TIME

Why Having Kids Won’t Fulfill You

hand in hand
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Jennifer Aniston, take note. You haven't failed as a woman if you don't have kids.

I was struck by the comments Jennifer Aniston made to Allure magazine this week about the badgering she gets on a topic that she finds painful: her lack of children. She tells the magazine: “I don’t like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women – that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated. I don’t think it’s fair. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t mothering — dogs, friends, friends’ children.” For Aniston, 45, the topic is fraught with emotion. “Even saying it gets me a little tight in my throat,” she said.

I thought about Aniston’s comments—what many women in their early 40s without children are forced to feel—and then I thought about my own life. In some respects I’m Aniston’s exact opposite: I’m a 41-year-old mother of two who spent my entire adult life telling myself that children were my destiny. I did what society and my family expected, never questioning the choice. But sometimes I wonder how much of the blueprint of my life was drawn by me, and how much was sketched by experiences I had when I was way too young to be the architect of my own destiny.

For all intents and purposes, my mother was a single parent. My father left when I was twelve, but long before then my mother had taken over the head of the household role. She worked full-time as a waitress while my father flitted between different construction jobs. There always seemed to be an injury or a reason he wasn’t able to work. The image of him lying on our living room floor in front of our television is burned on my brain. He was there so much — diagonally and on his side with his head perched upon on his hand–I actually thought it was odd when I went to friends’ houses and their fathers weren’t in that prone position. I also found it odd that my friends’ parents shared a bedroom. My dad had taken up residence on the couch for so long, it seemed normal.

It was the obviously unhappy marriage that birthed the mantra my mother would repeat to me throughout my young life: “Do not depend on a man for anything.” That was followed closely by: “You and your sister are the best things I’ve ever done.” My mother made it clear that we were her reason for living. There was never a time I didn’t feel loved by my mother. But there was also a latent message that became clear after my father left: I am not alone because I have children. If it weren’t for you two I would be falling apart.

Before I hit adolescence, I decided that children were the only things that could fulfill me when I grew older.

“I’ve always wanted kids.” I don’t think I could possibly count the number of times in my life I have uttered those words. But, the same enthusiasm never escaped my lips when talking about marriage. I was never that girl who fantasized about her wedding day. So I skipped the marriage part, feeling like a renegade who was bucking the patriarchal confines of society.

It took five years for my partner and me to have a pregnancy that didn’t end in loss. After the third miscarriage, I began to panic: what if I really couldn’t have children? What would my life become? I was a bartender at the time that we were trying and my partner was a musician — we were in no way financially prepared for children. But the panic and fear that the narrative I had chosen for myself so many years earlier was not going to play out made me a woman consumed.

For five years we spent month after month trying for a child. The obsession I had with ovulation calendars and pregnancy tests only paused when a test came back positive, then the obsession switched to worrying about whether the pregnancy was going to last. I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in 2010, when I was thirty-eight. I was finally a mom.

My life changed — but only the daily tasks. I was still working full-time. Once we added a baby, the only difference was we now had no downtime. I was not a new person. I was the woman I had always been, I just added another label to my list of identifiers: friend, photographer, bartender, girlfriend, writer, mother. I reached the endgame, and nothing about myself had changed — save my ability to multitask.

My assumption that I was destined to be maternal made me never consider the idea that maybe I wasn’t. The possibility that I wasn’t actually hard-wired to mother never occurred to me until I looked into my child’s eyes for the first time and didn’t feel that thunderbolt everyone talks so much about. Those overwhelming feelings of love arrived eventually, but they certainly weren’t automatic.

Had we continued having infertility issues and not been able to conceive, I am certain that I would have felt that there was something “missing” from my life. But only because I believed the narrative my mother sold that children bring fulfillment. Since I’ve become a mother and seen that the essence of what makes me who I am has not changed, I’ve learned that nothing outside of you can fulfill you. Fulfillment is all about how you perceive the fullness or emptiness of your life. But how can a woman feel fulfilled if she’s constantly being told her life is empty without children? How can she ever feel certain she’s made the right decision if society is second-guessing her constantly?

There is nothing wrong or incomplete about building a life with a partner or alone, unburdened by the added stress of keeping another human being alive. This is something that men have always been allowed – women, not so much. A woman is constantly reminded of the ticking time bomb that is her biological clock. We don’t believe that a life without children is something a woman could possibly want. It’s why successful, wealthy women like Aniston are still asked the baby question every single time they sit down for an interview. Everyone is always looking for the latent sadness, the regret. What if it’s not there?

