Research shows that after marriage and children, same-sex parents divide responsibilities more like heterosexual parents. But even when they do, they are more likely to say it feels equitable.
While filming it in 2002, Karp, then a pediatrician in Santa Monica with a growing reputation, had asked his patients to call him whenever their child was having a crying fit. He then drove across town to record the encounters — effectively making house calls for screaming babies. Montée, a documentary filmmaker, worked the camera. The result has a zany, homemade quality. Over and over again, Karp is seen swaddling, handling and shushing babies into submission while talking to the camera in a voice so hypnotic it could be trademarked. One exhausted-looking father praised Karp for turning his crying daughter “to Jell-O.” It wasn’t exactly revolutionary, but his method was built on fast, practical tips that, well, worked. So we clung to them, feeling a little sheepish to be following a parenting expert so literally.
Birndorf told Karp that a pediatrician had recently visited the center and suggested that babies not be put to sleep on nursing pillows or on bouncing chairs — a reversal of previous pediatric guidelines. The advice of parenting experts — many but not all of whom are doctors — kept changing, she complained. The contradictions she recounted, from conveying to women that motherhood is a natural state to instructing them on exactly how and where their babies should sleep, all while nullifying earlier recommendations, seemed to get at an inherent paradox at the heart of a profession whose stated goal is to empower parents. “Highlights from 100 years of expert solicitude confirm the dirty little secret of child rearing: Though parenting gurus preach the supreme importance of consistency, their own shifting wisdom is proof of its impossibility,” Ann Hulbert, the author of “Raising America” (2003), a sweeping history of child-rearing advice, wrote in this magazine.
Karp nodded at Birndorf sympathetically. That he is one of those gurus, peddling parenting products, didn’t seem to discomfit him. Whenever someone points out the hypocrisies of today’s parenting industry, which happens often enough, Karp doesn’t try to defend it, or himself. He commiserates, and it sounds genuine — the ambivalent doctor trying to help parents make sense of a chaotic world. That’s one reason many parents find his approach so reassuring. Unlike other parenting books, Karp’s doesn’t feel preachy or berating. His tips can be applied just as easily by fathers as by mothers, and his pragmatic advice and suggested baby schedules don’t feel like more than what they are: suggestions. But as I trailed him on his rounds, his suggestions invariably seemed to crescendo toward a pitch.
“Well,” he told Birndorf, “this is where they would use a SNOO.”
When explaining his philosophy of parenthood, Karp likes to quote his late mother: “Keep an open mind, but don’t let your brain fall out.” Karp grew up in Queens with two older sisters in a family he describes as Jewish but not Orthodox, Democratic but not political. His father was a building engineer and occasionally a door-to-door salesman; his mother was in charge of the business’s bookkeeping. As a child, Harvey was temperamental. At 12, he smashed a golf club into a painting his sister made. Later, he took up meditation. “It was right when the Beatles were doing it,” he said. This began for him a lifelong interest in Eastern and alternative practices even as he decided to enroll in medical school.
Credit Hannah Whitaker for The New York Times
By his second year at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, Karp knew that he wanted to care for children, whom he considered more “optimistic and resilient” than adults. He moved to Los Angeles for a residency at Children’s Hospital, meeting and marrying a woman who was studying to become a family counselor. At night, he pored over his wife’s textbooks about family dynamics. He trained under Barbara Korsch, a pediatrician who was among the first to study the field of doctor-patient communication and to call for “reducing the power gap” between physicians and parents. “Being smart is important, but you can’t get through the door by being an arrogant, smart doctor, unless you want to be a surgeon or a radiologist or something like that,” he said. “But if you’re dealing with patients, you’re knocking at the door and you’re being invited in. You have to be a good guest.”
In the early 1980s, he began working at U.C.L.A. hospital’s child-abuse team. He watched as babies were wheeled into the hospital in the middle of the night because their parents didn’t know how to soothe them or had badly shaken them when they screamed uncontrollably. “It was perplexing to me, because I thought: We could put a man on the moon. We could cure some types of cancer. We could make long-distance phone calls around the world. But we don’t know why babies cry, and we don’t know how to help them sleep.”
