Laura Tropp's blog

Parenting in Pop Culture


I have had some unexpected free time to watch television these last few weeks, so here are some reflections on TV parenting that I have observed. On Tuesday, I was flipping through the channels and landed on the Bachelorette. I watched a woman have an ultrasound on live TV to reveal to the couple, the studio audience, and the viewers at home the sex of her baby (spoiler alert: it was a boy). I’ve been interested in public moments during pregnancy for years (in fact, it was the subject of my book), but it still amazes me to see a fetus have such a public audience for its image.

Since I wrote my book, gender reveal parties have become even more popular for parents. The purpose of this type of party is to invite loved ones and find out the sex of the baby together in a group. This interests me not only because it takes what used to be a private moment and makes it public, but also because there is so much discussion about encouraging more equality between boys and girls and making gender matter less, but here the sex of the baby still attains such a significant moments in people’s lives.

Pregnancy is also taking center state in the new CBS program Extant, in which Halle Berry plays an astronaut who returns to earth after a solo mission and finds that she is pregnant. I tuned in to see how pregnancy would be portrayed on this show, but I actually am more interested in the character of her son. It turns out the son is revealed to be not a human, but an android that mimics human behavior.  The son tries to act human but apparently lacks the ability to respond emotionally. I’m curious how the son will be developed as a character. So many parents and educators are working with children referred to as “on the spectrum.” These children sometimes also have difficulty gauging, mimicking, and responding to emotion.

I also have heard about a new show on Lifetime called The Lottery. In the show, women can no longer become pregnant, and the human species faces extinction. After one hundred embryos are fertilized in a lab, women compete in a lottery to see if they can become a surrogate for one of the embryos. I have not seen the show yet, but I imagine it will showcase the anxiety of impending parenthood.

These programs all seem to reflect a notion of parenting as precious, not completely in our control, and in some cases, just out of our reach. I wonder what cultural, historic, and economic conditions may be contributing to this view of parenting? Have you seen shows lately with similar themes?

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The Work-Life Balance in Childhood


On our way home from traveling this week, I overheard a conversation among the children in the backseat of the car. They were talking about the occupations they would want to be when they grew up. My son discussed his desire to work at Google and my daughter talked about wanting to work at a restaurant during the day and on weekends at a zoo. My third child wanted to be a doctor. Quickly, the conversation took a turn. My son asked my daughter how she was going to spend time with her children while working two jobs. My daughter responded that she would only work until 4 p.m. during the week and on weekends her kids could come to the zoo. My son said that he decided that his work would keep him too busy to have children and pointed out that a doctor gets very busy. 

This conversation made me think about how the children perceive the challenges of the work-life balance at such an early age. My parents both worked full-time when I was growing up but I can’t remember ever spending any time thinking about how they juggled these jobs. They were always just around and when they weren’t, we watched ourselves.  Today, though, work-life balance is an everyday conversation and encompasses more than just balancing family. I wonder that with children so over-scheduled in activities that a side benefit may be that children are learning at a young age that they have to make choices to fit all their components of their life together. I hear parents complaining about the problem of too much homework but I’m wondering whether this also gives children a chance to figure out the complexity of choosing how to balance their time.

Children have always had a different understanding of time than adults but I’m wondering whether that is changing as well. The other day my youngest child spent the day playing with her dolls. When I was putting her to sleep, I asked her if she had a great day. She turned to me and sighed, “Yes, but all I did all day long was just play babies. That’s all I did the WHOLE day.” All I could think of was that the luxury of doing one thing all day is wasted on and no longer appreciated by the youth.

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The Work-Life Balance <br>in Childhood

The Munchkin Dilemma


Yesterday, I was commuting to work on an express bus when my phone vibrated. The number of my children’s school appeared on the screen. I worriedly answered and was surprised to hear my son on the phone. 

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello?” I asked.

“Mom, it’s Ethan.”

“I know who it is. The question is, why are you calling?” 

Then, I heard the dreaded words: “It’s my ‘un-birthday’ today, and I need the munchkins here by 11:00am.”

