Why Students Lie, and Why We Fall for It


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Credit iStock
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Maria KonnikovaCredit Margaret Singer and Max Freeman

I’ve been a teacher, primarily of middle and high school English and Latin, for a long while now, and in that time I’ve been conned a thousand times. Now, I love my students. They are some of the most kind, giving and earnest children I know. And yet they have cheated, forged notes and lied to me. While I’ve usually been able to get at the truth behind my students’ deceit, I have to admit I have a few unsolved cases filed away in my desk drawer.

My current preoccupation with these deceptions may have something to do with the fact that I’ve been reading “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time,” by Maria Konnikova. I think it’s the cognitive dissonance that bothers me the most; I trust my students, and yet they test my trust, repeatedly and predictably.

I emailed Ms. Konnikova, asking her to help me understand why my students lie, cheat and steal, and to help me handle these deceptions better next time, because there’s always going to be a next time.

Why, I asked Ms. Konnikova, despite my years of experience untangling half-truths and spotting deception in my classroom, am I still so terrible at it? And while we are on the topic of kids and deception, why am I even worse at spotting the con when the artist in question is my own child?

First of all, Ms. Konnikova reassured me, all kids lie. It’s a part of growing up, testing limits and adjusting to social expectations and norms. “Kids are incredible con artists. They lie, they lie often, they lie knowingly, and they lie willingly in order to get something they want,” she wrote in an email.

To prove her point, Ms. Konnikova directed me to a passage in “The Confidence Game” in which she describes a study on children and deceit. Researchers put children in a room with a toy and instructed them not to look at it. They then recorded the children’s actions after the adult left the room. A majority of 3-year-olds in the study looked at the toy and, when asked whether they looked, lied about it. When researchers performed the same exercise with older children, the results were even more dramatic. Every single 5-year-old in the study looked at the toy, and every single child lied about it.

We lie as children, and we continue to lie as adults. In “The Confidence Game,” Ms. Konnikova writes, “we lie, on average, three times during a routine 10-minute conversation with a stranger or casual acquaintance.” Lies lubricate our daily social interactions and cushion the sharp edges of difficult conversations.

My students are not bad people because they lie, and they are not acting out of malice, Ms. Konnikova reassured me. Further, the fact that I have been duped so many times does not mean I am stupid or naïve, or falling down on the job of teaching character; it means I’m human. Just as it’s human nature to lie, it’s also human nature to fall for those lies, Ms. Konnikova explains in “The Confidence Game.” “We are so bad at spotting deception because it’s better for us to be more trusting. Trust, and not adeptness at spotting deception, is the more evolutionary beneficial path,” she writes. People who are trusting in nature tend to be happier and healthier, and contrary to what we may believe about the types of people who are easily conned, the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to trust others.

Furthermore, the more we care about other people, the more easily we are deceived by them, which explains why I am so easily duped by my students and my children. “Emotions are a con artist’s best friend,” Ms. Konnikova wrote in her email, “and there are few things with which we are more emotionally involved than our children. We don’t want to see their dishonesty because it goes against our view of what we want our kids to be.”

Now, just because lying is a normal part of being human, that does not mean we should ignore it, Ms. Konnikova explains. “Nothing reinforces cheating so much as getting away with it. Many con artists start small and keep going once they realize that no one has caught on. Recognizing and talking about dishonesty is better for the kids, and will make them more truthful going forward.”

In order to spot and call out the cons, Ms. Konnikova advised, I should act more like a journalist than a teacher. I should, in her words, “trust, but verify.” Gather the facts as best I can, give everyone (including myself) permission to be imperfect, and make the best of the situation by turning what could be heated conflict and dissolution of trust into a shared learning experience. Talk about how loss of trust can harm relationships, and use the opportunity to show the child that my primary goal is to teach, not to punish.

Recognizing and talking about dishonesty, while teaching children how to do better next time, is our best hope for raising adults who remain on the right side of the line between normal and harmless white lies and the malicious deceptions of true con artists.

Alfie Evans, Terminally Ill British Toddler at Center of Court Fight, Dies


Pope Francis said on Twitter: “I renew my appeal that the suffering of his parents may be heard and that their desire to seek new forms of treatment may be granted.”

Alfie, who was born on May 9, 2016, was admitted to the hospital when he was 7 months old, after suffering seizures.

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Alfie Evans in the hospital. His father said on Saturday, “My gladiator lay down his shield and gained his wings at 2.30 a.m. Absolutely heartbroken.”

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Action4Alfie/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Monday, the hospital withdrew life support, against his parent’s wishes. But the boy continued to breathe on his own.

“For the third day now, there’s been not one single problem with him,” his father said outside the hospital on Thursday. “It’s not a miracle; it’s a misdiagnosis.”