This issue of infant colic — of otherwise healthy babies who cry for more than three hours a day, at least three days a week, in the first three months of life — gnawed at him, and he immersed himself in books on evolution and anthropology. He learned about a Pygmy tribe that passes around babies between different community members all day long so that children develop multiple relationships early. He read the fieldwork of the anthropologist Melvin Konner about the infants of the !Kung San people in the Kalahari, who are carried in slings and rarely cry for more than a minute at a time. In the West, about 15 to 20 percent of babies have colic. “So either the !Kung babies were mutant babies — different from others — or those parents knew something.”
One day, when he was 29, Karp felt a dull pain in his neck as he was heading back to the hospital from lunch. He asked an intern to perform an EKG on him, but the intern didn’t know how to read the results. “So I’m showing him, ‘Here — oh, my God, this is cardiac ischemia.’ ” What he was reading was his own heart attack. He was kept in the hospital for a week for observation and advised to eat half a pound of salmon a day to reduce his cholesterol. The incident was mild enough that it didn’t have lasting effects, but it left him with a greater sense of urgency. “It was a crystalline moment,” he told me, of coming to terms with his own limitations. From then on, whenever he went for a run in Santa Monica and reached an area with outdoor stairs, he forced himself to think, as he descended, that at the very bottom “is the end of my life and to prepare for that.”
Before the heart attack, he had planned on going into child-development research, but now he thought the demands of academia would be too taxing. Instead, he joined a practice in Los Angeles with two other pediatricians and began to develop a local following. He threw himself into the job. Early in his career, he resolved never to do a checkup for less than half an hour. On some days, he visited six different hospitals to meet his newborn patients. As his work got more demanding, Karp and his wife grew apart and divorced.
Credit Hannah Whitaker for The New York Times
Karp was beginning to develop his concept of the “missing fourth trimester.” Human babies are born about three months prematurely, the theory goes, because their heads, which grow rapidly, need to be able to fit through the birth canal. Some scientists dispute Karp’s notion that human gestation is too short. “Sadly, the evidence doesn’t support that,” Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, told me. But Karp insists that this explains why during the first months of life, babies can be lulled back into a womblike “trance” through the use of certain cues that Karp calls the 5 S’s: a combination of swaddling, shushing, placing the baby on her side or stomach, swinging her and letting her suck. He noticed that for each baby the “symphony of sensations” was slightly different — some babies needed extra movement, others a light jiggle — though all the infants responded well to swaddling, even if they seemed resistant at first.
By the early 1990s, Karp was running his own clinic, with a playground out back, and eventually he hired four pediatricians to work with him. “At the time, if you could get in to see Dr. Karp, then you’ve got it made,” Elaine Hall, whose son became a patient of Karp’s in 1996, told me. “He had a kind of hippie vibe to him then. He was gentle and comforting, and he had a long ponytail.” Karp gave her son a diagnosis of severe autism when he was 2. “Dr. Karp took me aside, and I’ll never forget — I get teary — he said: ‘You’re going to go on a journey. It’s a different path than you envisioned, but I can promise you you’re going to have lots of experiences that are going to make your life richer than you even imagined.”
Karp became famous for what were then unconventional methods for bonding with infants. Deena Goldstone, the mother of one of Karp’s first patients, remembers Karp suggesting that she swaddle her newborn at night, “which I thought made no sense,” she told me. Karp also advised Goldstone’s husband to hold their baby against his bare chest, in what doctors now tout as the importance of skin-to-skin contact. As his reputation grew, Hollywood celebrities took their children to see him; he treated the kids of Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer and Larry David.
He also had a new family. He and Montée met at a party in Hollywood in 1991, when he was 40, divorced with no children. She was 11 years younger, with a 7-year-old daughter, Lexi, from a previous marriage. Montée is from Belgrade and has a highly polished complexion and the kind of thick, open-syllabled accent in English that makes “best” sound like “bast.” (Her uncle is Milan Panic, a pharmaceutical multimillionaire and former prime minister of Yugoslavia.) Karp appeared to her so unassuming that when he told her that he took care of the hosts’ son, “I thought, Oh, he’s their ‘manny,’ ” Montée told me.