It took awhile for me to decipher this, especially as I was whispering to hide the fact that I was breaking the social commuting rule of talking on a cell phone on an express bus before 8:00am. Apparently, children who do not have birthdays during the school year get to celebrate them during the last week of school.

I’m getting concerned about this generation. I mean, it’s one thing to have everyone win a trophy, but everyone gets to celebrate their birthday, even when it’s not their birthday? It just doesn’t even make any sense to me; it contradicts the entire morphology of the word birthday.

Outrage aside, it wasn’t really the time to explain all this to my nine-year old (although, I guess, today we are pretending he’s ten). Anyway, I tried to explain work-life balance and how his father is on jury duty and I am on my way to work and these kinds of requests need at least 24-hours notice. At this moment, none of these issues matter. He just wants his munchkins.

Is 9 (10?) years old the time when kids need to learn responsibility through disappointment? Have I failed already? In previous generations, he’d probably be responsible for a whole section of the family farm. My son can’t even remember to brig his clarinet (a phone call my husband received a couple of months ago--does the school let all kids have this kind of access to the office phone, or is my child particularly persuasive?).

The millennial generation seems to be the customer service generation, treated as important and getting what they ask for. Why should I be the bad cop here? Despite his lack of advanced planning that led to this call, I saw this little sign of independence. It was the first time he had ever called me.

After I got off the phone, the other commuters around me waited for my decision. Would I teach him a tough lesson, or would I contribute to the catered generation?

I called his nana, who agreed to take on this project. My fellow bus riders smiled and went back to sleep. This generation may grow up thinking each one of them is special and people will serve their needs, but there’s something to be said for knowing how to get what you want.

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Test Prep Guilt


Recently, I heard a report on WNYC about New York City’s Gifted and Talented Test. Four-year-olds can take this test to be considered for gifted and talented public school kindergarten classes. Apparently, so many kids are being prepped for these tests that the results now are meaningless. Parents are worrying that helping their children get into these classes may not mean the kids are ready for an accelerated program.  Many critique the ethics of gaming the system, particularly the effect on children who cannot afford the specialized test prepping services. 

I wonder what type of “gaming” of the system I am engaging in.  My son had to take the 4th grade state tests this year. These tests are used to assess teachers, the school, my son, and also studied by the middle school for entry into a 6th grade honors program there. By my own assessment, my son seemed like he would likely do fine on the math but needed some assistance on his writing. His tendency to digress could be seen by test scorers as an ability to develop a coherent line of argument. I started working with him myself. Of course, ever prepared, I immediately sought out various test prep books and writing samples. By the way, I have recently read a study that indicates that parents should not help their children with their homework (but I digress). My attempts at tutoring did not work out for either of us. I became frustrated and every fantastic teaching tool I have as a professor was gone and we were left shouting at each other.  I moved then to hire a tutor. The tutor was amazing. He loved meeting her each week, they had a great rapport, and he improved his writing.  He took the test a couple of months ago but we will not learn the results until late summer.  While I would like him to get a good enough score to be considered for the honors middle program, it’s more important to me that he learned how to write better. 

Should I be worried though, that if he does get into an honors program, was it only because of the edge he had with the tutoring? A few months ago, I met another mother at the school whose son was having more serious writing problems than my child. I suggested using our tutor. Her answer surprised me. She said her son was too embarrassed to even consider tutoring. While for me, tutoring was just a form of enrichment, for her family, it was a stigma. I also wonder whether it is her child’s difficulty or her socioeconomic status as working class may have influenced this view.

What about all the children who struggled but did not have access to the resources I have? Have I started a spiral of needing to hire tutors for the remaining years of his education? Does this doom me to be one of those moms “helping” her child write her college paper? My professor self thinks about all those questions but my mom self just wants to be able to help him when I can. I don’t approve of teaching to the test in a theoretical sense but my child lives in the everyday reality that this is an integral part of his schooling. Should I just ignore that?  How far should we go to prepare our children?

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Ring the Bell


When I wanted to play as a child, I simply headed out the front door, rang the bell of a neighbor, and we would start a kickball game. Today, in order for my child to play with a friend, play dates have to be arranged. When did playing become so scheduled?  Has the drop-in play date disappeared? Is it because children’s time is over-planned? Are families too busy? Or is it that we are so used to mediated technology that showing up unannounced is simply not done anymore? 

