Archive for the ‘Magazine Articles’ Category

Learning to Eat

I wrote this for my magazine article writing class in ’06.

My son gnaws on rocks, chews on stairs, sucks on muddy shoes, but offer him a plate of mashed potatoes, and he’ll shove it away and gape at you as if to say, “What are you, NUTS?!”

Will started out like an ordinary kid. Up until four or five months he progressed normally, but then a parade of ear infections impeded his development. Over the next year Will had his adenoids removed, tubes inserted twice, and much to Will’s dismay, cleaned out several times. He also began an allergy medicine regimen.

From 12 to 18 months Will didn’t gain a pound. He dropped right off the weight percentage chart, and his pediatrician diagnosed him “failure to progress.”  After approximately 10,000 tests (okay maybe only 500 or so), scores of trips to the hospital, and some Googling by three dedicated pediatricians, it became clear that Will had a zinc deficiency. Apparently large amounts of antibiotics will do that.

Will’s zinc deficiency became fantastic news because unlike almost everything else he tested for, this is easily curable. You simply feed your kid more meat! Ahh, ha,ha,ha,ha,ha—are you kidding me?! My son wouldn’t touch meat if it bit him on the leg! Seriously!

Thankfully we soon heard more good news, nowadays balanced pediatric nutrition drinks are available, and even though they smell like horse vomit, Will loves them. He drinks one a day, eats a junior vitamin, and we mix instant breakfast powder into his milk.

Pumped full of calories, vitamins, and nutrition, over the next two months Will thrilled and amazed us all by battling his way up to the 20th weight percentile, a huge victory and a huge relief for all of us. Finally our son would be “healthy and normal,” or so I thought. I soon found that the past year and a half had taken quite a toll on Will’s psyche.

Eating punished Will for so long that he’d developed serious textural issues about food. I thought that all kids loved pasta, but my kid’s Mac and cheese instinct was missing. Will thrived on crackers and pretzels, pudding and yogurt. He accepted anything dry, crisp, or pureed but refused any texture in between.

His father and I nourished him as best we could within these parameters, but knew that we were not doing a good job. Other than the nutrition drinks and vitamins, Will existed on chips, popcorn, nuts, baby food, applesauce, and other similar foods. Something had to change. Will needed to develop eating habits that would sustain him throughout his life.

At one point I decided enough was enough. The time had come for him to eat real food. I’d heard over and over that picky eaters were eager for power, and if children get hungry enough, they will eventually eat what’s put in front of them.

For a day or two I geared myself up with some big talk, and Sylvester Stallone–style air boxing. I could certainly handle a power struggle!  After all, I was the grown–up here, right?  I ought to be able to outwit a one-year-old!

Bring it on! I created the most appetizing pancakes I could, full of squashed bananas and chocolate chips. I knew that in no time at all Will would be won over by my amazing culinary masterpieces.

At breakfast time I put Will in his chair and told him to get ready for a special treat. He giggled and clapped with glee. So did I. Then I brought a plate of beautiful, warm pancakes over to my anxious son whose face immediately furrowed into confusion. “Where’s the treat, Mom?” he seemed to say, “I thought this was gonna be good.”

Undeterred I took a bite and told him how delicious it tasted. Will’s authoritative stare told me he knew I’d lost it. He let out a knowing sigh and reached out his hand. After one tentative finger found pancakes were a bread-like texture, Will wanted nothing more to do with them.

For one entire day I offered him just water and pancakes. I chopped them up, I left them intact; I covered them with syrup, and tried leaving them dry; I gave him control of the fork, and offered to help him with it; I stood by for encouragement, and tried leaving him alone for a while. Nothing worked. As the day ended, I counted my losses, gave him a little milk, and put him to bed.

I called all my girlfriends for reinforcement. They all assured me I was doing the right thing and tomorrow would be better. I’d lost the battle but refused to concede the war.

The next morning I arose refreshed and ready to go again. I made a brand new batch of pancakes. At breakfast Will took one look at the pancakes and whimpered softly. I tried to be tough and unfeeling, but I didn’t see defiance in my son. He wasn’t looking for power, and by the middle of the second day my heart ached for the sad eyes that said to me, “Why are you starving me?  Why won’t you bring me some food?”

