TIME Parenting

Maybe Orphanages Aren’t So Bad After All, Study Says

ranplett—Getty Images/Vetta

Author of biggest study to date says the institutions have been unfairly stigmatized

Orphanages, as we all know from Charles Dickens, studies of kids from former Eastern Bloc countries and the musical Annie, are bad for children. Except, as a few studies are now beginning to find, when they’re not. The latest study looked at children from five not-so-wealthy countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa over the course of three years and found that being in an institution did not necessarily make them much worse off.

Whether or not orphanages are a viable solution for children with no homes is no small issue. According to the most recent figures from UNICEF, there were more than 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. That’s a scary number — more than the entire population of Britain and Italy combined — and figuring out the best way to look after that many vulnerable beings is a problem of significant complexity.

Even the definition of “orphan” is complicated. Not all of those 132 million-plus kids had lost both parents; closer to 13 million are what UNICEF calls “double orphans.” And 95% of all orphans, single or double, were over the age of five. So while the mental image of an orphan is of an abandoned baby in a basket, the reality is quite different.

There’s a reasonably heated debate over the best way to look after kids with no homes to go to. Studies out of Romania and Russia have found that kids raised in orphanages were vastly worse off than kids raised by foster families. A slew of studies suggest that children who were institutionalized as babies are much worse off than those who were not and that these effects remain through to adulthood.

But the new study, led by Kathryn Whetten, a Duke professor of public policy and director of the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research (CHPIR), and published by PLOSone, is the largest and most geographically and culturally diverse study of its kind. It followed 1,300 kids, aged six to 15 who were in institutions and 1,400 kids who were in family care in Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Tanzania. Researchers kept watch on such measures as the kids’ physical health, emotional difficulties, growth, learning ability and memory.

And it concluded that closing down all the orphanages — now sometimes known in more fancy circles as residential educational facilities — and finding other options for the 2 million kids currently living in such institutions would be a significant setback in addressing the issue.

“Our findings put less significance on the residential setting as a means to account for either positive or negative child well-being over time,” Whetten said. Much more important is the kind of country, neighborhood or community the child lives in, and, even more crucially, the kind of kid he or she is. Age, gender, existing emotional and nutritional status, and what kind of life each child has had so far have a lot more impact on that child’s fate than whether or not she or he was raised in a group setting.

Whetten, who first released similar findings from a different cross-sectional study in 2009, believes orphanages have been unfairly stigmatized by studies that have focused in on the dire institutions in Romania and Russia. Many of them rely on data from the Bucharest Early Intervention project, which tracks kids from the notoriously bad Romanian orphanages of the Ceausescu era. “This is reminiscent of what happened to mental health facilities in the U.S. in the 1980s,” she says. “We have taken findings from some of the most emotionally and socially deprived orphanages and are assuming that those outcomes would hold true for all group homes. An analogy that a colleague used yesterday was that it is like if we were evaluating whether to send our daughter to a summer camp and, to make our decision, we examined data from a girls prison camp.”

Indeed while Whetten’s study focused in on less wealthy countries, she believes there are implications for America, especially with the foster care system in such crisis. “In the U.S. there is a movement to see long-term residential care as detrimental to all children and that only when no other options are available do we place children in residential care and with the condition that they stay for as little time as possible,” she says. “Yet many of the residential centers here in the U.S. provide family-like care with long-term caregivers/parents who are continuously trained and supported in how to raise children who have experienced significant chaos and trauma in their lives. The children have family meals and can consider the children in the unit to be like siblings.”

While the study does not go so far as to recommend a whole-scale return to the practice of sending orphaned kids off to institutions, Whetten does think they should be one of a menu of solutions, and chosen when it suits the kid. “We need to evaluate each child individually to see where they will best thrive given the available options,” she says. “For example, if a child has four siblings and they would be broken apart if placed in families, but can stay together in a good group home, the group home may be best for all of them. All children deserve a loving family, and the family can look different depending on the situation.”

TIME Music

Go Behind the Scenes of TIME’s Coney Island Photo Shoot With Jack Antonoff

The guitarist talks about the inspiration behind his latest musical project, Bleachers

+ READ ARTICLE

Jack Antonoff isn’t timid when it comes to his wardrobe.

