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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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October 12, 2007

Birthday keepsake

On the occasion of my son's 20th birthday, we got to reminiscing about birthday parties when he was little. The ones he remembered most fondly? You guessed it. The ones that barely cost a dime: one when he was 4, where the kids played in chalk on the driveway; the softball party at a local ball field where one cousin pitched, and another umped; the party at a friend's airplane hanger where they got to sit in the cockpit of his small plane. OK, the very best party was the one, when he was older, at Fenway. Did you know you can get tours of the park when it's empty? Yeah, that one wasn't free.

So aside from the Bar Mitzvah party (and yes, he does remember that one!), why does it come as no surprise that the party that probably cost the most, he doesn't remember at all? That's gotta be because there were so many parties at Chuck E Cheese, they all blur together.

So maybe I was just primed for what arrived in the mail at the office this week -- "Your Birthday Book, A Keepsake Journal" by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (or maybe I'm just a sentimental sucker?). Either way, I love the idea of writing about each birthday, gathering a few photos, and then having it, years later, to look back on. What fun that would have been last week!

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:57 AM
October 10, 2007

When a pet dies


Abbey, our family dog, is 13. When my son said goodbye to her as he headed back to college after a short break, it didn't take much to imagine what he was thinking: "Will she be here next time I'm home?"

Preparing for a cherished pet's death isn't easy, no matter what age we are. If it's something your family is facing, consider, "Jasper's Day" (Kids Can Press). Beautifully-written by Marjorie Blain Parker, with luscious illustrations by Janet Wilson, it's the story of a Golden who's dying of cancer. I'd recommend it for 4- to 10-year-olds.

Boston Globe,
CHILD CARING, August 5, 1999
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff


It has been four years since Matt Prescottano's yellow Lab, Pups, was hit by a car, but Matt still thinks about her, still remembers conversations he had with her, and still feels sad, sometimes even when he's playing with his new dog, Magic, who was Pups's puppy. He may have been only 8 when she died~, but Matt still remembers how he didn't believe his mother when she gave him the news and how glad he was that his parents let him see Pups one last time to say goodbye, even though she was already dead.

His parents remember the day well, too, not just for the loss of Pups but also for the depth of Matt's sadness.

His father, Edmund, a Newton veterinarian who frequently guides families through pets' deaths, says it was wrenching to see his son so distraught. ``As much as you know a pet is important to your child, you still may not realize just how significant it is,'' he says.

What parents also may not realize is that the death of any pet can be significant, from a goldfish to a gerbil. And while we typically consider a pet's death a way for children to practice coping with the death of a person, psychologists urge us to treat it with respect and ritual for its own sake.

``Children of all ages have powerful connections to pets that sometimes border on magical,'' says veterinarian Myrna Milani, author of ``Preparing for the Loss of Your Pet'' (Prima Press). How deeply a child is affected will depend in part on how deep the connection is, but even when the connection is minimal, we run the risk of appearing unfeeling and harsh when we throw a dead pet in the trash or flush fish down the toilet. (Not to mention the havoc we can wreak on a toddler who is making the connection between toilets and bodily functions.)

``If your kids talk to their goldfish like mine do, a death means more than if the fish are just pretty to look at,'' says psychologist Genie Ware, a children's grief therapist at the Family Loss Project in Framingham. Her family has had six goldfish funerals, complete with eulogies.

How you help children mourn depends on their stage of cognitive development. Under 6, for instance, they typically don't grasp that death is permanent: They expect the pet to reappear. Teens, however, are at a developmental stage where they think they are immortal. ``For them, having a pet die is very difficult,'' says Milani. ``I bet every vet in the country has a dent in a wall where a teenage boy put a fist through it from the hopeless, helpless feeling of being told a pet is dying.''