It’s been 40 years since the women’s liberation movement told us that just because we have a uterus, doesn’t mean we have to use it. We still don’t believe it. Whether we realize it or not, the necessity to tap into our maternal side is so wired into our being that we can’t escape it. If we could, there wouldn’t be debates about whether women could “have it all” or whether we were turning against our nature if we decide not to procreate.

I never questioned my desire to have children, because I didn’t have to; I took the well-traveled road. That desire is expected of me – it’s expected of all women. It took me decades to realize that the maternal drive I carried with me my entire adult life, the one that led me to try for five years to have children, may not have been a biological imperative at all. It may just have been a program that was placed into my psyche by the repeated mantras of a woman who was let down by a man and comforted by her children. That’s okay. I love my children and I’m happy about the experiences I’ve had and the paths that have led me to this place. But if this isn’t your place—whether you’re a famous movie star or not– you didn’t take a wrong turn.

 

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TIME Australia

Eight Children Found Dead at Home in Australia’s Far North

Police carry equipment near a road block outside a house where eight children have been found dead  in the Cairns suburb of Manoora, Australia, Friday Dec. 19, 2014.
Police carry equipment near a road block outside a house where eight children have been found dead in the Cairns suburb of Manoora, Australia, Friday Dec. 19, 2014. Graeme Bint—AP

Community preparing for the festive season receives devastating shock

Eight children, ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years, were found dead inside a home in the northern Australian city of Cairns on Friday.

Police went to the house in the suburb of Manoora after receiving reports of an injured woman, the Associated Press said. On arrival, the police found the bodies of the children inside the residence. They were reportedly stabbed.

The 34-year-old woman, believed to be the mother of seven of the children, is currently being treated for her injuries, according to authorities. Police said they are unable to confirm her relationship to the victims, however, and added that she is not in custody for the time being.

The Queensland Ambulance Service says the woman had a wound to her chest, and is currently in stable condition after being taken to he hospital.

Dozens of police vehicles are at the scene, according to the ABC.

Cairns detective inspector Bruno Asnicar, speaking to reporters at around 4.30 p.m. local time, said the identification of the children is an ongoing process and more details on that front might emerge on Saturday. Asnicar also said that there were no formal suspects as yet. “Everybody who’s had any involvement in the past two or three days is a person of interest, but we’re not identifying particular suspects at this stage.”

The top police official said it was “right up there” with the most serious cases he had dealt with in his career.

“These are trying days for our country,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a statement released Friday afternoon. “All parents would feel a gut-wrenching sadness at what has happened.”

Friday’s incident comes four days after a gunman took more than a dozen people hostage at a café in Sydney, resulting in three deaths including his own.

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Suspected in Mass Kidnap in Northeast Nigeria

The leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram on Oct. 31, 2014.
The leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram on Oct. 31, 2014. AP

The latest in a string of abductions

Islamist militants of the group Boko Haram are suspected of abducting at least 100 women and children, and killing nearly three dozen others, from a remote village in northeastern Nigeria.

Gunmen in trucks raided Gumsuri last Friday and staged an attack that ended on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing members of a local vigilante group. Gumsuri is located near Chibok, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April. The number of abductions in the new attack varies between news outlets, hovering between more than 100 and above 200.

Mike Omeri, a government spokesman, told TIME that the government is “outraged and deeply saddened by this deplorable act” and said the real number of those abducted isn’t known yet.

“It is impossible to verify the number of those missing at this early stage because it is presumed that many civilians fled during the attack,” he said in a statement. “As soon as government agencies and our local partners have together determined the credible number of missing civilians, we will provide that information to the public.”

The recent raid, the latest in a string of similar abductions in the restive region, comes about two months after the Nigerian government claimed it had reached a cease-fire with Boko Haram and that the group planned to release the schoolgirls. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau later denied that a deal had been reached and said the girls had already been married off.

Read next: Girls Who Escaped Boko Haram Tell of Horrors in Captivity

TIME ebola

5 Million Kids Aren’t in School Because of Ebola

Schools closed in Sierra Leone after Ebola outbreak
A classroom of a school stands abandoned on Aug. 25, 2014 in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Schools closed and villages quarantined after dozens of its congregation died with Ebola symptoms. Mohammed Elshamy—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Children from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are still out of school. Here's what's being done

Public schools in Guinea have been closed since March. Schools in Sierra Leone and Liberia never opened after the summer holiday. All told, the children’s rights and emergency relief group UNICEF estimates that 5 million children ages 3 to 17 are out of school due to Ebola.