In 2000, a famous actress brought in her young son to see Karp. She was accompanied by her baby nurse, a British woman named Tracy Hogg. Karp demonstrated his methods for soothing babies, including swaddling and his theory about the calming reflex. About six months later, he says, he heard that Hogg was working on a manuscript about how to calm a baby. That book, called “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer,” went on to become a best seller later that year: “You have to re-create the womb,” it advises, before going on to recommend swaddling infants tightly. “It had nothing to do with my stuff,” Karp said diplomatically. “But it got publishers interested.” Hogg, who died in 2004, advocated what she called a “structured routine” for a newborn — with precise hours for feeding, “activity,” sleeping and “you” time. Karp got to work on his own book, wanting to document his techniques for calming crying while promoting a more lenient approach. He visited his patients at home in order to test out his theories. “I needed to understand, When does it not work?” he said. “I needed to see it in the wild.” He often worked through the night, reciting bullet-pointed thoughts into dictation software because he was frustrated by the pace of his typing, then drove Lexi to school in the mornings wearing the same outfit as the day before.
Credit Hannah Whitaker for The New York Times
Karp’s agent turned down a $450,000 advance for the manuscript, and Karp grew apprehensive that they wouldn’t get a better offer. That morning, Montée gave her husband a pep talk. “Act like you have a million dollars in your backpack,” she told him, a joke that is now part of the family lore. She turned out to be right: Karp ended up securing a $1.1 million advance for “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” along with a sequel for toddlers. Karp describes Montée as the one in the household who “seals the deal.” At Happiest Baby Inc., she is in charge of business strategy and creative direction (“As a co-founder, Ruth, I’m so excited,” she told me more than once, having mastered the marketing technique of first-name repetition).
A segment on “Good Morning America” in 2002 helped cement Karp’s success, and Montée had the idea of bringing the book’s testimonial sections to life by recording Karp’s interactions with his patients on DVD. Their timing couldn’t have been better. “The Happiest Baby on the Block” came out just as parenting literature was undergoing a transition of its own.
For years, the prevailing philosophy on child rearing had been Dr. Benjamin Spock’s rallying call to parents: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Spock’s “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” which was published in 1946 and sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, was so thoroughly embraced that some women kept copies of his paperback all over the house, including in their glove compartments. Detractors later blamed him for the permissiveness that they argued set the stage for the 1960s counterculture — for children being “Spocked when they should have been spanked.” In the late ’60s, Spock’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement caused some of his readers to turn on him. His sales figures soon dropped by half, though he remains, to this day, the world’s most famous pediatrician.
As Spock lost ground, the field of expert advice became more polarized between a “hard” camp, which stressed discipline and conformity, and a “soft” camp, which believed in the importance of bonding and individuality. The issue of baby sleep was particularly contentious. In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber, who founded what is now known as the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, published a sleep manual so popular that his name became a verb. To “Ferberize” is now synonymous with letting a child cry it out (even though his book doesn’t quite advocate that). Following Ferber’s best seller, child-rearing literature was inundated with sleep guides, each with its own impossibly alluring title — “Twelve Hours Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old,” “The No-Cry Sleep Solution.”
The soaring popularity of sleep guides may have been propelled by an observable, objective deterioration in baby sleep, which can be traced back to a single year, 1992, when the American Academy of Pediatrics, upon reviewing research on sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, came out with the recommendation that parents put babies to sleep exclusively on their backs in the first year of life. The number of SIDS cases did in fact fall — by half, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But the change came at a price. Babies sleep significantly worse on their backs, a fact that pediatricians openly acknowledge.