By dinner I decided my girlfriends didn’t know everything. This was not war. Something else was wrong, and I wanted work with my son to correct the problem than to fight him. On that note I went to the cupboard and brought out some pureed carrots and applesauce. And with the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas, Will devoured the offerings.

I now recognize a myth: Eating is instinctive to children; children will not starve. This is not true! While sucking and swallowing is instinctive, eating is a complex learned behavior. For some children, maintaining a stable position in space takes priority over chewing or drinking which require a change of balance. Others feel that breathing is compromised by swallowing. At first, my son’s chronic congestion complicated eating beyond his capacity. Then later the anxiety and stress associated with eating were so ingrained in my son that, for him, trying new foods wasn’t possible.

After floundering in the dark for a while, Will’s father and I started collecting information from pediatricians, counselors, research, and Early Intervention (A therapy program for children under age three).

Our first goal became to stop Will’s grazing. Up to this point we’d let him snack all day long in the hopes that he would eat enough food. I anticipated two or three weeks of struggle, but imagine my delight when my son happily conformed to an eating schedule within a single day! And the bonus is he eats more when on a schedule.

The next goal was for Will to eat only when sitting at the table. Again we found that he appreciated the consistency and ate better.  He even conjured up some interest in using utensils and a cup without a lid.

Our ongoing project is to increase his tolerance for different foods. We’ve learned a lesson about consistency. Will eats each meal off the same kind of plate, the super-cheap paper plates from the dollar store. Both his grandmas and the babysitter have a stash.

At each meal we dish him a small portion of the same foods we are eating, but we also give him some of the foods he is comfortable with. We try to match colors and shapes when possible. For instance: he loves fish crackers, so we serve them with mandarin oranges, hoping the fish make the oranges appear less threatening.

We play with food a lot too. We do just about anything to get the food closer to his mouth. I’m sure that someone eavesdropping on dinnertime at our house would think we’re loopy!  We push hotdog pieces around with our noses. We walk lettuce up our arms. We squish macaroni between our fingers. As a result, Will has expanded his food repertoire to include apples, whole bananas, peanut butter, pineapple, chewy granola bars, and other things.

At the end of the meal comes the all important “throwing away of the food” ceremony. We bring the garbage can to Will, and one by one he throws away each food item left on his plate. This trick makes food less threatening, because he knows it’s going away. He’s almost always willing to touch it in order to get rid of it. Sometimes he’ll even blow it or kiss it into the garbage can. We whoop and holler at that.

Will is turning two next week.  After a year without change, he is finally progressing. Each victory is real. I reach for patience each day and keep working for normalcy. Maybe by the time Will goes to first grade he’ll be ready to tackle school lunch. Maybe that’s asking too much. We’ll see. Oh, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to go celebrate, Will just licked a piece of cheese!

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Toot Your Own Horn

I wrote this in Fall ’06 for my magazine article writing class

“Hey, Jack.” The music halted. Jack let out a slow breath while his eyes found Tom’s anxious face. Under the thread of Tom’s skittish chatter about exams, Jack carefully wiped his saxophone and responded. Weighty test scores were due out the following day, but other than a little extra apprehension it still felt like any other day. Jack had no way of knowing that in a few hours Tom would climb to the top of a waterfall with a box of matches and a bottle of kerosene and end his life.

These two great minds were both graced with ample opportunities, supportive families, and comfortable homes. Why did Tom implode while Jack did not?  One major difference between these two was Jack’s beloved saxophone. Tom had no mechanism of release.

The purpose of this story is not to suggest that kids raised without music are suicidal. It illustrates how important it is for kids to have a healthy outlet for stress.

Music is a perfect stress-reliever and an invaluable part of brain development, and any parent can put it to work in the lives of their children. Now before you throw your hands in the air and use your own musical inadequacy as an excuse, let me say, raising children with music doesn’t require musical ability, and it’s worth the effort.

