Laura Tropp's blog

When Ph.D. meets M.D.

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Sometimes I bemoan the fact that, though people regularly call me “Dr.,” I do not have a medical degree. It’s not because I have any desire to practice medicine (I get queasy at the sight of blood) or that my parents wanted me to go to medical school (they still get to tell their friends I’m a Dr.), but because sometimes I feel so ill-equipped for the medical side of mothering. In the middle of the night with the high fever or a child complaining of odd symptoms, I feel my extensive knowledge of the history of the printing press is pretty much useless.

This week, a mysterious rash invaded our household, which resulted in various trips to the pediatrician and ended with a patronizing physician assistant at a dermatology practice telling me she can’t indicate what she was testing for because the words were too big for me. I wanted to “professor” her. I know lots of big words (incunabular, hegemony, cognitive dissonance) but because I know nothing about medicine, my deferential mode kicked in, and I begged for what little information she was willing to divulge.

Once home, I went into scholar mode. I now believe I know everything there is to know about skin rashes and their potential causes. I earned an A in a Google-based education in dermatology, and I’ve become familiar with some of the more serious medical journals. Of course, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, because I know everything while knowing nothing. I had fallen down the academic rabbit hole.

Finally, I decided to simply trust my gut. I felt that I was over-treating the mysterious rash, creating more problems because I could no longer identify the independent variable. The same thing sometimes happens in my research. I get bogged down and can no longer sift through the evidence. Sometimes you can’t find an answer and have to live with uncertainty. I made the decision to do nothing for my son for a few days and see if his body solved the problem itself. I’m still in the waiting phase, but I guess part of being a mother, and an academic, is always having a foot in the unknown.

 

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Renting Play

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I finally succumbed and took my children to see The Lego Movie. A central theme of the film is that children should be allowed to engage in creative, unstructured play and should resist being pushed to follow the rules or constraints of formal play.

Of course, the irony of the Lego Group, which charges exorbitant prices for its Lego™ sets, now telling us we can just play with our Legos, seems a little disingenuous. I have thrown away many a dollar on Lego Friends™, Lego Architecture™, Lego Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles™, etc.

Recently, I discovered a service online where you can rent Legos for your children called Pleygo. You can pay a monthly fee, do a Lego kit, and then return it in order to receive another kit. My first thought was, “This is an amazing idea! No more Legos cluttering my house (they are so painful when you step on them), and my children still can build what they want.”

However, when I broached the idea to my children, they had absolutely no interest in the service. They said that they wanted to be able to keep their Legos, play with them over and over again, and do what they wanted with them. I never did sign up for the service, but I've discovered other play services since then. Mark Cuban, on the TV reality show Shark Tank, invested in a toy rental service for young children.

This all makes me think of how this next generation of children may be re-inventing the idea of ownership. When I was a child, we bought VCR tapes so we could watch the same movie over and over. These days, we find movies on demand or use an online provider like Netflix or Amazon Prime. I wonder, as more services encourage children to rent instead of buy things, are we changing our notion of an ownership society?

To take it an absurd level, will we be “renting” friends one day? We might laugh at the notion, but I've already noticed that the definition of friendship has changed since I was a kid. When I was small, my friends were made up from kids in the neighborhood, and we orchestrated our play organically. Now, parents must arrange play dates for their children. In some busy months, the only other kids my children see outside of school belong to my friends and colleagues when we get together. These friends of convenience provide no long-term connection, but merely a day to play.

The Lego Movie may be encouraging children to think creatively when playing, but I’m wondering if we are re-inventing the concept of play in new ways. Have you noticed changing notions of play in your life?

 

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The New Time

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Last week I was reading a Wall Street Journal article, an excerpt from a new parenting book by Jennifer Senior, that discusses time and parenting. This piece focused on differing notions of time management and parenting between women and men. Ultimately, it argued that women often performed tasks that involved childcare and time sensitive-tasks, which took up more mental time. It was hard for me to disagree. I would much prefer folding five loads of laundry by myself than trying to convince any of my children to take a bath before bed. This article also made me think about how our media environments, not just sex/gender identifications, may impact how we see time.

New media that are all about instant gratification changes expectations of how long you are willing to wait for something to happen. When I was a child, I was always waiting. If my parents needed something, they had to wait until they had the time to go to the store and purchase it. My children know that we are only two days away (at most) from our desired item using Amazon Prime. Need more flag Post-Its for school? No problem. Outgrew your assembly jumper? I just need a few minutes to purchase that online.

If I wanted to see my favorite show on television when I was kid, I had to wait for an episode to be broadcast. “Stay tuned” meant just that: if I walked away or turned the channel during commercials, I might miss a crucial plot point. My children, however, simply can demand things from their media appliances (and, increasingly, from me — though I am not as responsive as their DVR).