Credit Hannah Whitaker for The New York Times
Certain parental concerns have vanished with technological advances like infant formula or polio vaccines. Others — like our anxiety about said technological advances — are perennial: Speaking to mothers in 1910, the pediatrician L. Emmett Holt worried about sensory overload in “these days of factory and locomotive whistles, trolley cars and automobiles.” But sleep — how much our children, and by extension we, get; whether it’s continuous or interrupted, light or deep, crying-induced or self-soothed — is a particularly of-the-moment obsession, particularly among well-off parents. The intense focus on sleep may have less to do with babies and more to do with parents, especially middle-class mothers, who provide as much as or more child care today than housewives did in the 1960s. Highly educated working mothers, Brigid Schulte, the author of “Overwhelmed: Work Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” told me in an email, have “made their children such a priority” that they spend “virtually all of their leisure time with their children.”
As baby sleep came to be seen as a national problem, the pressure intensified on parents to enforce stricter regimens. Champions of “hard” advice became known as parent-centered. Many of these advocates were from the Christian right, including Gary Ezzo, whose “On Becoming Baby Wise,” published in 1995, promoted rigid feeding schedules, “highchair manners” and physical punishment, or “chastisement” — preferably with a rubber spatula. (These recommendations have since changed.) Ezzo’s and other parent-centered advice books grew in direct opposition to the “ideological humanists” of the child-centered approach, with their insistence on feeding on demand, co-sleeping and a shunning of schedules and training methods.
Parent-centered advocates inveighed against the 1993 “Baby Book” — the bible of child-centered parents, written by William and Martha Sears, a pediatrician-and-nurse couple and parents of eight children. The “Baby Book” begins with an aphorism that puts many women at a disadvantage before they’ve even started mothering: “Feeling good about your baby’s birth carries over into feeling good about your baby.” (Tell that to the woman recovering from an emergency C-section.) They go on to ask, hypothetically, “Won’t holding our baby a lot, responding to cries, breast-feeding on cue and even sleeping with baby create a spoiled and overly dependent child?” To which they provide an emphatic answer: “No!” (Their son Robert, who is also a pediatrician and a “Baby Book” co-author, has become a vocal critic of vaccination laws, counter to evidence-based medical consensus.) Though they see themselves as Spock’s disciples, experts from the soft camp can seem exceedingly hard on parents, especially mothers, not to mention downright punitive for anyone with a full-time job.
Karp’s manual represented a welcome middle ground. “I try to be an omnivore and just reflect on each issue and judge it on its own merit or lack of merit, but I’m much closer to the Dr. Sears approach,” he said. He emphasizes the benefits of breast-feeding but argues that experts have become “dogmatic and inflexible about it to the point where we could be hurting kids and certainly hurting mothers.” He includes sections in his books on weaning — from swaddling, pacifiers, rocking — even as he dismisses professionals who warn that children could become addicted to these crutches. (“Are we ‘addicted’ to sleeping on a bed with a pillow?” he retorts.)
Karp “kind of serves the purpose that Grandma would have served in the past,” Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the book “The Philosophical Baby,” told me. “But what science tells us is that variability is the most distinctive feature in terms of what children are like, what parents are like and what caregiving is like. So it’s unlikely that you’re going to find one piece of advice that’s going to suit all the different varieties of children and cultures.”
Credit Hannah Whitaker for The New York Times
Karp’s manner is open, engaging, empathetic, inviting confession; ask him about his work, though, and the layers of humility begin to peel off. “Nobody else noticed this stuff in the whole world!” he told me at the end of dinner one evening when we talked about the 5 S’s. “No one knew about swaddling. Nobody knew about sleep.” As “The Happiest Baby on the Block” began to take off, Karp left his pediatric practice and with Montée turned the “Happiest Baby” into a franchise that now includes three books, two DVDs, a line of swaddles and white noises for purchase on iTunes, as well as SNOO, which rocks and plays white noise continuously and has sensors that respond to a baby’s cry by changing intensities; it keeps the baby swaddled and fastened inside the crib and can be controlled from afar on a smartphone.
