Friday, June 02, 2006

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Monday, May 22, 2006

PTOs for SAHDs and MOMs. Human Resource Executive magazine (registration required) has had several articles recently that represent good news for dads and moms hoping to work from home. The May 2 issue reported on a new concept that is gaining popularity with companies, PTOs or paid-time-off banks. The article reports that in PTOs, the distinction between sick days and vacation is eliminated giving the employee more flexibility.
These plans have existed for many years, but have become more popular recently. Last year, 37 percent of respondents to Mercer's annual survey of employers' time-off and disability programs provided a PTO plan that combines, at a minimum, vacation with incidental absence/sick days, compared to just 29 percent in 2003. Employers are turning to PTO plans for several reasons. With fewer absence categories, PTO plans make absence reporting simpler for both employees and supervisors. They control the number of total payable days for incidental absences or sick days (including paid FMLA absences that don't otherwise qualify for disability benefits) and they encourage employees to self-manage use of time off and take that time on a scheduled basis when possible.
As we have noted earlier, many workers have been reluctant to take advantage of family leave. Perhaps a PTO bank, with its simpler administration, will encourage dads and moms to take time off more frequently. A separate article in the May 16 issue reports on the rise in the number of employees who work from home. The article cites JetBlue Airways, based in Salt Lake City, where 1,100 employees work from home. An executive with JetBlue described the program:
"We get a lot of housewives, a lot of secondary-income people, a lot of retirees or near-retirees -- 55 to 65 years old," he says, adding that these positions are only offered to employees in Salt Lake City where the company's headquarters and support center are located. "We had several hundred [agents] when we first started. But we have 82 aircraft now and handle 35,000 calls a day." New hires complete a one-and-a-half-day orientation and a four-week training program at the support center that covers the airline's technology systems, culture and operations. During the last week, they field calls at the support center while monitored by supervisors walking the floor. Ward says they can train in the center for up to two additional weeks -- without supervision -- before working from home. The company provides each agent with a computer, phone and e-mail address. Agents must furnish their own desks and chairs and pay $25 each month for an additional phone line. In the early days, says Ward, the company's tech team would perform home inspections, ensuring agents would be working in quiet environments, and would then set up the computer and update the hardware as needed. But the company's rapid growth prohibited that from continuing, he says. Now, employees bring along their hard drives for the initial set-up, repairs or updates when they come into the corporate office for quarterly team meetings. By the time the meeting has ended, the company's tech department has finished working on their computers. The supervisor-to-employee ratio is 32-to-one, he says, adding that supervisors are equipped with detailed reports that include everything from how many calls agents handle during their shift to how long they take for lunch. They monitor and review four calls each month per agent.
This is good news for parents with school-age children. When a mom or dad is working from home, they may not be able to directly supervise their kids when they come home from school, but their presence provides safety and reassurance. Having a mom or dad typing away in the basement is much better than coming home to an empty house.

Big Love, No Big Change. In a review of HBO's new series about a polygamous marriage, Big Love, The New Republic's TV Critic Lee Siegel reminds us that we shouldn't expect anything revolutionary from TV. As Siegal notes "Commercial society's deepest aspiration, after all, is a synthesis of total instinctual gratification with the preservation of the social order." In other words, commerical TV will tease and titillate with views of nondomestic sexuality, but it will never have a show that will actually undermine the current market-oriented, family-based social order. Although Siegal doesn't state it explicity, commerical TV, including HBO, exist to sell products. Siegal compares the impact that shows like Big Love have with the whispers of gossip about "the doings of a mysterious new family" in a small town.

In fact, constructing its shows along the lines of small-town gossip might be the secret of HBO's success. Gossip huddles most intensely in response to the strange, and the overlords of HBO are supremely gifted strangeness-mongers. For all the "cutting-edge" sophistication of shows such as Big Love, The Sopranos, Oz, or Six Feet Under, all explorations of the margins and the peripheries of American society, they have (or had) the same effect that gossip has. Their weirdness both normalizes your own most unsettling impulses and gets your vicarious wheels turning. But the latter effect is much stronger than the former.
Siegal notes that despite the unsettling images in these shows, they have a "normalization" function.