Children of any age may cry harder and more for a pet than they did when Grandma or Grandpa died. ``A pet's death is safer for them to cry about,'' says Ware. ``When Grandpa dies, they're afraid that if they cry too much, it will make you cry more, which is scary for them.'' Indeed, a pet's death may stir up a previous loss. Ware suggests asking, ``I know how sad you are about Fluffy. Are you thinking about Grandpa, too?''

It's also possible, however, that a child is sadder about the pet than about the grandparent.

"`For some children, a pet is a sibling. They're closer to it than to a relative who is geographically or emotionally distant,'' Ware says.

As soon as a child is verbal, Ware suggests looking for animal deaths in nature to get across basic concepts: ``See this dead bug? Its body doesn't work anymore. It doesn't get hungry or thirsty anymore. That's what it means to be dead. Once it's dead, it doesn't come alive again.''

Similarly, the dead skunk in the road isn't just something that smells bad, it's a learning experience: ``Sometimes animals don't realize they're wandering onto a road and a driver can't stop in time. It's sad, but it isn't really the driver's fault.''

Tops on Milani's list of how to help children is to think through a pet's death long before it happens, so that we're comfortable with what we want to do and why. ``Children have the hardest time if we're ambivalent,'' she says.

In one family she knows, parents euthanized an older dog because it was biting the children, then shifted responsibility to them by telling people, ``We had to put him down; he was a danger to the kids.'' More frequently, she sees parents who can't make a decision put it in the children's hands: ``He's your pet. What do you want to do?''

Milani is unequivocal. ``This is irresponsible,'' she says. ``It leaves a child thinking, `If it wasn't for me, Spot would still be alive.' The decision for euthanasia belongs to adults. Give children a decision, not a choice.''

Even though talking to our children about ending a pet's life makes most of us uncomfortable, grief therapist Jen Henry of the Life Transitions Center in Buffalo recommends honesty. With toddlers, it's OK to offer a half-truth -- ``Spot died at the vet's'' -- but for preschoolers she suggests embedding the whole truth in your family values: `` `In our family, we believe if a pet is in a lot of pain and the vet can't help anymore, the kindest thing to do is to end her pain by ending her life.' ''

Psychologist Donald Wertlieb, director of the Tufts University Center for Children, offers another explanation: `` `The rules for pets are different than for people. Pets don't eat at the table or use the bathroom, and sometimes when we don't have a way to help a pet get better, the vet has a special medicine that helps her die in a way that doesn't hurt.' ''

Avoid euphemisms, says Wertlieb: ``Equating death with sleep, as in `putting the cat to sleep,' is the source of many sleep disturbances.''

Cherry and James Karlson of Wayland were gently honest with their children, Mark, 3, and 7-year-old twins Katie and Nicholas, when they learned last December that Winston, their 10-year-old golden retriever, had untreatable cancer. ``We pointed out how he wanted to spend all his time on his dog bed instead of running and playing,'' she says. That was something they could see.''

When Winston declined faster than they expected, Cherry told the children that he was very, very sick and in a lot of pain. Because all three are still in a stage of concrete thinking, their first question was: ``How can you tell?'' She was able to answer with equal specificity: ``I spent the night lying next to him, and he whimpered the whole time because he hurts so much.''

On the way to the vet's, Cherry and James talked about what would happen, that the doctor would give Winston a shot that would stop his heart, and then he would be dead. They also gave them the option of watching. This is a controversial call with children this young, but Cherry had her reasons. ``I was 17 when my dog was put down,'' she says. ``I wasn't allowed to be with him and I was devastated, so I wanted my children to at least have that choice.'' Thankfully, she says, they declined.

Although they didn't have a burial, the Karlsons spent a quiet family day, looking at photos of Winston and taking their other dog to Winston's favorite haunts.

Rituals like that are important, says Wertlieb, especially because they give you a basis to answer questions later on, like, ``Where is Spot?'' ``He's not coming back because his body stopped working and he died. Remember, we buried him in our backyard and we planted flowers?''