His parents lost in the High Court, the Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights. On Wednesday, the British Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that approved the withdrawal of care and sustenance. It also prohibited his parents from seeking treatment elsewhere.

The parents’ lawyers, from the Christian Legal Center, had vowed to continue their appeals.

The rulings echoed another high-profile case, that of Charlie Gard, the British infant who had a rare genetic abnormality known as mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. The boy could not see, hear, swallow or cry.

His plight drew attention from Francis and President Trump.

Charlie’s parents fought a long and public battle to prolong his life, but bowed to the consensus of medical experts who said there was no realistic chance of saving him: The child had irreversible brain damage.

The British High Court ruled that he could be moved to a hospice and that his life support could be withdrawn. Charlie died in July 2017 with his parents by his side a day after.

The news of Alfie’s death drew an outpouring on social media.

“Awful news,” Tara Vernal wrote on Facebook. “Can’t help feel angry for you.”

Another, Mary Fiander, wrote, “God bless you, beautiful Alfie. Fly high and free darling. Tom and Kate, my heart goes out to you both. Your little soldier was loved and adored by you. Nobody could have fought a tougher battle for Alfie. You are amazing.”

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YouTube Kids, Criticized for Content, Introduces New Parental Controls


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Some content that has slipped past filters on YouTube Kids, which is supposed to contain only child-friendly content, contains well-known characters in disturbing situations.

YouTube Kids, which has been criticized for inadvertently recommending disturbing videos to children, said Wednesday that it would introduce several ways for parents to limit what can be watched on the popular app.

Beginning this week, parents will be able to select “trusted channels” and topics that their children can access on the app, like “Sesame Workshop” or “learning,” that have been curated by people at YouTube Kids and its partners. The Google-owned app said in a blog post on Wednesday that parents would also have the option to restrict video recommendations to channels that have been “verified” by YouTube Kids, avoiding the broader sea of content that the app pulls from the main YouTube site through algorithms and other automated processes.

YouTube Kids was introduced in 2015 for children of preschool age and older, and it says it has more than 11 million weekly viewers. But parents have discovered a range of inappropriate videos on the app, highlighting the platform’s dependence on automation and a lack of human oversight. The New York Times reported in the fall that children using the app had been shown videos with popular characters from Nick Jr. and Disney Junior in violent or lewd situations, and other disturbing imagery, sometimes set to nursery rhymes.

More recently, Business Insider reported that the app was suggesting conspiracy theory videos to children, including claims that the world is flat and that the moon landing was faked. YouTube Kids had previously relied primarily on parents to report troubling videos, a practice that was criticized because children are often the only ones watching the content on tablets or phones.

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This video, which appeared on YouTube Kids, was uploaded by a verified account on YouTube called Freak Family and has attracted more than 20 million views.

Later this year, parents will be able to handpick every video and channel that children can view through the app, YouTube Kids said in its blog post, even restricting them to, say, 10 videos or a single channel.

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Parents will be able to limit access to videos from channels approved either by them or by the YouTube Kids team.

The changes announced Wednesday provide “a more robust suite of tools for parents to customize the YouTube Kids experience,” James Beser, product director for the platform, said in a statement. “From collections of channels from trusted partners to enabling parents to select each video and channel themselves, we’re putting parents in the driver’s seat like never before.”

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Hundreds of Immigrant Children Have Been Taken From Parents at U.S. Border


The data was prepared by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services that takes custody of children who have been removed from migrant parents. Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which processes migrants at the border, initially denied that the numbers were so high. But after they were confirmed to The Times by three federal officials who work closely with these cases, a spokesman for the health and human services department on Friday acknowledged in a statement that there were “approximately 700.”

Homeland security officials said the agency does not separate families at the border for deterrence purposes. “As required by law, D.H.S. must protect the best interests of minor children crossing our borders, and occasionally this results in separating children from an adult they are traveling with if we cannot ascertain the parental relationship, or if we think the child is otherwise in danger,” a spokesman for the agency said in a statement.

But Trump administration officials have suggested publicly in the past that they were, indeed, considering a deterrence policy. Last year, John F. Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, floated the idea while he was serving as homeland security secretary.

If approved, the plan would have closed detention facilities that are designed to house families and replaced them with separate shelters for adults and children. The White House supported the move and convened a group of officials from several federal agencies to consider its merits. But the Department of Homeland Security has said the policy was never adopted.

Children removed from their families are taken to shelters run by nongovernmental organizations. There, workers seek to identify a relative or guardian in the United States who can take over the child’s care. But if no such adult is available, the children can languish in custody indefinitely. Operators of these facilities say they are often unable to locate the parents of separated children because the children arrive without proper records.

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A woman was reunited with her 7-year-old daughter in Chicago in March after they had been separated for four months in immigration detention.