“This Ebola crisis has been predominantly seen as a health crisis but its implications go way beyond health,” says Sayo Aoki, an education specialist for UNICEF working in the affected countries. “It’s time we start looking at it from other perspectives, and education is part of that.”

Some schools were closed out of fear the disease could spread in large gatherings while others had no access to water, making handwashing impossible. But the longer a child stays out of school, the less likely it is he or she will return—which is why UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health to come up with protocols necessary to implement in order to let children back into the classrooms. The draft—which calls for measures like Ebola screenings, hygiene requirements and a plan in the event a suspected case—is currently being reviewed by experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. and the World Health Organization.

MORE: TIME’s Person of the Year: Ebola Fighters

In the meantime, UNICEF and partner NGOs have trained out-of-work teachers to act as “social mobilizers,” going door to door to spread messages about how to identify Ebola and prevent its spread. UNICEF and partners are also using the radio programs to offer long-distance learning while kids are kept at home. “We are trying to make [the radio shows] simple and more interesting so children will get some learning,” says Aoki. “If they listen to it at a certain time of the day during the week, it gives them a routine they’ve lost from not going to school. It brings them a sense of normalcy, some sort of stability and hope.”

Stability has been largely destroyed for many children living in Ebola-affected countries. Many have seen family members, friends and neighbors get infected, and many have become orphans as well. Ebola has also changed social mores. “Nobody shakes hands in public,” says Aoki. “It has put a lot of stress on children. There’s no cuddling, no hugging, no kissing. The simple joys of life have been taken away.”

Even before Ebola, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were economically troubled countries still emerging from conflict and civil war. Guinea and Liberia were in the process of increasing their school attendance numbers—Guinea was at 58% and Liberia was at 34%—and experts worry that Ebola has set progress back. School closures, including private schools, are also a bad economic indicator. Jeff Trudeau, the director of The American International School of Monrovia (AISM) told TIME in August that he lost more than half his expected students for the 2014 school year, many of whom were children of foreign families who moved to the region for jobs in Liberia’s burgeoning business sector. That school’s earliest possible start date is January and for others, there appear to be “moving” deadlines for reopening. Guinea is aiming for January while Liberia and Sierra Leone are hoping for March.

But all the countries will have to patiently wait until their caseloads are under control, since a premature opening may only add fuel to the fire.

TIME celebrities

Angelina Jolie Has a Cyber-Security Team Monitoring Her Kids’ Internet Use

2014 Variety Screening Series - "Difret" Screening
Executive producer Angelina Jolie attends the 2014 Variety Screening Series of "Difret" at ArcLight Hollywood on December 9, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Alberto E. Rodriguez—Getty Images

She says she and husband Brad Pitt, who don't use social media, "wouldn't even know what to look for."

Angelina Jolie describes herself as “old-school” when it comes to technology, preferring to write things down instead of posting them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram — none of which she uses.

But the Hollywood star may not be able to ask the same of her six children, which is why she tells People magazine in its latest cover story that she and husband Brad Pitt have hired a cyber-security team to monitor their Internet usage and exposure.

“It’s so beyond what we understand,” Jolie says. “We wouldn’t even know what to look for.”

Read more at People

TIME United Nations

UNICEF Declares 2014 a ‘Devastating’ Year for Children

Turkey Syria
A Syrian Kurdish refugee child from the Kobani area holds another's hand as he walks between tents at a camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border on Nov. 14, 2014. Vadim Ghirda—AP

Up to 15 million children are caught up in armed conflicts

A new report by the United Nations grimly labels 2014 one of the worst years for children on record.

The United Nation’s Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, reports that up to 15 million children have been exposed to violence in Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Ukraine. Across the world, the agency adds, 230 million youth live in lands torn by armed conflict. That figure includes those who are internally displaced or who have been refugees.

In West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak has proven deadly for more than 6,000 people, an estimated 5 million children ave been kept out of schools.

“This has been a devastating year for millions of children,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director. “Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.”

The agency called for a greater outpouring of humanitarian funding to help missions reach children in volatile and inaccessible areas.

TIME

Scooters Leading Cause of Toy-Related Injuries This Christmas

Young boy riding scooter
Jill Tindall—Getty Images

Toys are leaping off the shelves faster than ever now that we’ve officially entered the holiday season, but a new study finds that many toys cause serious injury to children. The study, out Dec. 1, from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, found that an estimated 3,278,073 kids in the United States were treated in emergency rooms after suffering toy-related injuries from 1990-2011. Even more alarming, every three minutes a child was treated for a toy-related injury in the year 2011 alone.