Most vets and psychologists suggest waiting weeks, if not months, to replace a pet, even a parakeet:

- Families need time not to repeat past mistakes. When you replace quickly, you tend to get the same pet, breed, and sex. With more time to reflect, you may decide that wasn't the best match. For instance, says Milani, ``Maybe the dog got run over because you were careless because your lifestyle is too busy.''

- Children need time not to worry. Milani says a common thought goes something like this: ``If Mom and Dad can replace Spot so quickly, could they find a new kid, too?''

- They need time to mourn. Quick replacement demeans the relationship with the previous pet and can make a child feel disloyal, preventing her from bonding with the new pet.

Matt Prescottano got a puppy very quickly, but only because a family that had taken one of Pups's pups couldn't keep her. That took his mind off Pups, but not entirely.

``Pups was my first dog,'' he says. ``I love this one, but my first dog was different. She'll always be my most special.''

Meanwhile, he offers this advice to other kids whose dog dies: ``Make sure everyone at school knows about it. You will have some very bad days, and it's good if they know why.''


- If your children are 10 or older and your pet is aging and infirm, draw up a living will to decide how far your family is willing to go if he becomes incapacitated. For instance, who will wake up with him if it's necessary during the night?

- If a child asks, ``Why did my pet get cancer/get hit by a car?'' here's a possible answer: ``We don't always understand why some things happen in life, but there's one thing we know for certain: You loved Spot and Spot loved you, and we're thankful we had him in our lives.''

- Include children in decision-making about the funeral: ``Where should we bury him? What kind of service can we have?'' If a burial isn't possible because the pet is too large or your town forbids it, have a service.

- Explain cremation to preschoolers very simply: ``The vet has a special way of disposing of Spot.'' With school-age children, focus more on the result than on the process: ``Some people bury an animal, some cremate him in a high-temperature oven and take the ashes and sprinkle them someplace special, like on his favorite field. Any ideas where we should do that?''

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 03:51 PM
October 10, 2007

Badge of (dis)honor


Is nothing sacred? Another recall due to lead paint, this time involving the Cub Scouts! Yikes!

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:20 PM
October 10, 2007

When your kids' eating habits make you crazy...

Jerry Seinfield and his wife, Jessica, have two picky eaters so Jessica has written a book, "Deceptively Delicious." Basically, it's how she fools her kids into eating healthy food: Pink pancakes, for instance, because she adds beets to the batter. Good idea or not? Personally, I've never been a fan of tricking kids; my theory is, it'll come back to haunt you sooner or later. On the other hand, it depends how frantic you are at the lack of nutrition your children are getting. Obviously, Seinfeld was high on that scale. Meanwhile, new research shows that picky eating is as much a genetic issue as environmental.

In case you're a parent who's problem is on the other end of the spectrum -- kids who eat more than they need -- keep reading for a column of mine, "With youth weight gain, food isn't the only issue."

Thursday, April 11, 2002



This did not make Joey eat less. His parents recently had gone through a nasty divorce. To hear them agree about anything was music to his ears. He gained 35 pounds in a year.

Weight-loss specialist Caroline Cederquist of Naples, Fla., uses this anecdote to make the point that children overeat for psychological reasons, just like adults. "Kids don't just eat because they're hungry," she says. "They eat because something tastes good even when they aren't hungry, or because the food is there and everyone else is eating it, and yes, they definitely eat for comfort."