Karp earnestly compares the $1,200 bassinet to the advent of penicillin — “I’m not here to promote a product, but I am saying if someone developed penicillin, wouldn’t it be important to tell people about it?” — and insists that it can save lives by stopping babies from rolling into an unsafe position in their sleep. Raising the money for SNOO, Karp drew on his celebrity appeal: Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel are investors, as are Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Zoe Saldana. (Or, as Montée put it, “We have Justin and Jessica and Gwyneth and Scarlett and Zoe.”)
So far, 30,000 beds have gone into production, and of those, some were given free or at a steep markdown to social “influencers” — a far cry from Karp’s days of working with abused children. Hulu and Activision have begun offering discounted SNOOs as a benefit to their employees. Karp says he hopes to take SNOO beyond the gated precincts of Los Angeles and Silicon Valley: “Once we get medical studies, we can get insurance companies and employers to subsidize this. It will be like breast pumps ultimately. That’s the goal.”
Other “Happiest Baby” innovations can be viewed as truly helpful or slightly ominous, depending on your level of credulity. Its engineers are aiming to update the SNOO app to serve as a dutiful personal assistant, providing parents a full report on their child in the morning, like “Baby Sophie’s diaper is full; she had a runny nose; the humidifier is on,” Montée explained one morning when I visited the company’s headquarters in a squat building on a main drag in Santa Monica. She saw my face. “I know,” she said. “At the beginning I thought, Come on, really? But then I see Lexi’s friends, and they turn to an app just to tell them which breast they fed from last. It’s a different generation.”
“Hey, love!” Karp called out to Montée as we walked through their house on a recent weekend afternoon. They live in a converted A-frame chalet nestled deep in the hills of the Pacific Palisades that looks like the ideal location for a dream sequence in a film set in 2030. It has a hydraulic door with a laser-perforated metal screen, smooth white terrazzo floors, white floating stairs and an arresting view of the ocean. There are no visible light switches anywhere (Montée is “allergic”) and nothing made of plastic: Karp and Montée are environmental activists, and both serve as directors of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. With its glass facades and sharp corners, their house also looks decidedly un-baby-proofed. Perhaps the only indication of Karp’s profession can be found upstairs, in his study, where there is a first-edition Dr. Spock and a cloth baby carrier from the Peruvian Amazon — a gift from Olivia Newton-John and her husband.
Karp has devoted his entire career to babies, so it came as a surprise to learn that he has never raised one of his own. For two years after he and Montée married, they tried to conceive but couldn’t. Devastated, they considered surrogacy or adoption but in the end decided against it. “We had Lexi,” Karp explained. He came back to that decision in a later conversation. “I kind of feel like everyone is my child,” he told me, his eyes glistening. “I don’t feel the barriers. There’s this passage in ‘Siddhartha,’ by Hermann Hesse, where Siddhartha’s friend Govinda looks into his face and sees the flow of thousands of human faces like a procession. It’s our joining of humanity.” Does this mean that he views all the children he has treated over the years as, in some sense, his own? “And their parents,” he said keenly.
Part of the appeal of Karp’s methods for calming babies was that they didn’t require anything fancy, not even the pre-made swaddles that are sold today — any old blanket would do. As he himself noted in his book, “For thousands of years, the most skilled parents have used the 5 S’s to soothe their babies.” Now he was suggesting that, actually, the best way to improve your baby’s sleep required splurging on a sensory bed. Effective as his invention may be, its forbidding price reflects an old-fashioned idea: that child rearing is inherently tied to social status, that you have to spend in order to care.
As the sun began to set over the ocean, the light glinting on the water like sequins, Karp and Montée still had a long night of work ahead. “We can stay up more than any youngsters and do — how do you say? Overnighters?” Montée said. In the coming months, they would launch SNOO in China, and Karp would go on the Home Shopping Network to advertise it. For him, though, that was just the beginning. He mused about Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and how his contemporaries had been alarmed that people wouldn’t memorize anything anymore because of it. He chuckled. “You can’t get in the way of progress,” he said. Then, standing by the patio with his hands in his pockets, he put it differently: “The idea is that I could be in every nursery in America.”
Women who have their first child before 25 or after 35 eventually close the salary divide with their husbands. It’s the years in between that are most problematic, research shows.
