Tag Archives: Parenting

30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human Contact

For his first three years of life, Izidor lived at the hospital.

The dark-eyed, black-haired boy, born June 20, 1980, had been abandoned when he was a few weeks old. The reason was obvious to anyone who bothered to look: His right leg was a bit deformed. After a bout of illness (probably polio), he had been tossed into a sea of abandoned infants in the Socialist Republic of Romania.

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In films of the period documenting orphan care, you see nurses like assembly-line workers swaddling newborns out of a seemingly endless supply; with muscled arms and casual indifference, they sling each one onto a square of cloth, expertly knot it into a tidy package, and stick it at the end of a row of silent, worried-looking babies. The women don’t coo or sing to them.* You see the small faces trying to fathom what’s happening as their heads whip by during the wrapping maneuvers.

In his hospital, in the Southern Carpathian mountain town of Sighetu Marmaţiei, Izidor would have been fed by a bottle stuck into his mouth and propped against the bars of a crib. Well past the age when children in the outside world began tasting solid food and then feeding themselves, he and his age-mates remained on their backs, sucking from bottles with widened openings to allow the passage of a watery gruel. Without proper care or physical therapy, the baby’s leg muscles wasted. At 3, he was deemed “deficient” and transferred across town to a Cămin Spital Pentru Copii Deficienţi, a Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children.

The cement fortress emitted no sounds of children playing, though as many as 500 lived inside at one time. It stood mournfully aloof from the cobblestone streets and sparkling river of the town where Elie Wiesel had been born, in 1928, and enjoyed a happy childhood before the Nazi deportations.

The windows on Izidor’s third-floor ward had been fitted with prison bars. In boyhood, he stood there often, gazing down on an empty mud yard enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. Through bare branches in winter, Izidor got a look at another hospital that sat right in front of his own and concealed it from the street. Real children, children wearing shoes and coats, children holding their parents’ hands, came and went from that hospital. No one from Izidor’s Cămin Spital was ever taken there, no matter how sick, not even if they were dying.

Like all the boys and girls who lived in the hospital for “irrecoverables,” Izidor was served nearly inedible, watered-down food at long tables where naked children on benches banged their tin bowls. He grew up in overcrowded rooms where his fellow orphans endlessly rocked, or punched themselves in the face, or shrieked. Out-of-control children were dosed with adult tranquilizers, administered through unsterilized needles, while many who fell ill received transfusions of unscreened blood. Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS ravaged the Romanian orphanages.

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Posted by on July 1, 2020 in European Union, Reportages


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Why are American kids treated as a different species from adults?

At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, kids clamber over one another in an enormous anthill maze. Carpeted, encaged in wire mesh, consisting of layers of looping and overlapping low tunnels, the Limb Bender, as it is called, spans a storey and a half, and usually contains anywhere from two to four wailing toddlers stuck in its dead centre. Eventually, while a crowd of parents politely holds back snickers, the mom or dad of one of the stuck babes valiantly begins belly-crawling his or her way upward, hissing with as much mustered sweetness as possible: ‘Come down, Callie.’

In his book The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (2008), the anthropologist David Lancy introduced the idea of the neontocracy: a type of society, unique to WEIRD countries (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), in which children are the most valued members. In a neontocracy, the bathtub fills up with toy ducks, the living room is slowly smothered in gadgets, and there is no upper limit on the amount of time and energy adults must pour into the project of childhood.

Further inside the Children’s Museum, kids climb into huge, clear-plastic wind tunnels, shrieking as their hair stands on end. They scramble up rope nets; roll magnets along magnetised slopes; spin a deep-backed wheel filled with copper sand; creep into a completely black room roiled by simulated thunder, chucking handfuls of glass beads onto tables to evoke the sound of rain. If they get bored with that, upstairs there’s a jacuzzi-sized tub of blue pebbles to scoop into windmills and, on the third floor, a waterplay area where they can float boats down channels or carve ice with blunt plastic knives.

When my husband Jorge and I first moved to Pittsburgh, I loved the Children’s Museum. There was nothing like it in Oaxaca, the city in southwestern Mexico where we lived when our daughter, Elena, was between the ages of one and two. I was amazed that I could take Elena there for a whole afternoon and relax as she fiddled with light sticks or sorted rocks into holes. It was like taking my hands off the steering wheel, being able to sit back and zone out as she explored, with the added bonus that all the sensory play and stimulation and exposure to other kids had to be good for her development, right? It felt like a healthy granola bar, sweet and indulgent and still promising flaxseed and fibre.

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Posted by on June 24, 2020 in North America, Reportages


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Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let’s start with education

Imagine mentioning William Shakespeare to a university graduate and discovering they had never heard of him. You would be incredulous. But it’s common and acceptable not to know what an arthropod is, or a vertebrate, or to be unable to explain the difference between an insect and spider. No one is embarrassed when a “well-educated” person cannot provide even a rough explanation of the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle or the water cycle, or of how soils form.

All this is knowledge as basic as being aware that Shakespeare was a playwright. Yet ignorance of such earthy matters sometimes seems to be worn as a badge of sophistication. I love Shakespeare, and I believe the world would be a poorer and a sadder place without him. But we would survive. The issues about which most people live in ignorance are, by contrast, matters of life and death.

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Posted by on May 13, 2020 in Uncategorized


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Italian lessons: what we’ve learned from two months of home schooling

Most of us in Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy, remember the weekend of 22 February very clearly. To begin with there were just rumours – phone calls and messages flying around between friends – but then it was confirmed: all schools in the region were going to close for a week.