Childhood obesity is a serious problem in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of 6- to 11-year-old children who are overweight or obese has doubled in the last 20 years, and the number of overweight 12- to 19-year-olds has tripled. That translates to roughly 13 to 14 percent of all American children.
Pediatrician Walter Murphy of Plymouth sees the increase reflected in his practice. "I'm spending far more time on overweight children than I ever used to," he says.
Jane Franks, coordinator of school health services for Lexington, calls it an epidemic that puts children at serious risk. Her town is looking for creative ways to head off the problem: This year, a middle school and elementary school launched successful Breakfast Clubs, and Hasting Elementary is looking for parent volunteers to lead jump-rope and walking clubs at recess as part of a proposed fitness program .
Medically, risks for overweight children can surface even in 5- to 10-year-olds, with elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, and nighttime breathing problems. Toronto pediatrician and obesity researcher Miriam Kaufman sees an increase in joint problems among overweight teenagers. By far, however, the most dramatic medical problem is that childhood obesity tends to progress into adult obesity, which translates to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
"Bottom line, we're talking about a shortened life span," says Murphy.
Then there are the social and emotional issues. Social stigmas continue to surround those overweight. In one study cited by pediatrician David Ludwig, director of the Obesity Program at Children's Hospital, young children were shown photographs of lean people and heavy people and asked to describe them. The words for the overweight people were strikingly negative, says Ludwig: lazy, dirty, unhealthy, not smart. "To say that overweight kids can be teased pretty badly is an understatement," says Kaufman, co-author of "The Overweight Child" (Firefly).
Parents often are unsure how to cope with any of this.
For starters, deciding your young child is overweight is not always easy. Children are constantly growing; weight gain is normal, indeed necessary, to fuel a growth spurt. Parents are not necessarily wrong to assume that a child, especially a prepubescent one, will outgrow today's pudginess when pounds redistribute over a newly taller frame. On the other hand, there is no magic line children cross that says, "Now you're overweight."
If you're worried, Murphy recommends asking a pediatrician to chart your child's growth. "If I've been tracking a child and he's been in the 75th percentile all along and now he's suddenly in the 90th, that's a red flag," he says. To be in the 75th percentile means that a child's weight is greater than 75 percent of the population; to be in the 90th means she weighs more than 90 percent of the population. Overweight is somewhere in between, and the determination is somewhat subjective, influenced by genetics and body frame as well as attitude. "Parents and children have different tolerance levels about this," says Kaufman. What is aesthetically overweight to some may not be to others.
Equally tricky is when and what to say to your child. "If you push too hard for her to be thin, [it can] lead to an eating disorder. If you're too lax about weight gain, it likely will continue," says psychologist Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders.
It's a mistake, however, to not say anything. "An overweight child knows he is different from other children," says Ludwig. Parents who say nothing hoping to spare a child pain may, instead, be depriving her of support.
Then there's the other extreme. Kaufman says she is stunned by the teasing some overweight children experience at home from parents and siblings. Family members may think they are doing the child a favor by hoping to shame or guilt him into eating less, but it doesn't work that way.
"A child can say, `I don't like being fat, pass the doughnuts,' all in the same breath," says Cederquist. "Under age 11, they don't have the cognitive ability to understand cause and effect."
This is why the current thinking in helping overweight children targets the family, not the child.
"Kids should be eating what the family eats - no special diets. The parents do the work by making healthy food choices," says Cederquist.
This takes a major commitment by parents to set limits on food choice and portion size; to limit television and computer time (Cederquist and others recommend no more than an hour a day); create exercise opportunities (30 minutes a day beyond physical education); and limit fast-food intake.
"You can't bring junk food into the house and say, `You can't eat this,' " says Murphy. "If you want cookies for yourself, put them in the trunk of your car and keep them there!" He isn't joking.
Some parents are too quick to recognize a child's weight problem, others too slow. Not surprisingly, it tends to correlate to their own issues with weight. "Parents often feel they're to blame, but the environment is a big part of the reason we're seeing so much childhood obesity," says Brownell. He and others say television, videos, and computer games are a huge problem not only because they take time away from physical play, but also because TV exposes the typical child to 10,000 food ads a year, 95 percent of them for unhealthy food items, such as sugared cereal.
Another culprit is schools that have soda and snack food vending machines. Brownell urges parents to lobby for their replacement with machines that offer water, milk, and healthy snacks. To school administrators who say they need the revenue, he says team up with sports equipment manufacturers instead.
"It's a whole lot healthier," he says.
Afterthought: Who says parenting can't be reduced to a few simple rules? "Graceful Parenting" by Eve Dreyfus (Celestial Arts, is a small book, simply written and sparsely illustrated, but Dreyfus, a child psychiatrist, manages to pack in a lot of wisdom and information. Her 25 rules, one per page, include `Yelling doesn't work," "Ty to avoid time-outs," and "No guns."