The most incomprehensible reaction to Big Love has been the complaint precisely about these shades and nuances that the actors bring into relief: the complaint that the show makes polygamy look boring. Making polygamy look like fun would hardly calm the slightly more legitimate concern about using a despicable social practice for the purpose of entertainment. (Anyway, polygamy cannot possibly be fun.) In fact, showing the dark side of gratification even as it allows viewers to gratify themselves vicariously is Big Love's essential success. And this is the brilliant mechanism at the heart of HBO's best shows. The Sopranos (now in the middle of its sixth season) is the grotesque spectacle of what happens when people immediately satisfy their basest instincts. Sex and the City exposed the loneliness and the instability that ensue when girls just want to have fun, for years on end. Six Feet Under and Oz were, in their very different ways, tales of self-indulgence and harsh--or brutal--consequences.

Even more than these other shows, Big Love is both the indictment of a commercialist ethos of gratification and the expression of it. As television grows less and less constrained in its imagination of the antinomian and the weird, you wonder where the emphasis will finally fall, on a new type of popular art or a new type of pandering to the appetites.

I am devoted to the Sopranos, but I found Big Love boring, so I haven't been watching it. My wife really enjoyed Sex and the City (which is now running on KTLA in a weird, bowdlerized version). So we continue to cough up the extra $18 a month for HBO. I would like to see some insightful TV criticism about the portrayals of fathers on TV. Bill Cosby was the last strong, competent father. In most contemporary TV shows, the mother is the resourceful, dominating character and the fathers are reduced to a secondary role as a lovable doofus or a sneaky adulterer.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Army Fatherhood. Some of the unusual contradictions that military service imposes upon men were illustrated in a story in today's LA Times. The story described how servicemen are persuaded to re-enlist in the Army. One of the soldier's wives said

I don't want to raise our kids on my own. I saw my mom do it. It's not an easy life," Krissy said in the cheery living room of her home in Spanaway, Wash., near Ft. Lewis, a changing table in the corner awaiting the baby who would soon arrive. "It breaks the kids' hearts. It breaks everyone's heart." But Myers has decided to reenlist in November for four more years. A $40,000 bonus cinched the deal. "It all came down to financial stability," he said. He is scheduled to return to Iraq in January for his fourth tour.

Despite all the Army ads about "be all you can be," serving in the military can be disempowering.
The article quotes another wife commenting on her husbands re-enlistment: His wife, Shannon, prays for him. But when considering the civilian options for her husband, a former drywaller with no college degree, she concludes: "It's scary getting out of the Army."
And a soldier comments
"I wish I could say it was the great Army life, but it was the financial stability," Barnes said. "The Army takes you away from your family, but it keeps your family safe."
I think we all agree that we need to have a military and that the men who put their lives on the line are brave. But when a man thinks he is doing his wife and children a favor by volunteering to go overseas and risk his life on the line for questionable cause and when he thinks he is keeping his family "safe" by doing so, something is wrong.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Guidelines For Communicating With Your Teen. How do you get your monosyllabic teenager to talk to you? Yahoo Health! has a good article with some tips. Here are three of the tips:
  1. Ask questions that go beyond "yes" or "no" answers to prompt more developed conversation.
  2. Take advantage of time during car trips or standing in line at the supermarket to talk with your teen.
  3. Provide activities that offer opportunities to improve communication skills, such as attending or engaging in sporting and school events, playing games, and talking about current events.
Yes, they sound obvious, but we all need reminding. As dads, we need to know what our kids are doing and how they are feeling. This is particularly hard with boys, since many of them have already slipped on the mask of masculinity with its barrier to expressing their feelings. The article has an interesting, clinical sounding description of adolescent communication:

Adolescents essentially communicate in an adult manner, with increasing maturity throughout high school. Teens comprehend abstract language, such as idioms, figurative language, and metaphors. Explanations may become more figurative and less literal. Literacy and its relationship to cognition, linguistic competency, reading, writing, and listening is the primary language focus in this age group. Teens should be able to process texts and abstract meaning, relate word meanings and contexts, understand punctuation, and form complex syntactic structures.

However, communication is more than the use and understanding of words, it also includes how a teenager thinks of him/her self, their peers and figures of authority. They are seeking independence from family and trying to establish their own identity. They are now able to think in an abstract manor and become concerned with moral issues. All of this shapes the way a teen thinks and therefore communicates. Taking time to be with them and listen to them becomes increasingly important so that when they test the limits of their relationship with you, there is an established solid foundation that they will respect.