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Hope Hall/Aclu

Once a child has entered the shelter system, there is no firm process to determine whether they have been separated from someone who was legitimately their parent, or for reuniting parents and children who had been mistakenly separated, said a Border Patrol official, who was not authorized to discuss the agency’s policies publicly.

“The idea of punishing parents who are trying to save their children’s lives, and punishing children for being brought to safety by their parents by separating them, is fundamentally cruel and un-American,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, an advocacy group that conducts interviews and monitoring at immigration detention centers, including those that house children. “It really to me is just a horrific ‘Sophie’s Choice’ for a mom.”

Mirian has pinballed across Texas, held at various times in three other detention centers. She is part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of many immigrant parents seeking to prohibit family separations at the border.

Her son’s name, along with Mirian’s surname, are being withheld for their safety. But in a declaration she filed in that case, she said she was never told why her son was being taken away from her. Since February, the only word she has received about him has come from a case manager at the facility in San Antonio where he is being held. Her son asked about her and “cried all the time” in the days after he arrived at the facility, the case worker said, adding that the boy had developed an ear infection and a cough.

“I had no idea that I would be separated from my child for seeking help,” Mirian said in her sworn statement. “I am so anxious to be reunited with him.”

Protecting children at the border is complicated because there have, indeed, been instances of fraud. Tens of thousands of migrants arrive there every year, and those with children in tow are often released into the United States more quickly than adults who come alone, because of restrictions on the amount of time that minors can be held in custody. Some migrants have admitted they brought their children not only to remove them from danger in such places as Central America and Africa, but because they believed it would cause the authorities to release them from custody sooner.

Others have admitted to posing falsely with children who are not their own, and Border Patrol officials say that such instances of fraud are increasing.

As the debate carries on, pressure from the White House to enact a separation policy has continued. In conversations this month with Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, Mr. Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration that the agency has not been aggressive enough in policing the border, according to a person at the White House who is familiar with the discussions.

Officials presented Mr. Trump with a list of proposals, including the plan to routinely separate immigrant adults from their children. The president urged Ms. Nielsen to move forward with the policies, the person said.

But even groups that support stricter immigration policies have stopped short of endorsing a family separation policy. Jessica M. Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, one such group, said that family separation should only be used as a “last resort.”

However, she said that some migrants were using children as “human shields” in order to get out of immigration custody faster.

“It makes no sense at all for the government to just accept these attempts at fraud,” Ms. Vaughan said. “If it appears that the child is being used in this way, it is in the best interest of the child to be kept separately from the parent, for the parent to be prosecuted, because it’s a crime and it’s one that has to be deterred and prosecuted.”

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Mile 13 in the Deployment Marathon


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The author’s contribution to a Navy ship’s slide show on what families look forward to when their loved ones get home.Credit

The hardest part of the journey is the first step, right? Respectfully, I disagree; I think it’s the steps in the middle. We’ve just passed the halfway point in my Navy husband’s seven-month deployment (preceded by over a year of constant in-and-out travel for training, called “work-ups”), and instead of sprinting to a finish line, it feels like my 5-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son and I are crawling along a never-ending trail.

During my husband’s first deployment in 2009, I passed the time alone in Guam by training for the Marine Corps Marathon. The day before the race, I went for a “pre-run shakeout” with the running expert Bart Yasso and a group of participants in the Runner’s World Challenge I’d been training with online.

I asked one of the other women in the group, a seasoned marathoner, what the hardest part of the race was for her. Without hesitation she answered, “Unlucky mile 13.”

She broke down the race for me: “The first 10 miles are lined with people. You won’t even notice you’re running. Around mile 10, you start to get fatigued. At 12, the crowds thin out, the cheering dies down, and all of a sudden you’re aware of what mile you’re in. Mile 13, right when you’re halfway there, you’re going to realize how far you’ve come, and how much further you have to go. That’s when you have to dig deep.”

Maybe it’s because I expected it or maybe it’s because it was just that hard, but the next day, right around mile marker 13, I wanted to quit. I sat down on the curb and tried to find the motivation to keep going. I stretched on the sidewalk and watched a small group of women, each wearing a gold star, run by. As they passed, the pictures printed on the backs of their shirts seemed to stare through me. The photos were of their heroes – some husbands, some sons – all killed in action. I immediately got up and didn’t stop running until I’d crossed the finish line.

We’re in mile 13 of this deployment. The middle is tough. The supportive cheers have thinned out, the fatigue has certainly set in, and if quitting was an option I can’t say I wouldn’t take it. The kids are tired of Daddy being gone, he’s tired of missing things, and I’m just tired. I needed that moment on the curb, some sort of tipping point to make it all feel manageable again.