Contact Barbara F. Meltz at

5 A healthy portion size for most foods is the size of a deck of cards.
6 Get a child into the habit of eating when he's hungry, not because something tastes good. When any child wants more, ask: "Are you still hungry?" Many times he'll say no. If an overweight child wants more of something that's high in fat, tell him, "You've had your serving of meat. You can have more vegetable or salad." If that's not what he wants, hold firm. "Children need to understand what it feels like to be hungry or full in order to have a healthy relationship with food," says weight-loss specialist Caroline Cederquist, author of "Helping Your Overweight Child" (Advance Medical Press;, which offers recipes and guidance for good food choices.
7 Avoid using food as a reward.
8 Put fat in food where children appreciate it - for instance, on the icing instead of in the cake. (Substitute applesauce or pineapple juice for shortening.)
9 Find ways to make exercise part of your child's life (walking to school). Exercise together (take a family evening walk, a Saturday hike). Adding exercise by signing her up for a class tends to backfire; an overweight child is often too embarrassed to wear shorts or a bathing suit.
10 If you sign her up for a sport, go for one high in activity (not baseball). When possible, ask a coach: "If you're looking at my kid and thinking, `He's too big to be fast, I'm not going to play him,' can you tell me beforehand, so this won't be a bad experience?"
11 Avoid connecting food to self-esteem, for yourself or your child. Not, "You're so bad, you ate two pieces," but, "That was a bad choice, huh?"
12 The Centers for Disease Control is piloting a new approach to childhood weight gain prevention. Called motivational interviewing, it encourages practitioners to ask parents, "Do you think your child has a weight problem?" rather than tell them he does, and then to find out what they feel capable of doing about it rather than dictate remedies. "The goal is to prevent parents from feeling blamed and therefore guilty and reluctant to return for help when they haven't followed a particular regime," says CDC's William Dietz.
13 Helpful Web sites include (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute); (Centers for Disease Control).

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 12:20 PM
October 9, 2007

Is there such a thing as too much of Halloween?


Good news! Your baby doesn't have to be a pumpkin! What about a lobster, a monkey, or even a chilli pepper?

Anybody think Halloween is over the top, too much too scary too soon for young children? One dad was just telling me that he and his wife have to be careful what stores they take their children to -- some decorations are just too downright spooky for them, including creeky noises and skeleton hands. If you have a story to tell, email me at I'm writing about this.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 05:19 PM
October 9, 2007

Unhealthy sexualization from an unexpected source


Think your teenage son loves Axe products 'cause it's just another deoderant? Maybe. Maybe not.

The Axe range of male grooming products, made by Unilever, is the newest target of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. So why would a nonprofit devoted to freeing our children from the unhealthy influence of marketing care about a men's deoderant? Click here to get an idea, but beware -- it's x-rated. And if you think your teenage son doesn't know about this or other websites like it, my advice to you is very direct: come out from under your rock.

The point CCFC is making is this: "Unilever's promotes the objectification and sexual humiliation of women."

The irony is that Unilever also makes Dove, which is sponsor of Onslaught, a video which CCFC describes as examining "disturbing images of women" in beauty-industry advertising. The video ends with the message, "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."

CCFC goes on to say, "It's an important message, and the [Onslaught] campaign has received many accolades for challenging the standards of the beauty industry. But there's one big problem: Unilever is the beauty industry. When it comes to promoting sexualized stereotypes and marketing an unhealthy body image in order to sell girls on the idea that they need products to improve the way they look, Unilever - the world's second biggest advertiser and manufacturer of diet aids, cosmetics, skin whiteners, and other beauty products - is a major offender."