Arranging play dates, though, seems to involve its own set of rules and codes that I’m still learning. A friend of mine told me how she reached out to another mother via text for a play date and didn’t hear back until a few weeks later, when the other woman texted her availability for the following day. My friend said she purposely waited a few hours to respond because she didn’t want to look too available. She felt like she’d been thrust back into the dating world.

I’ve had many a play date go wrong. At the request of my daughter, I invited one woman and her daughter over to our house, and the woman seemed horrified by my dry erase board listing our detailed meals planned out for the week (I don’t understand: doesn’t everyone have one of these?). She never returned my calls after that. Was I too neurotic for her daughter? Some parents, rather than dropping off their children, stay during the play date. This makes for awkward conversation, in which I try to avoid revealing too much information, not unlike a first date. As a working mom of children who take the bus to school, I feel I’m at a distinct disadvantage, because most play dates are arranged during the school pick-up. I am so disconnected from that social network.

I wonder what this group of children with parents who are so involved in their social interaction will be like when I have them as college students in another ten years. Once, children met their friends via their physical proximity, the neighborhood. You learned how to hang out with those around you. Now, will over-scheduled play dates with children that are pre-screened by parents encourage kids to seek out more tailored matches? What happens when they enter college and are thrust into the proximity model again? Or, will administrators and new computer programs mimic the tailored play date experience for choosing roommates / suitemates / classmates?  Sometimes, I miss just ringing the bell.

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Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Fleeting Moments?


A colleague of mine, having just returned from a conference, questioned what she saw as a new commonplace practice: audience members taking pictures of the Powerpoint presentations of conference participants during sessions. We debated the advantages and potential problems of this latest trend. On the one hand, it is helpful for the participant to have access to a key slide or data point for later recall. On the other hand, my colleague pointed out that much of what is on the slides is unpublished material, and presenters may not be ready for their data to go public beyond the room. This may be more important in science fields, where sometimes the methods and protocols that set up a study are valuable in and of themselves. I would also imagine that it is distracting to try to present while having much of the audience look at you through the lens of their cell phone's cameras.

This conversation made me think about my classes, where students may want to snap pictures of my presentations or class board notes rather than copying them down. How is snapping a picture in either case different than taking notes? For my students, I am concerned about their learning process. In my experience, taking good notes leads to better recall of course material than simply having images to look at later. But, is my own personal leaning enough to ban the practice for the entire class? Should my students be allowed to make their own decisions about this?  Maybe Google and other search engines are transitioning us away from a note-taking culture, since people can find anything, anytime, later. Have we become an image-stockpiling society, scooping up information in a dragnet fashion to ensure later access?

In my home life, I notice other parents at my children's events who are snapping pictures and recording videos instead of enjoying the live event. It seems that the magic of the moment is being displaced in favor of the ability to watch the recorded moment many times later. Surely I am not the only one who can't imagine people going home and watching my son's band concert again? It was fun the first time, but my child's part was less than a couple of minutes, and I don't want to have footage that could put me in a position of having to watch other people's children play their instruments over and over again.

Mobile smartphone technology seems to be erasing the notion of fleeting moments, whether they are at conference presentations, in class, or at performances. Yet, is the easy access of taking pictures discouraging us from having accountability to the present in a variety of ways?

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Is a Picture Worth <br>a Thousand Fleeting Moments?

Cutting Corners


Every year, around the end of the semester/ school year, my husband and I enter what we call “crisis-mode.” This is the time of the year when we have to read semester-long papers, wind down our grading, finish up advising the stragglers, and hurriedly write those administrative reports coming due. Like a perfect storm, it’s also the time when weekends are taken up by activities such as weddings, showers, school shows, and outdoor events.