“I like to feel like a 7-year-old who’s allowed to dress themselves for the first time or something,” says the musician, who is profiled in the new issue of TIME.

It seems like a pretty spot-on description for the 30-year-old musician behind Bleachers — who rose to popularity as the lead guitarist of Fun. — as he nonchalantly played games and buckled himself into rides at Coney Island’s Luna Park during a recent photo shoot for TIME.

Though there’s a palpable nostalgia in Bleachers’ debut album Strange Desire, Antonoff explains that the record isn’t all about lingering in the past — it’s about looking toward the future.

“I feel like I think about that all the time — how to push on, how to not leave too many of the pieces in the past, how to not take too many of them with you and become strange,” Antonoff says, chuckling.

In the video above, take a behind-the-scenes look at Antonoff’s shoot with photographer Geordie Wood and hear more about the inspiration behind the album.

TIME Parenting

Sorry, Audra McDonald — My Kid Needs His ADHD Meds

Kevin Mazur—2014

Isn't being awesome enough? Do you have to start prescribing as well?

Dear Ms. McDonald,

I love your work. Who doesn’t? Clearly nobody, since you just won a record-obliterating sixth Tony for your performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Congratulations. That’s an incredible feat.

And don’t get me wrong, I love that you thanked your parents before anyone, the folks who got you your start in the theater. “I want to thank my mom and dad up in heaven,” you said in that seriously kick-ass red-and-white gown, “for disobeying the doctors’ orders and not medicating the hyperactive girl and finding out what she was into instead and pushing her into the theater.”

I have kids too. Should they happen to ever achieve a modicum of success, I’d like to think they might thank me one day. Not publicly from a podium or anything, but maybe just from their desk, or whatever place of work they happen to land upon. Here’s the thing, though: I really want them to have jobs. Unlike your family, of whom you once joked that if you were “tone-deaf they would have kicked me out,” I’m not musical. Unlike you, my kids do not have five aunts in a professional gospel-singing group. (My brothers did have a band. If memory serves, my mother called them the Unlistenables.)

But here’s the thing: one of my kids doesn’t learn very well without the meds. We’ve tried the theater, sports, music, wearing him out, getting him more sleep, meditation, diet, being super-disciplinarian, being not too disciplinarian, art, bribery and shouting. We even tried chewing gum for a while. Oh, man, that stuff is hard to remove. We tried a lot of techniques, some of them more seriously than others, because we are human and have jobs and other children. But the thing that worked best, that enabled him to learn to read and stopped him from getting into trouble at school, was medicine.

Since completing school and getting a job are pretty tightly linked, our options are limited. Since employment and having a family, or a home or a healthy mental attitude, have also been linked, the parent of a child who has trouble learning can begin to get very anxious. Nobody, as I’ve said before, is thrilled to medicate their child. It’s not what anybody considers a huge parental triumph. We have no trophy cabinet for the expired bottles of methylphenidate. But if you don’t have a child whose talents are as prodigious and obvious as yours, it can be tough to figure out what’s best for them. So you’re left with trying to avoid what’s worst; and clearly not being able to learn is pretty high on that list.

I’m sure that you were not personally judging me and other concerned parents when you thanked your parents for not putting you on Ritalin. I’m sure you weren’t trying to prescribe from the podium. And obviously, you have thrived, against some serious odds. But damn it, you’re not making it any easier to live with our hard decisions. There’s anxiety and then there’s Audra-induced anxiety, which is more dramatic and accomplished than the regular sort. I’m equally sure your parents also drove you to rehearsal a lot, or ran lines with you, or calmed you down if you had stage fright, or told you not to chew your nails. You couldn’t have mentioned that instead?

The chances of anybody winning six Tonys are extremely slender (again, bravo). If by giving my child medication, I have reduced his chances of getting that gong even further, so be it. He may not be Audra-level awesome, but he’s going to get through school. I’m O.K. with that.