Good advice.

Model UN. I’m pleased to report that my teenager had a great time at the YMCA’s Model UN conference he went to last weekend. Some 260 kids from across California gathered at the Pasadena Convention Center to discuss international issues.

My son said the most fun thing was the three-legged race and the water-ballon toss they had during the break on Saturday, but I think he really enjoyed the public speaking and debating aspects, as well.

Basic facts: the YMCA’s Model UN is part of the organization’s Youth in Government program. The Model UN programs are open to 7th-9th graders (Youth in Government is for 9th-12th graders). The Model UN conferences are held once a year. Registration and fees come to about $500, so its not cheap, but this includes two weekend field trips (a training trip and the big “General Assembly” meeting).

The delegates are assigned a country. My son was assigned Chile and he prepared position papers on global warming and international drug trafficking. Their positions reflect the student’s beliefs, not necessarily the positions taken by the real country. At the general assembly, the students speak and vote on behalf of their country.

When I picked him up at the local Y, he was in high spirits and bidding goodbye to some of the new friends he’d made. He told me his only regret was that he didn’t sign up for it last year (as a 9th grader, this was his last eligible year).

My wife and I have been somewhat disappointed with the academic standards at our local high public high school, so we were pleased our son got a chance to interact with civic minded, intellectually oriented kids from around the state.

Prom More Prominent. Today's Washington Post has a very sweet story about how high school boys are using inventive methods to ask girls out to the prom. The story says that in today's celebrity-driven, over-the-top entertainment culture, asking a girl to the prom has turned into performance art. The article notes
Prom proposals, as these humbling exercises are now called, have been more elaborate than ever this spring, according to Promspot.com's associate editor, Kate Wood. Promspot solicited examples this year and received hundreds of responses from teenagers all over the country, "even North Dakota," says Wood. "This is not just an East Coast/West Coast thing." Clearly, though, it is a big thing. A chat with her girlfriends, a phone call or a quick conversation by the lockers between classes won't do anymore. That's so 2005. In 2006, the request has to be painted on a giant sign parked in front of her house or accompanied by 50 red candles, hundreds of Hershey Kisses and an original poem. Why? For the same reason guys go to prom: because girls want it that way
. Why the emphasis on elaborate preparation? Apparently, many teens were inspired by the characters in MTV's "Laguna Beach" who were seen making these elaborate proposals. There's also another reason, the Post reports, quoting one 17-year-old girl,"The romance is gone from everything else. All we do is go to parties and hook up. Prom is like a real date."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Teen hits. Dating violence is common among U.S. teenagers, according to a new survey published by the federal Centers for Disease Control. The report is summarized in a Yahoo! Health story. According to the report, nearly 1 out of 11 high school students is subjected to physical violence from their boyfriend or girlfriend each year, the CDC found. The article notes that

In response to these findings, the CDC is launching "Choose Respect," a program to prevent dating violence and foster the early development of attitudes, behaviors and skills that help form healthy, respectful relationships.

The initiative, to be conducted in 10 cities during the summer of 2006, will be directed at adolescents between 11 and 14 years. The activities and materials will include online games, podcasts, videos, posters, and public service announcements.

Those who had experience physical dating violence, compared with their peers who had not, were 3.3 times more likely to have attempted suicide and 1.7 times more likely to have engaged in fighting during the previous year.

Having five or more alcoholic drinks or smoking on at least 1 of the previous 30 days was associated with dating violence, as was engaging in sexual intercourse during the previous 3 months.

"Adolescents need encouragement, examples, and guidance from parents, schools, and communities about how to relate to other people," Dr. Ileana Arias, director of CDC's National Center for Injury and Violence Prevention, states in a CDC press release. "Not only do such efforts reduce the number of immediate injuries, they can improve the overall health and well-being of our nation's children."