The ship has a Family Readiness Group – a support group for the thousand or so families that have been left behind during this deployment. When the group asked for someone to put together a slide show to be watched aboard the ship during their halfway-through-deployment celebration at sea, I volunteered. The theme for the pictures was “What we’re looking forward to when you get home.” Photos from families missing their Marines and sailors, holding signs promising good times ahead, flooded my inbox.

In the pictures, I found what I’d been missing. From a husband looking forward to a date night, a wife awaiting a road trip, to parents planning home-cooked meals for their children, half a world away, I found strength. I drew encouragement from siblings wanting to swap stories, families excited about camping, and children – so many children – counting down the days to taking their dad to the park or their mom to the zoo. Strangers, bonded together by our hope for a ship’s safe return and our want for our hearts to be whole again.

Above all, I found my “I can do this” moment in a photo of a woman holding a sleeping infant and her sign: “Meeting Daddy.” The mother in the photo is one of 16 women to give birth so far during this deployment. We might be tired, but we are over halfway there. It’s time to get up and start running again.

Food Lessons From Families of Kids With Allergies


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Kelly Rudnicki’s son Michael, 6, prepares batter for cookies that are allergy-safe for her family.Credit Kelly Rudnicki

“I always think that my kids eat healthier because of their allergies,” said Cristina Henriquez, a writer who lives in Chicago. Her children are 8 and 3 and, between them, are allergic to eggs, peanuts, fish, shellfish, dairy and tree nuts. There’s very little processed food in their house, she notes, and they eat out very rarely.

“When we do find something they can eat, particularly if it’s in the category of sweets or baked goods,” because dairy and egg allergies rule out many sweets, “they’re really excited and much more appreciative,” she said. “A treat really is a treat for them.”

Four out of every hundred children in the United States suffer from a food allergy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the problem appears to be getting worse. From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of food allergies increased 18 percent among children.

Symptoms of food allergy range from mild tingling and hives around the mouth to a severe life-threatening reaction. Eight foods — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat — account for 90 percent of allergic reactions to food.
 
While most parents worry about whether their children are eating healthful foods, parents of children with food allergies have far more at stake. Cooking every night or avoiding fast food can seem like an enormous challenge, but when your child has a life-threatening allergy you have few options.

I spoke with three families of children with food allergies about how they cope. Here are seven lessons they taught me about healthful eating they’ve learned that can apply to every family.

Anyone can learn to cook. “I was not a cook at all,” said Kelly Rudnicki, a mother of five children in Los Angeles who has written three allergy-friendly cookbooks since her son, now 13, was found to have life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, peas and legumes. “We were living in Chicago. I never cooked one thing. We ate out all the time.” Her son’s diagnosis “totally changed how we function as a family. It forced me to teach myself how to cook.” Trying recipes and making substitutions wasn’t as hard as she had feared.

Planning ahead makes everything easier. When making a quick stop for breakfast on the way to an early morning game or grabbing a snack out before practice isn’t an option, planning ahead for those moments (prime time for less-than-healthy choices) becomes second nature. “There’s no not planning ahead,” said Susannah Fuchs, whose 9- and 12-year-old sons are each allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. “There’s no choice, so we do it.”

Cooking doesn’t have to take too much time. “You think you don’t have time to make something,” says Ms. Rudnicki, “but it’s not that big of a deal. It’s 10 minutes of extra planning,” and a little time to prepare. Her key to cooking very nearly every meal for her family is simplicity. “Baked potato bars. Breakfast for dinner,” she says. “My first cookbook didn’t include one recipe that involved sautéing. It’s all slow cooker and roasting and things you can do with a lot of little kids underfoot.” A favorite in their house is Turkey Sloppy Joes.

Processed foods aren’t irresistible. Between the marketing power of big food and the need to pack lunches and snacks with kid appeal that travel well, life without a stash of prepackaged food can seem impossible. Even families dealing with food allergies can usually find some go-to safe packaged choices. But they’re always checking the labels, always aware of every ingredient, and tend to substitute homemade snacks, fruit and whole food choices where they can. “If we can’t find something that they can eat, we try to make it for them,” said Ms. Henriquez.

Last Halloween, when all of the candy corn she could find either contained egg or was made in factories that also processed nut products, she used a recipe she found online to make her own. The candy corn, she says, wasn’t really a success — but cinnamon doughnuts and oatmeal and carrot muffins have been recent hits.

Children can learn to speak for themselves. As they grow older, children who have food allergies need to be able to look out for themselves, and that means being able to ask questions of adults, and convey the importance of what they’re asking. If a 12-year-old is out with friends and ordering a hamburger, he may need to ask the person at the grill whether there are peanuts or tree nuts in the food, noted Ms. Fuchs, whose nut-allergic son recently found himself in that situation. “It does require you to overcome any shyness.”

