for families, elder care, primary caregiver responsibilities, adoption, or anything else you think might be a good fit here, send me an email with "The Two-Penny Soapbox Idea" as your subject line:

I would love to add some new perspectives and new visions and I am happy to share my soapbox to do so.

So, send in your ideas and let me know. I am only looking for between 4-8 pieces and I will be doing them on a first-come-first-serve basis, so don't wait.

And if not, stay tuned, keep reading and have an amazing summer!