I wonder if the researchers pondered the link between dating violence and rap music. I am not a rap music fan, but like any modern parent, I am inevitably exposed to it at social events and in stores. I have noticed that "slap that bitch" and other references to male-on-female violence are common in rap music. If a kid hears that sentiment enough, he may be conciously or unconiously influenced to think hitting women is acceptable behavior.
In the mid '60s, when I was a teen, Ed Sullivan made the Rolling Stones change the lyric of their hit song "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together." He considered the sexual imagery unacceptable. How innocent that song seems now.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Most teens who come to the ER have used drugs. A new study, reported in Yahoo! Health, finds that some 40% of teenagers treated for injuries an a hospital emergency room had traces of alcohol or illegal drugs in their blood. Based on this high rate of substance abuse, the researchers recommend that all young people treated for traumatic injuries be given drug tests. According to the news story

The team at the University of Michigan Health System studied 443 patients aged 14 to 17 who were admitted to the University of Michigan's hospital for treatment of a severe injury between 1999 and 2003.

They found nearly 40 percent tested positive for something they should not have been using -- 29 percent of them for opiates such as opium or heroin, 11.2 percent for alcohol, and 20 percent for marijuana.

"The two major preventable health issues facing adolescents are injuries that result in death or disability, and lifestyle choices that have long-term, adverse health consequences," said Dr. Peter Ehrlich, who led the study.

"To help alter this risk-taking behavior, it is essential that drug testing and brief substance abuse intervention programs be included in the treatment of all injured adolescents," Ehrlich said in a statement.

Speaking as a healthcare marketing consultant, I can say that as a public policy idea, this recommendation is not going to be implemented any time soon. Hospital executives, already saddled with a lot of unreimbursed care, are not going to administer another test. Still, the study is valuable in pointing out the number one danger facing our teens: drug and alcohol use. If you haven't educated your teen about this issue, buying him a "tracking" cell phone (reviewed in an earlier post) won't help.

Helicopter Parents. Will your kids live with you after college? The current Newsweek has an interesting article on how baby boomers cope when they send their kids off to college. Here are just a few of the stats:
  • 76% of boomer parents say they are closer with their kids than they were with their parents at that age.
  • 57% of 18-20-year-olds get help from parents with chores (averaging 527 hours per week).
  • 48% of students graduating in 2006 say they will move back into their parents' home after graduation.
The article notes:
Letting go. Are there two more painful words in the boomer-parent lexicon? One minute, there's an adorable, helpless bundle in your arms. Then, 18 years go by in a flash, filled with Mommy and Me classes, Gymboree, Little League, ballet, drama club, summer camp, traveling soccer teams, piano lessons, science competitions, SAT prep classes and college visits. The next thing you know, it's graduation. Most boomers don't want to be "helicopter parents," hovering so long that their offspring never get a chance to grow up. Well versed in the psychological literature, they know that letting go is a gradual process that should begin when toddlers take their first steps without a parental hand to steady them.
While the percentage of young adults living with their parents is probably higher than in past years, the concept is not really new. Humans all over the world live in extended families. I lived with my mother for a year after getting my BA and I lived with an aunt and uncle when I was attending graduate school. My older brother lived with my parents when he was finishing graduate school in the late 1950s. My mother lived with her parents at several points in her life. Anthropologists report that most ancient human societies were patrilocal: a young married couple went to live with the husband's family. The importance of patrilocality vs. matrilocality (living with the wife's parents) has greatly diminished in the 21st century with the rise of low-cost air travel.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Wet badge of courage. When I was growing up, if a man cried in public, he was considered weak, effeminate or emotionally unstable. Now, it's not just OK for men to cry in public, its a show of strength, a display of sensitivity and (supposedly) emotional honesty. The wet badge of courage. In case you missed on TV or the web, new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow teared-up during his first briefing today. As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported the briefing took on the look of Oprah.
The new White House press secretary gave his first televised briefing yesterday, and the former Fox News commentator was dispatching questioners with a sprightly blend of barbs, colloquialisms and one-liners. Then a local TV reporter in the back asked why Snow was wearing a yellow wristband.

"It's going to sound stupid, and I'll be personal here," Snow, a survivor of colon cancer, said of his Lance Armstrong bracelet. Then he choked up. Unable to speak, he raised his hand, gripped the lectern and drummed his fingers while 10 seconds of silence passed. "Having gone through this last year," he continued, and then he lapsed into another silence. Finally, he added: "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Nine more seconds of awkward silence followed as Snow struggled to regain his composure. "It's my Ed Muskie moment," he quipped, and the briefing room filled with laughter.