Parents who want their children to be great athletes sometimes uproot their lives to follow a dream. The costs are steep and the dedication is time consuming.
New evidence suggests a shift, possibly because of a “a subtle fear of boys and the trouble they might bring.”
The computer has so many features that are more fun than doing homework, but parents have controls to restrict games, screen time and more.
There are well-known drawbacks to working from home: the isolation, the need for self-discipline.
But here is a new one: the invasion of the toddlers.
Robert E. Kelly, a political-science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, learned this the hard way on Friday when he appeared as an expert on the BBC via Skype to discuss the South Korea impeachment scandal.
He appeared to be in a home office, with a door closed behind him. Shortly before the interview, he innocently let his Twitter followers know he would be on TV.
Then, as the questioning began, the door opened. A child toddled in.
Then another strolled in, this time in a squeaky walker. And then their mother, Jung-a Kim, burst into the scene, skidding around a corner and frantically trying to herd the wayward young people out the door.
She knocked books off a table before falling to her knees and grabbing the handle to close the door, finally, behind them all.
The interruption, almost slapstick if it had not been real, was over within 40 seconds, during which Professor Kelly veered from apparent mild annoyance to repeated apologies to stifling smiles, while ultimately keeping his composure as he discussed the latest political drama underway in South Korea, where a court had removed President Park Geun-hye from office.
The toddler intrusion starts just as the BBC World presenter, James Menendez, starts to ask him a question.
“And what will it mean for the wider region — I think one of your children has just walked in,” he said to Professor Kelly.
He continues, gamely: “Do you think relations with the North may change?”
“Umm I would be surprised if they do … the um … pardon me. My apologies,” Professor Kelly said, closing his eyes and smiling — or grimacing — as the sound of the objects toppling off the table and squeals of protest came from behind him.
While the professor appeared to do his best to keep the live broadcast on an even professional keel, the clip was inevitably destined to do what these things do: spread widely across the internet.
Yes, it did “get weird.” News organizations and television channels, including Buzzfeed, The Guardian and CNN, picked up the story. Online, many of the comments were sympathetic (“This is TV Gold!” said one), while others said that Professor Kelly had “strong armed” one of the children when reached behind him to repel her advance, all while keeping his eye contact with the camera and continuing to speak.
Professor Kelly, who is an expert on politics on the Korean Peninsula, has been a contributing guest on the BBC for many years, as well as on ITN News and Sky. Many of his media appearances, chronicled on his YouTube page, appear to take place from the same room, which features a map on the wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
He could not immediately be reached on Friday, but his online biography and website, Asian Security Blog, notes his academic credentials and many contributions to scholarly publications and news organizations about North and South Korea. His wife, according to his personal profile, is a yoga teacher.
Working from home with kids can be a challenge, especially when cameras or phones are involved. Tell us your stories in the comments.
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When girls come in for their physical exams, one of the questions I routinely ask is “Do you get your period?” I try to ask before I expect the answer to be yes, so that if a girl doesn’t seem to know about the changes of puberty that lie ahead, I can encourage her to talk about them with her mother, and offer to help answer questions. And I often point out that even those who have not yet embarked on puberty themselves are likely to have classmates who are going through these changes, so, again, it’s important to let kids know that their questions are welcome, and will be answered accurately.
But like everybody else who deals with girls, I’m aware that this means bringing up the topic when girls are pretty young. Puberty is now coming earlier for many girls, with bodies changing in the third and fourth grade, and there is a complicated discussion about the reasons, from obesity and family stress to chemicals in the environment that may disrupt the normal effects of hormones. I’m not going to try to delineate that discussion here — though it’s an important one — because I want to concentrate on the effect, rather than the cause, of reaching puberty early.
A large study published in May in the journal Pediatrics looked at a group of 8,327 children born in Hong Kong in April and May of 1997, for whom a great deal of health data has been collected. The researchers had access to the children’s health records, showing how their doctors had documented their physical maturity, according to what are known as the Tanner stages, for the standardized pediatric index of sexual maturation.