Yet, life still has moments when waiting for a period of time is still necessary. My nine-year old recently discovered that going to sleep is not as instant as it used to be for him. Now he needs to teach his body to relax before he will go to sleep. He can’t understand, though, why his body can’t just click off like his Minecraft game when he’s done. 

I wonder how this next generation will be able to respond to and deal with things that can’t be ordered, purchased, or resolved quickly-- things that just need time. The more difficult tasks of parenting and teaching are the ones that are endless. How do you teach your children kindness? How do you motivate an 18-year old to love learning for learning’s sake? How do foster independence while painfully watching them do something you know will end up in a disaster? In childhood, parenting, and teaching, some things just take time. It’s hard enough for me, but how will it be for a future society saturated with products and services designed to eradicate waiting, changing our relationship to time?

 

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My Daughter Is Subcontracting Her Legos

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In one of the dark days of a winter break that seemed to last a particularly long time, I took the children  (including the cousins who were visiting) to the Lego Store to buy each a set to keep them busy for a few hours. Once home, my youngest daughter needed my help with her building (so much for my “me” time). Just when I thought that we were done (though it didn’t look anything like the picture), she pulled out a second bag. At that point, I informed her that we could continue tomorrow, and won’t that be fun to look forward to.  Anyway, a little while later she came to me to ask for a dollar. Normally this would set off red flags, but it had been a long vacation, so I just gave her the dollar. 

Soon after, she returned to me with her full set built. This was impressive but highly suspicious since it took the two of us much longer to build the first bag. It turns out she subcontracted it to her cousin. For only $1.00, she told me, she got the whole set done.

This filled me with angst. All of a sudden, in my five-year-old’s innocent eyes, I saw a future college student paying someone for a paper (“Mom, I got a deal on this term paper for only $20.00”). I explained to her that the whole point of the set was to build it herself. She patiently reminded me that she couldn’t finish it independently.  I replied that the point is to learn, to practice, to engage with the toy. What good is the Lego set now, I asked?  She said matter-of-factly that it was now complete, and she can finally play with it. 

Have I taught my daughter that you can just outsource the difficult? Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Arlie Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self a bit too closely, but I’m worried about a next generation that can easily find others to do things for them. To make the point, I never buy those ready-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Of course, I have been known to hire a babysitter now and then just to avoid the miserable night-time routine and not come home until the babysitter has texted the “all-clear.” Wouldn’t some people say that my buying the Legos in the first place was outsourcing the entertaining of the children to a global company’s product?

My husband says that I’m seeing this all from the perspective of a college professor drained from a semester of grading. Instead, he thinks our daughter is displaying strong business acumen. It was not worth her time to try to piece the set together with assistance, so she paid to have it completed. To her, the final product was worth more than the process.

I’ve decided to see this as an opportunity for my daughter to explore the nature of the work (play)-life balance in her life. One may think that a five-year old’s life is all play, but times clearly have changed. Maybe, by the time she is 40, she will have sorted all this out.

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Toying with Gender

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I’ve been following the new Goldiblox products, which encourage girls to play games that promise to foster science and engineering skills. Sheryl Sandberg is telling me (through national media) that I should let my daughters play video games. On the other hand, critics are holding the toy industry to task for creating “girly” science products.

It’s all so confusing. I’ve been looking around at our stacked Chanukah gifts, and clearly I’m breaking all the rules. My son got a video game and Lego Star Wars, while my daughters were given doll clothes and Lego Friends. Yes, they are Legos, but Lego Friends are conceived around a story, and they tend to be pink. Am I supposed to feel bad because my son is building some type of stealth spaceship and my daughter is building a Lego cruise ship (complete with mini swimming pool!). I’ve already heard my son re-enacting World War II battle scenes, while my daughters are planning a trip for their babies. My son, when taking a break from his war scenes, is glued to Minecraft or playing other video games. My girls have their Barbies out and are playing school.

In fact, I think my daughters are having a better play experience. They are using their imagination and thinking up stories. However, my son is building strategy skills. Does this mean only my son has a real shot at becoming an engineer? Yesterday, I read about a new study that has found people may be doomed to a lifetime of walking around saying “I’m not good at math” if they do not learn key math skills before first grade. I guess I’ve got to get busy introducing my five-year old to mathematical concepts during breakfast; she’s my only child still within the window.

All this advice, competing advertising, and academic studies makes me feel as a parent that I have so much power and control, and that I had better use that power wisely. This feeling contrasts with my everyday experience. In my real parental life, I just don’t always feel that I have much influence. Yes, I’d like to think they are developing my deeper values. They totally think that men are the ones who sew buttons (because only my husband possesses that skill in our family), that’s it is normal to read while you are eating (I always have a book out), and (of course) to be kind. But, many of their likes and dislikes and what makes them who they are seem to emerge in spite of my efforts, not because of them. My middle daughter loves fashion (despite my influence, as you know from my earlier posts). My son wants to be different and doesn’t really care what others think, even when I encourage him to be aware of the effects of his actions on others.