TIME Childhood

These Kids Want to Show You Their Favorite Toys

From Fiji to Zambia, children showed Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberte their favorite toys

Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti photographed children all over the world posing with their favorite toys, from Alaska to India to Africa to South America. “For every photograph, I would spend the entire day with the family,” he says in the introduction to his book, Toy Stories: Photos of Children from Around the World and Their Favorite Things published by Abrams Image. “In some places, like China and the Middle East, the parents would push their children hard to pose for the photos, even if the kids didn’t seem comfortable. It could be a bit embarassing. I didn’t want to take pictures of crying children.”

Galimberti found that the fewer toys a child had, the less possessive he or she was about them, and that free-roaming children tended to be more likely to share their toys than city children who often play alone.

“My eighty-five year-old grandmother doesn’t know where some of the countries I visited are — places like Zambia, Malawi, or Fiji — but she remembers her favorite toys. Everybody does.”

TIME Childhood

Language Skills Improve When Parents Talk to Their Preemies

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Baby in the intensive care unit Getty Images

Attempts to engage babies in conversation led to better language scores

Language and conversation is our lifeblood. And that’s even true, scientists say, if one of the “speakers” may not have fully developed language skills.

Led by Dr. Betty Vohr, a professor of pediatrics at Brown University, researchers found that premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) benefited when their mothers spoke to them in attempts to engage them in conversation, compared to if their mothers simply stroked them or if the babies were primarily around nurses who talked about or around them but didn’t address the babies directly.

MORE: Preemies Face Higher Risk of Death in Early Adulthood

Vohr and her team studied 36 preterm infants and made 16-hour recordings when they were 32 weeks and 36 weeks old. The 32-week-old babies were born eight weeks before their mother’s due date, and the 36-week-old infants were delivered four weeks shy of their expected birth date. When the infants were 7 and 18 months old, the researchers tested their cognitive and language skills, including their ability to communicate by receiving and expressing themselves, first with vocalizations and eventually with their first words.

For every increase in 100 words that adults spoke to the preterm infants, the scientists found a two-point increase in their language scores at 18 months, and a half-point increase in their expressive communication score.

“To me, it’s amazing that eight weeks before their expected delivery, the role of the parent is so powerful in predicting language outcome,” says Vohr.

MORE: Incredibly, World’s Tiniest Preterm Babies Are Doing Just Fine

Previous studies have documented that hearing and responding to speech is critical for normal language development, and that premature babies are at higher risk of language delays compared to babies born at term. These deficits persist into school age and even into adolescence.

So the possibility that something as simple as having parents speak to their babies, even in the isolette in a NICU, can minimize such potential language delays is exciting. The results are intriguing because Vohr and her team were able to pinpoint what type of communication seemed to make a difference. They found that actually engaging the baby by addressing the infant – ‘Hi Joshua, mommy’s here’ – did better at 18 months than those whose mothers held them, but didn’t speak as much, or those who were cared for by nurses who talked mostly about their vital signs and other medical issues to other health care personnel.

Vohr says that although preterm babies can’t communicate with language, they do respond to attempts to engage them with vocalizations. Studies also showed that they turn instinctively to their mother’s voice after they are born, which presumably is familiar from their time in the womb. “Our conclusion is that it’s really important for moms to come into the NICU, and for them to talk to their babies,” says Vohr.

MORE: When It Comes to Preventing Preterm Birth, the U.S. Gets a ‘C’

What’s more exciting, she says, is that while most of NICU care involves the latest technology and expensive equipment, having mom or dad talk to their babies doesn’t cost anything. “This just really involves talking to moms and informing them that you have an important role here, and you can make a big difference for your baby,” says Vohr.

While the study was small, it’s results suggest that it’s worth investigating what role parents can play in improving their premature babies’ language development; Vohr says that the mayor of Providence, where she lives, is considering putting the program into practice in inner-city hospitals where preterm babies often go on to struggle in school. “We want to see if it can have broader impact on inner city school readiness,” she says. “That’s exciting.”