Before children enter puberty, we call it Tanner I; for girls, Tanner II is the beginning of breast development, while for boys, it’s the enlargement of the scrotum and testes and the reddening and changing of the scrotum skin. Boys and girls then progress through the intermediate changes to stage V, full physical maturity.
In this study, the researchers looked at the relationship between the age at which children moved from Tanner I to Tanner II — that is, the age at which the physical beginnings of puberty were noticed — and the likelihood of depression in those children when they were 12 to 15 years old, as detected on a screening questionnaire.
“What we found was the girls who had earlier breast development had a higher risk of depressive symptoms, or more depressive symptoms,” said Dr. C. Mary Schooling, an epidemiologist who is a professor at the City University of New York School of Public Health, and was the senior author on the study. “We didn’t see the same thing for boys.” Earlier onset of breast development in girls was associated with a higher risk of depression in early adolescence even after controlling for many other factors, including socioeconomic status, weight or parents’ marital status.
Other studies, including in the United States, have shown this same pattern, with girls who begin developing earlier than their peers vulnerable to depression in adolescence. Some studies have found this in boys, though it’s not as clear. But there is concern that girls whose development starts earlier than their peers are at risk in a number of ways, and across different cultural backgrounds.
“Early puberty is a challenge and a stress, and it’s associated with more than depression,” said Dr. Jane Mendle, a clinical psychologist in the department of human development at Cornell University. She named anxiety, disordered eating and self-injury as some of the risks for girls. In her studies of puberty, she has found associations between early development and depression in both genders in New York children. In boys, the tempo of puberty was significant, as well as the timing; boys who moved more rapidly from one Tanner stage to the next were at higher risk and the increased depression risk seemed to be related to changes in their peer relationships.
Before puberty, Dr. Mendle said, depression occurs at roughly the same rate in both sexes, but by the midpoint of puberty, girls are two and a half times more likely to be depressed than boys.
Some of these children may already be at risk; Dr. Mendle said that early puberty is more common in children who have grown up in circumstances of adversity, in poverty, in the foster care system. But some of it is heredity and some of it is body type and some of it, probably, is chance.
Researchers have wondered about hormonal associations with depression; Dr. Schooling pointed out that their study found that depression was associated with early breast development, controlled by estrogens, but not with early pubic hair development, controlled by androgens. “There is no physical factor that we know about that would explain this; estrogen has been eliminated as a driver of depression in earlier research,” she said in an email. “We probably need to explore social factors to seek an explanation.” They also plan to follow up with their study population at age 17.
The biological transition of puberty, of course, occurs in a social and cultural context. One very important effect of developing early, Dr. Mendle said, is that it changes the way that people treat you, from your peers to the adults in your life to strangers. “When kids navigate puberty they start to look different,” she said. “It can be hard for them to maintain friendships with kids who haven’t developed, and we also know that early maturing girls are more likely to be harassed and victimized by other kids in their grade.”
Parents should be aware of the difficulties that children may experience if they start puberty earlier than their peers, but lots of children handle early development with resiliency, and even pride.
Children who start puberty early – say, 8 instead of 12 — are faced with handling those physical changes while they are more childlike in their knowledge and their cognitive development, and in their emotional understanding of what goes on around them.
Parents should keep in mind that the same protective factors that help children navigate other challenges of growing up are helpful here: All children do better when they have good relationships with their parents, and when they feel connected at school. And we should be talking about the changes to their bodies before they happen, and make it clear that all of these topics are open for discussion.
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Angela Duckworth was teaching math when she noticed something intriguing: The most successful students weren’t always the ones who displayed a natural aptitude; rather, they displayed something she came to think of as grit. Later, as a graduate student in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, she defined the term — a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal — and created a tool to measure it: the “grit scale,” which predicted outcomes like who would graduate from West Point or win the National Spelling Bee. As a result of this work, Dr. Duckworth was named a MacArthur “genius” in 2013, and the notion of grit has become widely known. Her new book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” will be available in May.
So why is grit so important?
My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.
How does one develop grit?
You cannot will yourself to be interested in something you’re not interested in. But you can actively discover and deepen your interest. So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are setbacks.