You don’t have to be a musical genius; you don’t even have to be good at it. Children don’t care about musical ability. My grandmother was completely monotone, but my mother has many happy memories of singing together with her family and none of them include her mother’s deficiencies as a singer.  Children who learn to sing or play an instrument have a fantastic tool for stress relief. In the January 1999 issue of New Women, Rebecca Norris says that if music has a tempo of 60 to 70 beats per minute, (as is found in most New-Age music) after concentrating on the music for about ten minutes your heart begins to mimic that rhythm and decrease in beats per minute. This experience also helps to decrease stress and its harmful side-effects. It works by lowering levels of cortisol, a hormone released on the body during stressful situations. Norris further warns that if levels of cortisol stay elevated for a long period of time, it may lead to heart disease and other ailments.

My grandmother says that she could always tell what mood my mother was in by the style of music she played on the piano. When my mother was really upset she began a practice session with a dramatic song and poured all of her frustrations into it. Each successive piece got less and less dramatic until my mother ended with a calm and subtle piece. Her frustrations melted and my mother was renewed and refreshed.

Music also uses and develops all areas of the brain. In the November 1998 issue of Educational Leadership, Norman Weinberger published, “The Music in Our Minds.” Weinberger says that, “Learning and performing music actually exercises the brain, not merely by developing specific music skills, but also by strengthening the synapses between brain cells.”

Weinberger says making music helps to engage and exercise all six of the major functional systems of the brain. This makes sense when you consider what it takes to read sheet music, perform, and evaluate a performance. In ensemble playing, each student must listen to his/her own performance while coordinating with others. Then they must learn and remember what is on the score, or play from memory. Weinberger claims that brain scans taken during musical performances show that virtually all of the cerebral cortex is active. Clearly, music is an effective way to exercise and increase the capabilities of our mind.

Michael Greene, Recording Academy President and CEO, spoke at the Grammy Awards in 2000. “Music is a magical gift we must nourish and cultivate in our children. Scientific evidence proves that an education in the arts makes better students, enhances spatial intelligence in newborns, and let’s not forget that the arts are a compelling solution to teen violence, certainly not the cause of it!”

Your child’s age What to do
Newborn Rock and sing to your babies.
Toddler Dance and sing to action songs such as Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes.
Preschool Sing songs that allow them to mimic you.
5-6 years old Begin piano instruction.
10 -12 years old Begin instruction on another instrument or formal voice training.
All ages Sing before bed and in the car.  Let your children teach you songs as well.

NOTE: The above is actually a table, but I don’t know how to display it that way on WordPress yet.

Musical children, how?

Start by rocking and singing to your baby, which develops their ear to understand pitches and rhythm. Because babies listen, their attention spans stretch, and they develop pitch memory and natural rhythm.

Besides, singing is one of the most natural ways a mother can bond with her newborns. Many babies are mesmerized by the sound of their parent’s singing voice. When my son was about 2-months-old, he had trouble with gas. After trying gas drops, massage, vibrations, and a few other treatments with no real results, it seemed I could do nothing to relieve his suffering. My mother reminded me to rock and sing to my baby and soon his screams reduced to a whimper.

Teach your toddler action songs and nursery rhymes, such as “Patty-Cake”; “Ring Around the Rosie”; and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes.”  Bounce them on your knee, clap hands, and dance with them while you sing. This reinforces pitch and rhythm development.

Action songs also aide in developing the left (creative) and right (scientific) sides of the brain, and teaches coordination between the two.

Your preschooler will enjoy songs that allow them to mimic you. My mother sang  “Little Sir Echo” (by John S. Fearis’ and Laura Roundtree Smith) with my brothers and me. We loved to echo the hellos, and felt like we contributed to the song, even before we were capable of learning all the words.

Pay attention to the different kinds of music that you play in your children’s presence. Your children’s mental and physical health is affected by the music they are surrounded with. In The Effects of Rock Music on the Personality, Shirley Porter-Murdock claims that, “studies have shown that a child who has been exposed to [nothing but] rock music since birth looses the capacity to relax totally but rather has a tautness or tension about him/her which is often displayed in irritability and anxiety.”

Children do really well when they start the piano about age 5 or 6. They have learned alphabetic and numeric symbols and are primed to learn other symbols, so learning to read music is natural at this time. Also, children are learning how to focus on a task and half-hour practice sessions encourage that.