TIME

Why I Took My 7-Year-Old to a Tattoo Parlor

Sarah LaRoe pierces my daughter's ears at Pierced Hearts, a Seattle tattoo parlor. Bonnie Rochman

Thinking about getting your kid's ears pierced? Why a reputable tattoo parlor may be safer than using the piercing gun at the mall

Last month, following a long period of girlish cajoling, my daughter finally got her ears pierced in celebration of her 7th birthday. The setting was not the traditional mall kiosk staffed by some bored and minimally trained 16-year-old. Instead I took my daughter to a tattoo parlor.

Surprised they even allow 7-year-olds in those kinds of places? Think again. A growing number of parents are apparently turning to tattoo parlors to bejewel their children’s little lobes. I didn’t come up with this crazy idea out of the blue; I’m a reporter, after all: I researched where to take Shira and weighed the pros and cons. I found that tattoo parlors — despite the blaring heavy metal music — were mom-approved by a local parenting email list. When even a nurse cast her vote in favor of the tattoo parlor, I deliberated no longer.

“There is a stigma attached to tattoo parlors that they’re dirty and will be bombarded by foul-mouthed people,” says Sarah LaRoe, a mom with multiple facial piercings and tattoos creeping up her neck, who pierced my little girl’s ears so tenderly that she left her not in tears but with a big, happy smile on her face.

MORE: Why Spanking Doesn’t Work

Contrary to what you might think, tattoo parlors — at least the one I went to — are actually bastions of cleanliness. Some states regulate them, and reputable ones use disposable needles and sterilize all their equipment in an autoclave. In contrast, mall piercers and many jewelry stores use piercing guns that have been associated with complications and can’t be completely sterilized. Armed with that knowledge, which would you choose?

While some parents might be freaked out by the idea of taking their kid to a tattoo parlor, I looked upon the outing as an adventure, joking with my daughter about getting a Hello Kitty tattoo for mom. What I didn’t expect was that the experience would evolve into a lesson in tolerance. In that unnerving way little kids have of speaking their mind, Shira took an initial look at LaRoe and stage-whispered: “I think she looks ugly like that.”

I immediately flashed her my scary mom eyes to signal her to clam up. But later, after we’d left the store, her comment served as an opportunity to point out that just because someone looks different, it doesn’t mean she’s not a good person. LaRoe, regardless of her unconventional piercings, was super-professional and extremely kind.

For professional piercers like LaRoe, who stick needles through noses, eyebrows, tongues and nether regions, ears are the most mundane of piercing locations. But that doesn’t mean they don’t take it seriously. LaRoe spent nearly an hour with us, versus the quick in-and-out that I remember from getting my ears pierced at the mall as a girl. Before leading us into the piercing room — which looked just like a doctor’s office — LaRoe handed the birthday girl a bag with a lollipop, which expertly distracted Shira from being overly nervous about what was going on.

The bag also contained non-iodized sea salt and instructions for mom on how to mix a saline solution to clean newly pierced ears. Unlike the alcohol that mall kiosks recommend for cleaning, salty water doesn’t burn.

MORE: Clean Needles Saved My Life. Now Congress Wants to Ban Funding for Needle Exchange

Now for the gory details: at tattoo parlors, piercers use hypodermic needles to core out a sliver of skin, making room for an earring — a relatively painless procedure. In contrast, at the mall, the piercer uses a gun that painfully jams a blunt-tipped earring stud into the ear lobe; the process does not remove skin, but effectively pushes it aside.

LaRoe is so convinced of the superiority of needles over piercing guns that she’s signed petitions to ban the guns; one such petition makes the case that “only cowboys use guns.” In her quest to reform the ear-piercing industry, LaRoe leaves her business card at schools and pediatricians’ offices. When she takes her own son to the doctor, she’ll frequently get questions about her multiple piercings; sometimes she gets customers that way too.

Ultimately, though, change starts parent by parent, through word of mouth. “It kind of acts like a trendsetter,” says LaRoe. “All it takes is one little girl who goes to school and says it didn’t hurt.”

It didn’t hurt? Well, maybe a little. But so little that Shira didn’t even blink when LaRoe pierced her first ear. During the procedure, LaRoe had her do some deep, yoga-like breathing, which Shira is familiar with from her weekly yoga class. In and out, in — pierce! Of course, the lollipop helped too.

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