We can learn what’s in our food, and where it comes from. Reading labels means that parents as well as older children in food-allergic families are hyper-aware of every ingredient. Ms. Fuchs says that her son’s nut allergies “have made our eating cleaner and simpler.” The need to call and ask about processing methods means she knows where the foods come from, and the need to decipher every word on a label in search of hidden allergens means she’s had to learn the details of food production. “We have preservatives that are permitted in this country that aren’t permitted other places,” she says.

Even ingredients that aren’t allergens can now make her pause. When her family eats in restaurants, which is rare, they choose “mom-and-pop places where you can talk to the cook.” Eating foods that include only ingredients your grandmother would recognize makes it easier to spot a problem — “milk” is easier to decipher than “hydrolyzed casein.”

You can’t control everything. “We have to learn to live with fear and risk,” said Ms. Rudnicki, whose son had an allergic reaction to a chocolate-flavored frozen treat when he was in seventh grade and she wasn’t at home. Some kids, she said, get tired of always being the special case and take chances. “He knew immediately.” His sister, then 14, used his Epi-Pen before calling 911. “She knew what to do and how to do it.”

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Kelly Rudnicki’s cookies, made from a recipe that is safe for her son’s allergies.Credit Kelly Rudnicki

Stop Asking if My 4-Year-Old Has a ‘Girlfriend’


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Credit Getty Images

My father isn’t the first person to ask my son if he has a girlfriend. The question pops up frequently when we’re visiting friends of my mother’s over the holidays or talking to affable cashiers at the supermarket. It’s always asked in the same way — with genial good humor and an air of expectation, as if they already know the answer.

My son typically responds with a blank stare — not, it should be noted, the aggressively vacant stare I cultivated in my 20s to discourage the apparently benign interest of family and friends in my romantic life, but an actual stare of incomprehension.

He doesn’t understand the question because he’s 4 years old. Five months ago, he started prekindergarten. Three weeks ago he learned how to calculate seven minus five on his hands. Yesterday, he had a dry overnight diaper for the fifth morning in a row.

Unable to let the moment play out, I jump in with an answer: Yes, I say, he has girl friends and boy friends. He has, in fact, lots of friends.

I say it calmly and pleasantly, with a polite smile that reveals nothing of how I truly feel about this question — this ludicrous question that follows little children around like a puppy sensing scraps. I understand that it’s just the meaningless chatter of adults trying to make conversation with children. I get that their intentions are 100 percent harmless.

And yet every time this question is posed, I hear insidious rumblings. I hear heteronormative expectation: You’re a boy, so naturally, you’ll like girls. I hear the gender indoctrination: Girls aren’t like boys, so you should treat them differently. I hear the premature insertion of sexual politics: Girls aren’t your friends; they’re potential objects of desire.

In this one seemingly innocuous query, I hear one generation imposing on the next one its resolute idea of How Things Are.

And these messages aren’t confined to well-meaning relatives and kindly salesclerks. If only this were a battle being fought on one front. Alas, the global entertainment complex seems to have joined forces with my mom’s college roommate’s husband to provide furtive lessons on how young boys and girls should interact. The G-rated “Peanuts Movie,” for example, which is not only aimed at 4-year-olds but is also, according to one of the early “Peanuts” comic strips from 1950, about 4-year-olds, has more romantic entanglements than an episode of “The Love Boat.” Charlie Brown blushes and stammers around the girl he’s crushing on, the cute little redhead who lives next door, while Peppermint Patty pines away for him in unrequited love. His sister, Sally, ardently pursues Linus, her “sweet babboo” (a term, incidentally, that Charles M. Schulz’s own wife actually called him). Lucy throws herself at Schroeder. Even Snoopy — a dog! — models romantic behavioral standards by courting a beautiful poodle named Fifi.

Why do we do this? Why do we endlessly replicate mature patterns for young audiences? Are we, like the men chasing the maidens on Keats’s Grecian urn, locked forever in “mad pursuit”? Do we instinctively reach for the same worn blueprint, or do we collectively make the choice to pass it along?

At this age, there’s no difference in the way my son treats boys and girls. There’s no variation in the tenor of his laughter, no disparity in the force of his giddiness. There’s only the joy in being chased — around the playground, down the block, through the velvet curtains that line the black-box studio where we had his birthday party. He isn’t enacting an archetype that has existed for thousands of years. He’s simply being himself in the presence of his friends.

Later, perhaps, his attitude will change. Maybe when puberty kicks in he will assume the awkwardness of Charlie Brown or the forwardness of Sally. Perhaps this will happen much sooner than I think. Maybe first grade. Maybe even kindergarten.

But right now, he’s 4 and learning how to subtract with his fingers, and he doesn’t need to be enmeshed in a complex web of dating rituals. He needs to go to the park and to have a sixth dry night.

And when he’s ready for a girlfriend — or a boyfriend — I’ll let you know. But be warned: If you ask about it, he might still give you a blank stare.