The ironies here are amazing. A conservative Republican helping men to crack the "mask of masculinity" and demonstrating how to become more sensitive, more feminine. I wonder what Muskie himself would make of the reference to him by a spokeman for the Bush Administration, whose policies he would almost certainly would have opposed. After losing the race for the presidential nomination, Muskie became President Carter's Secretary of State in 1980. He died in 1996.

Will Congress ban My Space? The latest issue of BusinessWeek Online reports on a new bill in Congress that would ban MySpace and other social networking sites from being used in schools. According to BW,
The campaign to crowd out predators from MySpace.com is gathering steam in Washington. House of Representatives lawmakers proposed a bill on May 9 that would block access to social networks and Internet chat rooms in most federally funded schools and libraries.
"The legislation is aimed at "protecting children from terrible individuals who would aim to use Facebook and MySpace to harm young children," says Michael Conallen, chief of staff to Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who sponsored the bill. The idea? Keeping kids and teens off potentially dangerous sites, at least on public school and library time -- not to mention keeping would-be offenders from using library terminals for nefarious deeds.
Critics note the bill has many problems. As currently written, it could potentially ban search sites such as Yahoo! and Google. The article notes:
For starters, it's got too general a definition of sites that should be banned, says Markham Erickson, general council of the Net Coalition, a Washington lobby representing Internet companies. The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) defines the restricted areas as those that allow "users to create Web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users" and offer "a mechanism of communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, e-mail, or instant messenger."
The article generated a ton of comments on the BW blog. Here's one:
Myspace is already blocked in our school district and students just use proxy sites etc. to get around it. There is no way to permanently block a Web site from kids.
And another one:
This is another great example of politicians proposing legislation that sounds good because it's the politically correct thing to do. But in the long run it will have absolutely zero positive impact or should I say intended impact. The fact is, as one reader pointed out, the kids invented the stupid thing to begin with! Parents, you need to take responsibility for raising and nurturing your children with values that will influence the choices they make and the friends they keep. The answer is not in more or less rights, but in greater responsibility from parents and politicians alike. Helloooo!

As a dad with two kids who frequenly go online, banning MySpace at school doesn't seem like much of a solution. When parents or administrators "ban" things, it can backfire and make the object all the more attractive to thrill-seeking teenagers. The vast majority of kids' web use occurs at home and at friends' houses, generally with little direct adult supervision. We need to educate our kids, make them understand and appreciate risks and trust them to act in their own best interest.

Parents: the anti-drug? Two recent news stories reflect the mixed messages kids are getting about drugs. A long story in Monday's LA Times is headlined "Anti-drug programs get mixed grades." The story focuses on DARE, the best known elementary age drug education program and questions whether it works. A key part of the debate focuses on what age to begin drug education. The story notes:
"The harm is that kids don't need these messages yet, and by making them too simplistic, they will dismiss them when they're older and do need this message," Robertson says. She adds that these programs make kids who have never considered using drugs see themselves as potential drug users. "We know that making kids more aware can be dangerous, especially if these are high-sensation-seeking kids," she says. "When kids are ready, they really will ask the right questions. Don't give them more information than they ask for. I don't understand people who give third-graders all the street names for drugs. Why would anyone do that?" Others strongly disagree: "Early and often. That's our cardinal rule," says Judy Cushing, past president of the National Family Partnership, the organization that founded and oversees Red Ribbon Week. "It's never too early to tell kids what's healthy and what isn't to put in their bodies."
A separate story on CNN today reports on a new teen drug survey. The survey found:
1 in 5 teens -- or about 4.5 million -- tried prescription painkillers to get high. Drugs include Vicodin or OxyContin. 40 percent say prescription meds "much safer" than illegal drugs. 31 percent say "nothing wrong" with prescription drug use. 29 percent think prescription painkillers non-addictive. 22 percent smoked, down from 23 percent last year and 42 percent in 1998. 31 percent drank in the last month, down from 33 percent last year and 48 percent in 1998.
Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious problem and one that parents can have a direct and measurable impact upon. A closing paragraph in the LA Times article sums it up well,
The overwhelming evidence supports that the modeling that happens at home will still have the greatest effect on how kids ultimately behave.