So, these studies merely remind me that I think my job is to expose children to worlds outside their own and give them possibilities. I will buy that GoldieBlox toy (or another building toy without so much pink) so my girls can imagine themselves as engineers, but I’m not going to feel bad for letting them enjoy toys that were a part of my childhood or believe that a toy will make them who they are.

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Thankful for the Real

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This past week has been about differentiating what is real from the unreal to my children. I explained to my daughter that mermaids are not real, but dolphins are. I then explained to my other daughter that squids are real but giant squids taken over by animated characters are not. Then, I explained to my son that kings and roundtables are real, King Arthur may or may not have been real, but Merlin’s magic is definitely not real. I thought about how much of their world has yet to be sorted in terms of reality and fantasy. I’m not sure if that process ever really ends; in fact, it only gets more complicated.

In my teaching, I’ve been focusing on laws and regulations vs. self-censorship and which has more influence over the restrictions of free speech. I also have discussed ideologies of motherhood and how they shape perceptions of what “real” mothers are to different cultures. Our perceptions of what is real based on assumptions (both individual and cultural) can be skewed from the facts on the ground.

Thanksgiving is one of those liminal spaces. While it might be easier to explain to a child that mermaids are not real, it’s more difficult to explain the history and construction of Thanksgiving. Do I explain Thanksgiving as a national holiday? Where does Black Friday fall?  I choose to use this time to talk about thanks- that seems a valuable topic where consensus can be reached.

So, as Thanksgiving is about to start I should say I’m thankful to be surrounded by people who force me to question the real in my life and for the comments on this blog from those of you who wrestle with, question, and challenge ideas I’ve put forth.

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The UGG Dilemma

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My 7-year-old daughter wants a pair of UGGs boots, which cost $110.00. Where does she get the idea that this level of spending is even possible in our household? Certainly, she has not inherited her fashion gene from me. My only consent to fashion is not leaving the house wearing sweatpants, and I frequently break that rule for school drop-offs and pickups. I’ve been wearing the same pair of shoes for five years. They have a small hole (which is unnoticeable) and are only slightly cold on a wintry day. In other words, I prioritize utility over fashion in clothing.

I carefully explained to Maya my concerns about her desire for these boots. I borrowed from a lesson I use in my class on ideology, where I always use shoes as an example. How many pairs of shoes does anyone need, I ask my students. After they add up dress shoes, casual heels, sneakers, sandals, and slippers, they come up with a number between three and several dozen. I then give them the correct answer: one. I tried to make my daughter understand the difference between need vs. want and described how consumer businesses thrive on convincing people that they need things they don’t. However, she continued to insist that she needed these boots.

I figured the path of least resistance was to find a similar boot for less money. I discovered the Bear Paws, which at $40 seemed like quite a deal in comparison. They look like the same shoe to me (compare them by clicking on the links here and here). Of course, my daughter quickly pointed out what were unnoticeable differences to me but deal-breakers for her: the buttons do not look the same, and they have different brand names.

Ever the patient professor, I decided to try a different approach and explored the difference in cost. We went over what was $60 worth (two Lego sets for my son, or half of a week’s groceries for our family). “What would you spend $60 on, Maya?” I asked. Without a beat, she quickly responded, “On the Uggs.”

I called a close friend and expected her to side with me immediately, but she surprised me. If my daughter were asking for a non-fashion-related item, she argued, I would most likely give in, as evidenced by a previous purchase I made (I know she was thinking about the American Girl Twin double stroller. I admit it was a weak moment for me, but I’ve been able to catch up on so many emails while my girls played with that thing). My friend thinks my contempt for the fashion industry is fine for me but wrong to enforce on my fashionista daughter. How do you teach a 7-year-old about consumerism? Is it wrong to impose my fashion values (or lack of them) onto her? Am I dooming her to never fitting in, or providing her with an independence from consumerism?

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My Grassy Knoll Conspiracy

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I’ve decided to take my daughters to see the Berenstain Bears in NYC. They’ve always liked those country bears, and it seems like good times (to be clear, I’m also aware that the franchise has recently launched a new faith-based series -- not my cup of tea -- but this live show seems secular in nature).

Anyway, I expected that I would have to decide how much I was willing to pay to sit closer to the stage. I have always been a “rear mezzanine” theatergoer myself, but we all want better for our kids, so I was willing to consider something in the side-orchestra range. What I didn’t expect was the option to partake in the “grassy knoll” seats. Apparently, those who purchase VIB (Very Important Bear) tickets grant their kids the privilege to sit on astroturf grass and wear special bunny ears.