Lynn Messina is a novelist living in New York City. Her most recent book is “Prejudice & Pride,” a modern retelling of the classic with a gender-bending twist.

Calorie Counts on the Kids’ Menu


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Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

One kid-favorite Panera cinnamon crunch bagel: 430 calories. Add a medium low-fat strawberry banana smoothie (260 calories) or even just a lemonade (240 calories), and your 7-year-old is well into his 1,600-calorie budget for the day.

Of course, kids rarely finish what’s on their plates, and it’s unlikely that all of those calories made their way into your child (and more than likely that a few went into your own mouth). But those numbers shouldn’t surprise you if you’re a Panera customer, and if you’re not already familiar with similar calorie counts from other chains, you soon will be. By December of this year, the Food and Drug Administration will require all retail food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on their menus and menu boards.

Many larger chains already meet that requirement, and researchers have been looking at whether the posted calorie counts are changing our behavior. The results have been mixed, but new research published as a working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that for some subsets of people, the calorie information may be having an impact where it counts: on body mass. Researchers evaluated changes in body mass index (commonly referred to as B.M.I.) from 2003 to 2012 in counties and areas that had mandatory calorie-labeling laws in place, and found “substantial effects in terms of decreased B.M.I. following implementation of such laws” in men and overweight women.

I’ve found that posted calorie counts do change my behavior. I “downsize” when it’s an option, or intentionally consume only part of what I’ve purchased. I’ve also made changes in what I purchase for my children, and I never encourage them to finish it, although it can be galling to throw away half of a $7 Starbucks snack.

But when it comes to evaluating what my children eat (at chain restaurants and everywhere else), I should look beyond calories, says Jessica Shepard, a certified holistic health consultant who has studied nutrition. “Calories are a guideline,” she says, “but we need to think about things like nutritional density and the value our body gets as a whole.” If the low-fat strawberry-banana smoothie at 260 calories is made with yogurt and gets its sugar largely from whole fruits, it has a much different nutritional profile than the 240-calorie lemonade.

If the calorie counts encourage us to be more aware of our choices, that’s a good thing, says Ms. Shepard, as long as we look beyond the number. She suggests encouraging children to make a choice that includes some protein, some fat and some fiber, especially if they need a meal or snack that will fuel them through a busy day.

If children ask about the calories, tell them it’s a way to measure the things we eat, but it’s a measurement with limits. Not only are all calories not created equal, but calorie measurements can be inaccurate. Many of us, particularly mothers with daughters, are concerned that talking about calories can lead to an unhealthy obsession with those numbers. Just as we want to strike a healthy balance in our eating, we want to strike a healthy balance in how much mental energy we give to those choices. We can tell a curious child that calories are just one thing to think about — after all, notes Ms. Shepard, an apple might have more calories than a few Doritos, but we all know the apple gives us something different from the chips.

Evaluating the impact of one societal change on average body mass is both mathematically and statistically challenging and a long-term prospect. This research is preliminary, and has not yet been peer-reviewed, although a smaller study (also still not reviewed) using similar methods reached a similar result. Other research on the question of whether posted calorie counts change behavior has been mixed, with some behavior observation studies finding that consumers choose to consume fewer calories overall when they notice calorie counts, and others finding no overall change in consumption in restaurants that posted the information compared to those that did not.

If we use calorie counts on menus as a reminder to think more about what we are eating and what we’re feeding our children, they can have a positive impact on those meals, whether they ultimately have a negative affect on our national waistline.

Do calorie counts on menus affect what you eat when they’re posted, and do they affect what you purchase for your children? How do you talk to your children about those numbers?

Read more about talking with children about calories, food choices and weight on Motherlode: The Mom Who Put Her 7-Year-Old on a Diet Speaks Out; Ending the “Friendly” Fat Talk ; Talking to a Child Who Is Overweight, but Unaware and I Have No Idea How Many Calories Are in My Grandmother’s Gefilte Fish.

Whether Our Foster Child Stays or Goes, He Is Loved


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Credit Illustration by Abigail Gray Swartz

“Can you tell me again, Mommy? Can you tell me who decides whether I get to stay here?”

I turn to see my 4-year-old foster son staring at our house through the back window of my car. We’ve just returned from dropping my 5-year-old biological son, Ryan, off at school, and I’m not surprised he’s asking me again now. It is a conversation we have several times a week and almost always when it is just the two of us, alone together.

“The judge, honey. The judge is the boss, and he is working very hard to figure out what is best for you.”

“Can we call him? Can we tell him I want to stay here?”

For more than 10 months, my husband, Mike, and I have been foster parents to this little boy, whom I’ve been calling BlueJay in this diary to protect his privacy. For most of those months, it seemed very possible that he and his brothers, who do not live in our home, would be reunited with their biological parents. His parents haven’t made enough progress toward reunification, though. As their time runs out, it seems the most likely scenario is that he will be moved to live with relatives who live several hours away.