Click here to join the CCFC campaign to "Ax the Axe" marketing campaign.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:26 PM
October 9, 2007

Recall this

What is safe? The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission's website has announced eight recalls in the past six days alone, all because of lead paint content: (Click here for a reminder on the dangers of lead paint.)

aluminium coated water bottles; Frankenstein glasses (drinking, that is); Pirates of the Caribbean toy flashlights;
Baby Einstein color blocks; wooden pull toys; Totally Me! decorating sets;
book clip & book marks; Key chains with one-word values on them, like Love and Wisdom.

All of the recalls were voluntary and no injuries have been reported in any of them. Oh -- each item was made in China.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 01:42 PM
October 9, 2007

Thoughts on a middle-born child


"I just don't get my middle child," a mother told me recently. It prompted me to look up an old column which reminded me that, by definition, a middle born can be any child/ren between the first and last. I love what Meri Wallace said to me once in an interview: "This child always feels as if he's in a race. Above you is the child you are racing to catch up with; below you is the child you are racing to stay ahead of." (Wallace is author of "Birth Order Blues.")

So does this describe your middle-born?

Independent. More liikely to do sleepovers younger than the first or the last; have a wider circle of friends than the first-born at the same ages; be the first among friends to dye his hair purple (the first-born may never do that!). What accounts for this streak of independence? Middles typically are not as connected to mom and dad. Don't panic; that doesn't mean they aren't connected, period. It just means that in comparison they are less connected than first- or last-borns and thus more able to be more independent at younger ages. In a survey of 7,000 siblings, when asked, "Who would you turn to for help in a crisis," first- and last-borns said mom or dad. Middle-borns were more likely to say a peer or sibling. Great book on this: "Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creatives Lives" by Frank Sulloway. Here's one red flag: The middle born typically is at greater risk than first-or last-borns during the middle- and high-school years. He's more easily influenced by peers because he tends to be less reliant on the family for emotional support.

Adaptive. With a first-born, the family's schedule revolves around hte baby. With the second-born, the schedule revolves around car pools for the first. When the next baby comes along, the now-middle child's schedule gets adapted to that one. Don't feel guilty; this is a fact of life. It's what makes a middle-born flexible, even if, at the time, it makes her cranky. Who's the best friend you had as a child? Any chance it was a middle-born?

A peacemaker. Feeling the squeeze from both ends -- she has to deal with the quirks, needs and wants of both the older and younger sibs, tends to make this child good at negotiation, compromise and peacemaking. What may begin as a survival skill frequently becomes a source of satisfcation.

Of course, this doesn't mean middle-borns can't also be comptetitive and downright mean. What's behind any middle's behavior is often a need to find a niche in the family.
So what's a parent to do?

Make a point of asking for his opinion. The middle child often feels -- and, let's face, is -- lost in the shuffle. The more you ask, "What do you think," the less he'll need to seek negative attention.

Make time alone with her. Every child needs this; it's the single best antidote to almost any negative behavior. But with the middle-child, perhaps more than first- or last-borns, it will really pay off.

Quit with the comparisons! -- or at least, turn them on their head. Because middles tend to feel competitive with the first-born, they are constantly asking questions like, "How old was Will when he read his first chapter book?" Consider an answer like this: "Will was younger than you. He started to read first. But you were younger when you started to draw. You started to draw first."

A word about that sense of competition. It's a strong motivator for middle's. When they want to do the same sport as the older sib, the thought they have often is, ""I can do it better!" Even when they feel, "No matter how hard I try, it's not as good!" there's that drive to try again anyway. If a middle insists on playing soccer like his brother, it doesn't mean he shouldn't; in fact, it may mean a lot to him to be able to prove to himself that he can cut it. But the hard work is for us, the parents: don't compare him to how his brother played at this age. And always help each child, but especially a middle, find some activity that only he does. By the way, if a middle-born never seems to stay with only activity very long -- a season at baseball, a season at bastketball -- it may be because he's looking for the gap in the family that he can fill. Let him experiment.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:24 AM
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