Acquiring musical skills requires short-term and long-term goal setting. Children work to master a line of music or a piece. They work to learn a whole book of music and move up a grade. As children reach goals, music builds in them a sense of accomplishment and teaches invaluable study habits.

Piano provides a great foundation for any musical aspiration. It requires knowledge of the treble clef and bass clef, while most other instruments only use one clef. Piano also teaches how to use both hands independently. Suggest the piano to your child and watch for interest.

Regular recitals and other performances will help your child become comfortable displaying themselves to an audience. I’ve been told that I was a painfully shy little girl, but my mother encouraged me to sing and play for people often. I remember stage-fright, but I can honestly say that now I have no fear when performing in front of hundreds of people.

Parental support is crucial during this time. Practicing is often monotonous. It’s important to remind your child of how far they have come, and future goals. Pull out old pieces and let them see how easy they are compared to when they first started playing them. Play a recording of a song your child loves and let them imagine themselves playing at a professional level.

Beware of negative criticism. A new musician’s practice-sessions are hard to listen to, but your perceived support or annoyance affects your child. I knew a girl whose parents actually asked her to wait and practice her instrument when they were gone so that they didn’t have to listen. Not surprising, she had no confidence and gave the instrument up after a few short years. Well-meaning parents of another girl with a beautiful, natural, operatic voice were intimidated by her big sound and often asked her to soften her voice. But the girl translated the understandable concern into a negative statement about her voice and even as a grown woman she is an insecure singer.

Age 10-12 is a great time to start another instrument or formal voice training if your child is interested. Most middle schools and junior high schools have music classes available. They prove a great support to private instruction. Your child has studied music and will then have the opportunity to enjoy it and share it with others outside your family.

If you don’t opt for private instruction on the second instrument, that’s okay. My experience has been that not many people stick with instruments they only study at school, but your child will still benefit from sharing music with others.

The payoff

You don’t need to be told one more time to keep your kids away from constant TV watching. But remember, if your children have a better way to pass the time, they will be less likely to turn to television for entertainment.

Also, exposing your children to different types of music gives them appreciation for many genres, including the genre that you favor. Even though most people my age don’t, I have developed a great love for John Denver, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, Irving Berlin, Mendelssohn, Bach and others.

Music has the power to unify a family as they create music together. It builds fantastic memories, and it’s a great way to express emotion to each other. We always hear stories about the family gathered around the piano, the guitar or even the radio sharing a song.

A long-standing tradition in my child-hood was centered around the song, “Oh Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam.”  We paused in between singing each line and my father yelled out a ridiculous comment about the song. After the line, “Where the deer and the antelope play,”  my father would say, “The antelope’s on the 40th and comin’ in for a touchdown!”  my brothers and I collapsed into a fit of giggles. We used this routine at talent shows and fireside gatherings, and we always felt like the best act of the night.

Music is a great way to serve the community. Just last weekend I sang at a funeral for a good friend’s father. It was amazing to look into the eyes of those that were grieving and offer them the comfort of a beautiful song. As a child, the more I performed in retirement centers and hospitals, the more respect I had for our older generations. I remember when my friends at elementary school talked about how freaky old, sickly people were, but I didn’t see what the big deal was. I had an appreciation for those people.

Remember, “Nothing touches the soul, but it leaves an impression; then we are fashioned into all we have seen and heard, known and meditated. If we learn to live with all that is purest and fairest and best; the love of it all will become our lives.”    -unknown

The most important thing is to sing. Forget about your own ability; it doesn’t matter. Sing before bed, sing in the car; go caroling to your neighbors.

Let your kids teach you songs they learn at school or church.

Help your children learn to use this perfect stress-reliever and invaluable tool for brain development. However you choose to implement it, music will benefit your family and reward your efforts.

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As they exited the band room Tom turned his troubled eyes to Jack and said, “ I don’t know how you can spare the time to learn that thing on top of everything else.”  Jack smiled and placed a light hand on his treasured saxophone, “I can’t afford not to.”


BTW: I hate the title of this article. Any better ideas?