During this special time, we give each other permission to sacrifice our normal duties that define us as responsible parents. For our annual crisis mode, here are the accommodations we have allowed ourselves to have for this year. We offer it to you in the hope that one more mind will be saved from insanity:

During crisis mode 2014:

1) You no longer need to brush your teeth at night
2) You can skip composting (but not on Earth Day- that’s just wrong)
3) In class, you can show a video clip longer than 4 minutes. One time, you may even show a full 1 hour clip (speaking of which, have you seen Douglas Rushkoff’s new Frontline documentary Generation Like?)
4) For children’s daily reading logs, you have great latitude in counting books as “read.”
5) You can now have breakfast for dinner more than once a week (and one lunch for dinner as well)
6) You no longer need to fold and put away laundry; instead, simply instruct family members to take what they need from baskets
7) If you must attend college-wide meetings, you do not need to read reports in advance but can skim during the meeting
8) All end-of-year reports can be created from a template from last year’s end-of-year report
9) Children can watch Frozen over and over while grading is getting done (just don’t accidently write “Let It Go” on a student’s paper).
10)  Blogs can be written as listicles.

Happy semester wrap-up, everyone!

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Excuses, Qualifiers and the Invisibility of Motherhood


At the beginning of every semester, I discuss my attendance policy with my students. I explain they can have two absences for any reason; after that, points are deducted no matter the cause. I tell them that I don’t need, or even want, to know why they were absent because I prefer not to be put in a position where I have to judge the quality of their reasons. However, I’ve begun to rethink my policy.

At the office, I constantly wrestle with what I think of as my “invisibility of motherhood” issue. On the one hand, I want to be an example of someone who can balance it all. I can have kids while not having them interfere with my career.

Of course, that’s ridiculous, because as productive as I am, I’m less productive than I would be if I did not have children. They are always in my head. While advising a student, I’m thinking about who can relieve my babysitter if I stay late. Sitting in a committee meeting, I’m worrying whether my son is spending too much time on Minecraft. As I teach a class, I’m remembering how my youngest daughter gave me her toy duck to take with me that morning so that I remember her while I’m at work. I try not to let any of this out of my head at work unless I’m in a specific conversation with a colleague as a friend.

On the other hand, I don’t want to pretend that they don’t impact my work. As a scholar who studies the social representation of motherhood, I want to do my part to raise the issue of work-life balance. So, when I’m asked to schedule a meeting, I don’t pretend I have a doctor’s appointment (as I know some others have); I’m honest and say I need to attend my daughter’s play. My children can be heard in the background during my conference calls from home; while I acknowledge it, I try not to apologize for it.

Last week, someone offered me unsolicited advice about an email I had sent in which I had cited childcare as my reason for not being available for a meeting. She thought that I should have left out my reason and simply stated that I was unavailable. When I pushed back, arguing that not addressing conflicts of work-life balance only exacerbates the problem, she responded that my email simply stressed her out. It made her think of her own childcare needs, which she was already juggling in her head.

This exchange has raised all sorts of questions for me. When I tell students not to trouble me with what I perceive as their personal life excuses, am I asking them to begin to make invisible the first stages of their work-life balance? Am I right to acknowledge childcare (or eldercare, or other personal life issues we are balancing) in my everyday work life, or should they remain concealed?

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Excuses, Qualifiers <br>and the Invisibility of Motherhood

On Their Own


I was at a big chain store with my children, and I had to use the restroom. My 9½-year-old son refused to go in with me, saying that he will not go in a “girl’s” restroom. He insisted he would wait in front of the door for me.

Though he wasn’t acknowledging it, this marked a significant turning point in our relationship: this was the first time I would leave him unattended in a public place. I had strong misgivings about it, and I appealed to him to wait just inside the door of the restroom, but he adamantly refused to budge. I really had to go, so I did not have much longer to spend on the discussion. Reasoning there was safety in numbers, I acquiesced and left him with my 7½-year-old daughter. It was the fastest I had ever peed.

When I rushed back, much to my relief, they were both exactly where I left them. Later, when I retold the story to my husband, he was surprised at my decision and wasn’t sure he would have done the same. This was shocking to me, as he is definitely the one in our relationship who is more relaxed and willing to give our children a little more freedom.