How can parents foster grit in their children?
The parenting style that is good for grit is also the parenting style good for most other things: Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive. By this I don’t mean material things; I mean emotional support. If parents are warm and loving, the kids tend to feel loved. Respect, or what the parenting literature calls “autonomy support,” is also essential. That’s when parents allow their kids to make their own decisions just as soon as they are capable.
A Penn task force found that some students have unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve, even at the expense of their mental health. How might grit affect those pressured from birth to excel?
Credit Joyce Hesselberth
Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mother of two, earned the sobriquet “America’s Worst Mom” after reporting in a newspaper column that she had allowed her younger son, then 9, to ride the subway alone.
The damning criticism she endured, including a threat of arrest for child endangerment, intensified her desire to encourage anxious parents to give their children the freedom they need to develop the self-confidence and resilience to cope effectively with life’s many challenges.
One result was the publication in 2009 of her book “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry).” A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.
The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”
In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.
Yet, according to Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, “the actual rate of strangers abducting or molesting children is very small. It’s more likely to happen at the hands of a relative or family friend. The statistics show no increase in childhood dangers. If anything, there’s been a decrease.”
Experts say there is no more crime against children by strangers today — and probably significantly less — than when I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, a time when I walked to school alone and played outdoors with friends unsupervised by adults. “The world is not perfect — it never was — but we used to trust our children in it, and they learned to be resourceful,” Ms. Skenazy said. “The message these anxious parents are giving to their children is ‘I love you, but I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe you’re as competent as I am.’ ”
Dr. Gray, author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” said in an interview, “If children are not allowed to take routine risks, they’ll be less likely to be able to handle real risks when they do occur.”
Case in point: His college’s counseling office has seen a doubling in the rate of emergency calls in the last five years, “mainly for problems kids used to solve on their own,” like being called a bad name by a roommate or finding a mouse in the room. “Students are prepared academically, but they’re not prepared to deal with day-to-day life, which comes from a lack of opportunity to deal with ordinary problems,” Dr. Gray said. “Over the past 60 years, there’s been a huge change, well documented by social scientists, in the hours a day children play outdoors — less than half as much as parents did at their children’s ages,” he said.
In decades past, children made up their own games and acquired important life skills in the process. “In pickup games,” Dr. Gray said, “children make the rules, negotiate, and figure out what’s fair to keep everyone happy. They develop creativity, empathy and the ability to read the minds of other players, instead of having adults make the rules and solve all the problems.”
Dr. Gray links the astronomical rise in childhood depression and anxiety disorders, which are five to eight times more common than they were in the 1950s, to the decline in free play among young children. “Young people today are less likely to have a sense of control over their own lives and more likely to feel they are the victims of circumstances, which is predictive of anxiety and depression,” he said.
There are also physical consequences to restricting children’s outdoor play because there are no adults available to supervise it. Children today spend many more hours indoors than in years past, which in part accounts for the rise in childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Many elementary schools have even canceled recess, believing it is time better spent cramming children’s heads with facts and figures.
“Childhood should be a time of freedom and play, not building a résumé for college,” Dr. Gray said.
As Ms. Skenazy put it, “if parents truly believe children must be supervised every second of the day, then they can’t walk to school, play in the park, or wake up Saturday morning, get on their bikes and go have an adventure.”
Some 2,000 families were screened by the Discovery Life Channel to find 13 families crippled by anxiety yet willing to have an intervention. “The parents weren’t easy pushovers,” Ms. Skenazy said. “Some were very unhappy to see me at first. But once pride in what their children achieved replaced their fears, they were ecstatic — relaxed and happy instead of crippled with fear.”
Ms. Skenazy spent four days with each family, introducing a different challenge each day. Sam learned to cut cheese and slice a tomato with a sharp knife and then made sandwiches for his parents. He also learned to ride a two-wheeler.
“I don’t guarantee I’ll take away all their worry, just give them the confidence to loosen the reins on their kids,” she said. “Kids need roots and wings. Parents give them roots. I give them wings.”