The decision was, in many ways, shocking. At that time, there had only been three deaths from Covid-19 in Italy, and only 152 reported infections. It seemed strange that education was the first social activity to be sacrificed. I guessed it was because it wasn’t perceived to be economically productive. Nothing else was closing: football grounds, bars, shops and ski resorts were still open for business, and no schools in any other European country had closed.

Still, to our three kids – Benny (15), Emma (13) and Leo (9) – the idea of a week off seemed like bliss. We had moved back to Parma from the UK three years earlier, and by comparison with the UK, education here seemed relentless. Many pupils go to school six days a week and there are no half-term holidays. But my wife, Francesca, who is Italian, and I were both worried. She works with Syrian refugees, which isn’t a job you can suddenly drop, and I had just been offered a 9-to-5 job, after 21 years of being freelance. We, like all our friends, suddenly had an acute childcare crisis.

The announcement had been so sudden that schools had few plans or resources in place to teach remotely. Italy spends a lot less on education than almost every other western country. Spending per student (from primary school to university) equates to $8,966 per annum, compared to $11,028 in the UK and $11,502 in Sweden. The under-investment is so serious that in December 2019, the education minister, Lorenzo Fioramonti, resigned in protest.

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Posted by on May 5, 2020 in European Union, Reportages


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Cosa succede in questi giorni nella testa dei bambini

All’inizio era sembrata una lunga vacanza, una lunga coda del carnevale. Si andava a spasso in bicicletta e si guardavano i cartoni anche al mattino. Poi la vacanza è finita di colpo, Milano ha cominciato ad apparire deserta, al parco non si poteva più mettere piede e se per strada si incontrava un altro bambino era proibito salutarlo con un abbraccio. I nonni poi, anche solo andandoli a trovare si poteva farli ammalare. E fu così che, nel giro di poche ore, la vita dei nostri figli è cambiata e loro si sono ritrovati, più o meno inconsapevoli, a disegnare arcobaleni da appendere alle finestre, mentre fuori sbocciava la primavera.

Ma in tutto questo sconvolgimento cosa è accaduto e sta accadendo nelle loro teste? Che cosa pensano, immaginano e sentono soprattutto i più piccoli, quelli che non hanno ancora sei anni, che non vanno alla scuola dell’obbligo e non sono stati investiti da programmi ministeriali da portare a compimento a distanza? Coloro che, come spiega la psicoterapeuta Chiara Gusmani, si trovano in uno stadio pre-astratto e non hanno quindi sviluppato la logica e la capacità di un pensiero ipotetico?

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Posted by on March 31, 2020 in European Union


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Against ‘natural’ parenting

Motherhood has never felt natural to me. I wasn’t very good at understanding my babies’ needs or what their cries meant, something that other parents seemed to know without giving it too much thought. ‘She’s just tired,’ they would say. Or: ‘This sound means he’s hungry.’ And I had no idea, and felt like a failure.

Even worse, I didn’t like the feeling of my baby attached to me. I felt ambivalent about nursing her; I didn’t hate it and sometimes I enjoyed it, but I felt burdened by the intensity that raising a child required.

It’s a cliché that parenting is hard but what is even harder is the judgment from other members of society – parents and nonparents alike. When I talked about my experiences in articles and blog posts, one word often came up to describe mothers like me: unnatural.

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Posted by on August 12, 2019 in Reportages, Uncategorized



On YouTube’s Digital Playground, an Open Gate for Pedophiles

Christiane C. didn’t think anything of it when her 10-year-old daughter and a friend
uploaded a video of themselves playing in a backyard pool.

“The video is innocent, it’s not a big deal,” said Christiane, who lives in a Rio de Janeiro suburb.

few days later, her daughter shared exciting news: The video had
thousands of views. Before long, it had ticked up to 400,000 — a
staggering number for a video of a child in a two-piece bathing suit
with her friend.

“I saw the video again and I got scared by the number of views,” Christiane said.

She had reason to be.

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Posted by on August 7, 2019 in Reportages


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Something is wrong on the internet

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Posted by on August 6, 2019 in Reportages


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Smart talking: are our devices threatening our privacy?

On 21 November 2015, James Bates had three friends over to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks play the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Bates, who lived in Bentonville, Arkansas, and his friends drank beer and did vodka shots as a tight football game unfolded. After the Razorbacks lost 51–50, one of the men went home; the others went out to Bates’s hot tub and continued to drink. Bates would later say that he went to bed around 1am and that the other two men – one of whom was named Victor Collins – planned to crash at his house for the night. When Bates got up the next morning, he didn’t see either of his friends. But when he opened his back door, he saw a body floating face-down in the hot tub. It was Collins.

A grim local affair, the death of Victor Collins would never have attracted international attention if it were not for a facet of the investigation that pitted the Bentonville authorities against one of the world’s most powerful companies – Amazon. Collins’ death triggered a broad debate about privacy in the voice-computing era, a discussion that makes the big tech companies squirm.

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Posted by on May 29, 2019 in Uncategorized


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Why Did I Teach My Son to Speak Russian?

I no longer remember when I started speaking to Raffi in Russian. I didn’t speak to him in Russian when he was in his mother’s womb, though I’ve since learned that this is when babies first start recognizing sound patterns. And I didn’t speak to him in Russian in the first few weeks of his life; it felt ridiculous to do so. All he could do was sleep and scream and breast-feed, and really the person I was talking to when I talked to him was his mother, Emily, who was sleep-deprived and on edge and needed company. She does not know Russian.

But then, at some point, when things stabilized a little, I started. I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language. And I liked the number of endearments that Russian gave me access to. Mushkin, mazkin, glazkin, moy horoshy, moy lyubimy, moy malen’ky mal’chik. It is a language surprisingly rich in endearments, given its history.

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Posted by on September 14, 2018 in Europe, North America, Reportages


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