Shortly after that experience, I read the Hanna Rosen’s piece in The Atlantic about the over-protecting of our children. The article gave me pause when I had to head out to a work function and my husband was late coming home. He was due any minute, but my ride was ready to go, and the thought never crossed my mind to leave my son alone in the house to wait the (probably) five minutes until my husband arrived. Why was I willing to let my son, albeit reluctantly, be alone for a couple of minutes outside a public bathroom but not alone in his very own house? Was I overly influenced by my bladder in the earlier incident? Rosen most likely would argue that parenting has evolved to over-protect our children, and we are discouraging them from developing a sense of independence and important survival skills. Both occasions offered my child a relatively low-risk opportunity to develop these skills.

Surely, by the time I was 11 years old, I was not only walking myself home from school on a regular basis but also watching my two younger sisters. However, I do remember one vivid incident when I was along with my sisters while my parents were working. I saw a man outside doing some construction work on the house across the street. Against every one of my parents’ rules about talking to strangers or inviting anyone over, I asked the man if he would like some lemonade. I assume watching my mother offer workers a cold drink on a hot day influenced me. Once inside the house, the man saw we had a piano and asked if he could play it after he finished his drink. Once he started playing, though, he never stopped, and I remember my 11-year-old self wondering how I could politely kick him out. I nervously called my father at his office to share my predicament, and he calmly asked me to pass the phone to the man. I have no idea what he said to him, but the man promptly said goodbye and left.

Now, I think back to myself at that age and imagine all the ways that situation could have gone horribly wrong for myself and my two younger sisters. While this incident taught me an important lesson about strangers and boundaries, I cannot imagine having my children learn these lessons in that same, risky way. Rosen’s article is intriguing to me because, from a distance, I very much agree with her laments about the loss of children’s independence. However, as a mother, I weigh the low probability of something going wrong with the high cost of what would happen if it did, and the risk is not worth it to me.

Maybe that’s why my son likes Minecraft and other games like that so much. Perhaps it is his opportunity to play with scenarios of defense and survival. It may be no substitute for real life, but maybe waiting a few more years for real-life training isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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A Year After 'Leaning In'


I was at a meeting this week with about twenty people. We could not all fit around the conference room table, so someone brought in extra chairs. I ended up seated at the edge of the crowd, nowhere near the conference table.

I make a joke about how, seated where I was, I wouldn’t be able to “lean in.” Apparently, I was the only one who found it funny (maybe this wasn’t a Sheryl Sandberg crowd?). Seriously, though, not leaning in allowed me to have such a relaxing meeting. I could sit back, watch, and not be “volunteered” for any new activities. It’s made me realize just how much I had been leaning in lately.

It’s about a year since Sandberg’s book came out and I, properly nudged, began volunteering for more activities. I co-chaired a major project at my college, took on additional leadership responsibilities as chair of my department, and agreed to co-edit a new book, among countless other tasks.

I have to say that all this leaning in has made me exhausted. Sure, I have more responsibility and can add more lines on my CV, but all I have gained is more responsibility and even more work. I have discovered that once you “lean in,” others lean on you more.

Meanwhile, despite reading her book again, watching her Ted Talk, and many of her interviews, I never see where she addresses the work-life balance. Where does the care of my three children fit in?

Sandberg says that I’m supposed to lean on my spouse, but that assumes he is not already splitting duties with me, which he is. She acknowledges that balancing parental duties is hard work, but she does not explain where I’m supposed to find the time to help each of my children create a poster on why going to college is important (a school project due Friday that I know we can ace, if only we had the time).
In fact, last month I discovered my daughter doesn’t even know what I do for a living. She told me that she knows I work somewhere, but she was not sure exactly what I do. Now I have to add take-my-daughter-to-work day to my “to-do” list. Meanwhile, where has my “me time” gone?  Everyone else is talking about some show called True Detective; I’ll be lucky if I’m able to see the first episode before the Broadway adaptation comes out.

Now that Sheryl Sandberg has started yet another public service campaign – no more calling women/girls bossy – I feel I need to reassess her earlier advice. Maybe, instead of encouraging women to lean in more, we should encourage everyone to have more downtime in our lives. We could call it Stepping Out.

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