This option struck me as a bit divisive. It’s one thing to explain to my child that we can’t afford a good view of the show. It’s altogether another to have them watch other kids receiving such blatant perks. Sure, adult audiences can survive the envy they experience from seeing a fortunate few sitting in the box seats, but should we subject our 3-year olds to that feeling? Is there no longer a short but sacred time for children to believe that they all have an equal opportunity?

I realize that these are first-world problems: many families cannot afford to attend a show like this in the first place. Sure, the American dream may have always been a myth, but at least we had that myth. I remember a time when, once you paid the price for admission, everyone had the same experience. Now, preferred/VIP packages have become standard fare. At the circus, only kids in the premium-priced ringside seats get invited in the ring. Once, everyone waited in line at amusement parks. Now, front-of-the-line passes allow some children to legally cut in front of others who cannot afford that privilege. The implicit message seems to be: yes, money can buy anything.

Part of me wonders whether this early lesson can be a teaching moment. Life isn’t fair, but we can work together to make it just a bit fairer. I have a nagging suspicion, however, that my children will learn something else. Money buys access and opportunity, and without it, you will be kicked off the grassy knoll.
 

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Where DO I Come From?

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I feel that I’m overdue explaining to my children (at least to my nine year-old) where babies come from. I’ve been delaying and delaying. They already have a vague sense of pregnancy and birth (my recent book is on pregnancy and media so certainly those words are talking about often in my house), but I’ve yet to do the big reveal.

This is not, as many may guess, because I’m embarrassed or feel awkward about having the first of “the talks.” Instead, it’s because of all those years being trained as a research scholar. I feel I’m still in the proposal phase of my project, and I’m not ready to commit to the dissertation. I’ve certainly done my review of literature. After I botched the whole what-happens-to-people-when-they-die question (which resulted in months of my son obsessed with cemeteries and near-death experiences), I decided I had to be better prepared for the next big question. I have read pretty much all the books on the subject. I now own “It’s Not the Stork,” “Where Do I Come From” and “It’s So Amazing,” and they sit up on my shelf right next to Foucault and Butler (it seemed to be the best place for them). I read article after article on talking to your children about sex and babies, and I conducted extensive ethnographic interviews with every parent I knew.

This is where things became muddled. Most sources advise that you should only offer a little information and not give the children more than they are asking for. I’m not sure that is the best method. As a professor, I have learned that half of my job is getting the students to ask the right questions; that doesn’t always happen by just sitting around and waiting. And, in contrast to the group of books I’ve mentioned above, too many other books indicate only how men and women make babies. What if my child never asks about how two men or two women get a baby? Am I supposed to just wait until that question comes up before I offer that information? Wouldn’t I be complicit in constructing the having-babies narrative in a heteronormative way?  Or, am I over-professorizing a talk people have been giving for ages?

Either way, I’m ready to begin because, as I’ve told so many of my students, sometimes you need to move past the proposal stage, ready or not.

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How to Toast a Bagel and Challenge Authority

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Above is a note that I wrote to my daughter’s teacher this week. It’s not the first of these types of notes that I’ve written. A couple of years ago, I wrote one for my older daughter requesting that the teacher reassure her that she will not get sent to the principal’s office for asking to go to the bathroom during the day. Apparently, an earlier announcement from the teacher about kids who were taking too many of these “bathroom” breaks (my daughter was not among these offenders) prompted my child to be scared a bit too straight. I also had to reassure my daughter that she did not have to finish her lunch if she was full (she was getting upset stomachs because she overreacted to a teacher telling another child to finish her lunch).

I feel the need to re-evaluate my parenting approach. What am I doing to raise children that are such strict observers of rules that they follow them even when they no longer make sense? Am I raising future bureaucrats? And, why are my daughters this way and not my son?

Recently, I was with my son at a hotel’s breakfast buffet. He was insisting on putting a bagel into the toaster without first cutting it in half. He kept resisting my warning to split the bagel, until I finally said, “That’s just not the way people toast bagels!” He calmly replied, “Mom, I don’t like to do things just because other people do.” I was both frustrated by and proud of his statement. I love that he can be his own person, and I think that trait will serve him well in life, but sometimes he needs to listen to advice from those with experience, who can tell you the bagel is going to get stuck. My daughters, on the other hand, listen to authority to the point where it is nonsensical. Instinct, it seems to me, should lead you take off your coat when you are hot.

I find the same challenge balancing a respect for authority in the classroom. I encourage my students to question readings and reassure them that I won’t judge them for not agreeing with me. However, they also need to respect the rules of the classroom and the authority of the teacher. The longer I teach, the less I have to invoke this authority, as it seems to naturally emerge. At home, though, I haven’t found the balance yet. How do you strike the balance between teaching your students (or children, or both) a respect for authority and rules while also instilling in them a sense of individualism and the confidence to challenge ideas that don’t make sense?

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How to Toast a Bagel <br>and Challenge Authority

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