It could happen in a matter of weeks or even days. In our experience as a new foster family, good information can be hard to come by, so we simply wait for the next court hearing. Mike and I have become used to the waiting. We have learned how to manage — or at least compartmentalize — our anxiety about the future’s uncertainty. But as our foster son gets older, his anxiety over the uncertainty only grows.

His questions have become more direct in recent weeks. Generalized reassurances aren’t cutting it for him anymore. He’s 4 years old, he is perceptive, and he wants answers.

We have struggled with how much to tell him. A year ago, I never would have imagined I’d be having these kinds of conversations with a child so young. But after a persistent and specific line of questioning about whether we would let him stay with us forever or if we would make him leave, we knew he needed — he deserved — some deeper answers. He needed to know about the judge.

“No, we can’t call the judge,” I told him. “I’m sorry about that. I know it’s hard to wait. All the grown-ups are working together to help the judge figure this out. Us, your mom and dad,” the extended family members, the social workers. “We all love you very much.”

“I love you. I love this house. This is my house.”

“Of course it is, honey.”

He’s right. It is his house as much as it is mine or Mike’s or Ryan’s. He has a favorite spot on the couch and a usual spot at the dining room table. He has his own bedroom, his own toys and games, his own set of books, his own nightlight. He has stomped up the stairs of this home in frustration, danced across the dining room floor and run down the hallway more times than any of us could count.

As he gets older and is able to process his memories at a higher level, he becomes more and more conscious that a “home” isn’t always permanent.

I want him to know we would never pack him up simply because he threw a really big tantrum or broke something out of anger or spoke too disrespectfully. This is a fear of his that is rooted in his experience. And yet, it is possible that once it is decided he will leave, he will be required to leave very quickly.

We have done our best to advocate for a reasonable transition plan that would prepare our foster son for wherever he may go from here. Change scares him. It makes his little heart practically beat right out of his chest. He deserves the time and effort needed to help him adjust to another move. He deserves to see all the grown-ups who love him working together on the same team. His team.

Since I can’t promise him he will stay, and no one else will promise me that he’ll be granted an opportunity to ease into his next home, I do the only thing I can think to do. I try to plant the seeds of change in a way that prepares him for the possibility of it without adding to his fear.

“Mommy, what are the judge’s choices?”

I take a breath and allow myself a quick moment to be proud of him and the way he has come to grasp the concept of decisions and consequences. This boy who just months ago struggled to understand the simple cause and effect rules of childhood. Things like, if you throw a toy, that toy will be put away for the rest of the day.

“Well, the judge has three choices. He might choose for you to stay here. Or he might choose for you to live with your mom or dad. Or he might choose for you to live with” the other relatives. “All of those choices are good choices, because all of those homes are full of love.”

“O.K., Mommy. O.K., I understand.”

As we head into the house together, I wonder when he will ask me again. Maybe tomorrow or maybe even later the same day. He will ask again if he can stay with us forever or if we can call the judge. I suspect that he both understands more than we think he does, and that he’s more confused than we could ever know.

When he asks again, I will answer him again. I will try to keep my words simple and clear and reassuring. I will focus on the only thing I know for sure — that he is loved.

Welcome to New York, and Here’s a To-Do List


A high-profile example of the problem is the lack of black and Latino students at the eight specialized high schools where admission is decided by a single test. This spring, only 10 percent of offers at these schools went to black and Latino students. When Mr. de Blasio was running for mayor in 2013, he pledged to diversify these schools, but more recently he has suggested that his hands are tied and that any change must come from the state.

What to Do About Renewal

Mr. de Blasio came into office pledging to lift up low-performing schools, rather than close them, as his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, had done. But his $582 million Renewal initiative, which flooded 94 schools with resources while subjecting them to sometimes contradictory directives, has produced disappointing results. This year, the city proposed closing eight of the schools — the largest number it had ever closed in one year — drawing protests from parents and elected officials.

Mr. Carranza will have to decide whether to continue the initiative, whose future looks cloudy; the official who led the effort was recently moved aside, and no successor has been named. Fifty schools are expected to remain in the program next year. Another challenge: The city’s Education Department has said that, to replace some of the schools it is closing, it will open eight new schools in the fall, something that this administration has little experience doing.

Closing the Achievement Gap

Though the city has made real progress on increasing overall graduation rates, the academic divides between different groups of students are yawning. Citywide, the graduation rate last year was 87.5 percent for Asian students and 83.2 percent for white students. For black students, the rate was 70 percent and for Hispanic students, 68.3 percent. Just 32.5 percent of students still learning English graduated.

Even within the same school, black and Hispanic students and those who live in poverty can fall behind their peers. A study from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School looked at student performance for third through fifth graders on the 2016 state math exam, and it found the poorer the students, the lower their scores tended to be on the test, even if they attended school with wealthy children.

The issue is far from unique to New York. In San Francisco, Mr. Carranza faced a similar gap: African-American children there have long scored among the lowest in California on standardized tests. “It’s fair to say that like all the superintendents before him he was not able to find the magic formula,” said Norman Yee, a member of the board of supervisors in San Francisco and a former president of the city’s Board of Education.

A City’s Worth of Homeless Children

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Mr. Carranza said there was “no daylight” between him and the mayor, which makes it hard to know how much he will set a new course for the school system or push on issues, like segregation, that the administration has soft-pedaled.

Credit
Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

In San Francisco, where Mr. Carranza spent his longest-tenure as a superintendent, he oversaw about 55,000 children. In New York, double that number — more than 111,500 students — were homeless at some point during the 2016-17 school year. That is 10 percent of the city’s public school population.

Those homeless students include anyone in a temporary living situation, which could include children living in a car or a hotel or staying on the sofa at a friend’s house.

In addition to the emotional toll, the academic effects of homelessness can be severe. Homeless students are chronically absent at far higher rates than other children, are more likely to drop out than their peers and less likely to graduate or to test on grade level. Even after finding housing, the Education Trust-New York found that formerly homeless children continue to struggle academically for years.

Equity in Early Childhood Education

Following through on a campaign promise, Mr. de Blasio in his first term created a public prekindergarten seat for every 4-year-old in the city. He is now planning to go further, creating thousands of seats for 3-year-olds in what he is calling “3-K.” But while the prekindergarten initiative has been popular among parents, it has caused problems for the previously existing system that provides free or subsidized child care and early education to low-income families.

Home-based child care providers have lost income and stand to lose more as 3-K is rolled out. So-called EarlyLearn centers, which serve infants to 5-year-olds — and, unlike prekindergarten classes in public schools, are open 10 hours a day and do not close for school vacations — are struggling to retain teachers, because teachers in public schools can make as much as $30,000 more per year. Many centers have had to close classrooms because they cannot find teachers to oversee them.

Directors of these programs have begged the city to address the salary disparity, which they say has drawn experienced teachers away from classrooms serving low-income children — who need those teachers the most — to classrooms serving higher-income children.

“The narrative out of City Hall is that the signature initiative is early childhood education, and how that has helped low-income families,” said David Nocenti, the executive director of Union Settlement, which serves roughly 350 children in centers in East Harlem. “The reality is quite different.”

Fixing Special Education

About 200,000 New York City public school children are identified as having a disability, which can range from mild learning differences to severe challenges.

Spending on special education has increased under the de Blasio administration, while results for these students remain poor. The graduation rate among students with disabilities last year was just 46.7 percent, and the enormous system that serves them is riddled with problems. According to an annual report that the Education Department makes to the City Council, 48,000 students during the last school year received only some of the services they needed, or none at all.

Highlighting an additional area of vast shortcomings, the city’s public advocate, Letitia James, found that in the 2015-16 school year nearly half of the 9,000 issued vouchers, which allow students to receive services their schools cannot provide, went unused, in part because there were too few therapists in certain parts of the city. The Special Education Student Information System, the electronic platform that tracks student needs and services, is also riddled with problems that, for example, lead it to provide incomplete information about whether students are receiving the services they need.

Getting Along with Charters

Mr. de Blasio ran for office criticizing charter schools and promising to halt the practice of giving them space in public school buildings, but he soon got a lesson in the danger of going head-to-head with their wealthy supporters. In 2014, the year that Mr. de Blasio took office, a pro-charter group spent $9.6 million on lobbying, more than any other organization in the state, much of it on advertisements attacking him.

Since then his administration has at times struggled to navigate its relationship with the city’s 227 charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated and serve roughly 10 percent of the city’s public school students. Perhaps the biggest challenge in the coming years will be finding space for new or expanding charter schools. Under legislation passed in 2014, the city must provide space for these schools or be responsible for at least part of their rent. But nearly every decision to place a charter school inside a school building is controversial, requiring other schools to squeeze into less space.

Ms. Fariña has at times been disparaging of charters, and charter leaders are hoping that Mr. Carranza’s arrival will be an opportunity for a reset. James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, said he hoped Mr. Carranza would embrace charter schools as partners. He suggested that Mr. Carranza could ask charter leaders to start schools specifically aimed at serving homeless students, for instance, or, with a change in state law, ask a high-performing charter to take over an elementary school zone and enroll all students in the zone rather than admit students through a lottery.

“If he’s willing to meet the sector at that level and see us as full partners, he’ll find people on the other side, and together with philanthropy, we could do some interesting things,” Mr. Merriman said.

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