Toys foster imaginative learning and creativity, but parents may want to consider the types of toys their children are playing with. Study researchers found that the rate of toy-related injury rose by about 40 percent between 1990 and 2011–– in part because of the increased popularity of foot-powered scooters. From 2000 onward, there was an estimated one toy-related injury every 11 minutes, and children who were injured thanks to scooters were three times more likely to break or dislocate a bone.

“All children should use safety precautions when using a scooter or other riding toys,” says Dr. Gary Smith, study author and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy. “The first three safety tips I give for preventing injuries on those toys are: 1. Wear a helmet. 2. Wear a helmet. 3. Wear a helmet. Buy a scooter, buy a helmet.” He notes that any adult planning on giving a scooter to a child should also make sure to get a helmet that fits. And take worthwhile precautions: only ride scooters on flat, dry surfaces away from motor vehicle traffic.

Hundreds of toys are recalled every year for being defective (Mattel alone recalled 19 million toys back in 2007), and there are numerous other ways kids can inadvertently injure themselves while playing –– from choking on a Lego to getting hit with a rogue baseball. Yet, researchers found that falls and collisions (as opposed to other injuries such as ingestion or aspiration) were the most frequent cause of toy-related injuries among children in all age groups. Falls accounted for 46 percent and collisions were responsible for 22 percent of injuries.

While more than half of toy injuries are sustained by children younger than five, injuries due to riding toys like scooters were shown to increase later into childhood. A whopping 42 percent of injuries in children ages 5 to 17 were attributed to scooter, tricycle or wagon accidents, while only 28 percent of injuries in children under five were attributed to these ride-along toys. (Though, it’s worth noting, that young children are at an increased risk for swallowing or ingesting small toy parts.)

So, how can parents protect their children from toy-related injuries this holiday season? “First, follow a toy’s age restrictions and any other guidelines from the manufacturer,” says Smith. “If a package label says that children younger than 3 years of age should not use the toy inside, it often means that the toy poses a choking risk to young children because of small parts. In addition, parents should check the website, Recalls.gov, to be sure that toys they already own have not been recalled, especially since there have been hundreds of toy recalls in the last decade.”

For more parenting stories and advice on raising a child in today’s world, check out the new TIME for Family subscription.

TIME

Supreme Court to Determine Workplace Pregnancy Protections for Moms-To-Be

The court will hear a discrimination case that seeks to make clear what accommodations employers must make to expecting mothers

Should a pregnant worker have the right to workplace accommodations, such as a chair to sit on as she works a cash register or more frequent bathroom breaks during her job as a call center operator?

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was supposed to make the answers to those questions—in both instances—crystal clear. Congress passed it to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision that pregnancy discrimination is not sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But over the years, employers have reached differing conclusions about how the Act’s language should be interpreted—specifically the line that says employers must treat pregnant women the same as “other persons not so affected [by pregnancy] but similar in their ability or inability to work.” Some companies have read that phrase to mean that they must meet the needs of pregnant women the same as they would meet the needs of any other worker who’s similarly physically restricted. But other employers believe that so long as their policies are pregnancy-neutral—which often means considering pregnancy the same way they would an off-the-job injury that garners no special treatment—they’re in the clear.

United Parcel Service abided by the latter interpretation in 2006, when it denied former truck driver Peggy Young’s request for light duty during her pregnancy, which forced her into unpaid leave. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear Young’s case and ultimately rule on what accommodations employers must make under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a decision that could touchthe lives of the 68 million working women in the U.S. and the 62% of new moms in the last year who were part of the workforce.

“This case is of particular importance because so many working women are now working well into their pregnancy,” says Katherine Kimpel, a lawyer at Sanford Heisler who specializes in gender and race discrimination and who filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Young. In the U.S., 65% of working, first-time mothers stayed on the job into their last month of their pregnancy, Kimpel says. Among full-time workers, that figure surges to 87%.

All the while, pregnancy discrimination cases are on the rise. In fiscal year 2013, 5,342 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions and state and local Fair Employment Practices agencies, up from 3,900 in 1997. “For those reasons, how employers think about accommodating pregnancy really matters,” Kimpel says.

Peggy Young started working for UPS in 1999; in 2002, she took on a part-time role as a truck driver, picking up air shipments. Four years later, she took a leave of absence to receive in vitro fertilization. When she became pregnant and a midwife instructed her not to lift packages over 20 pounds, Young asked to return to UPS to do either light duty or her regular job as a truck driver, which seldom required her to lift heavy boxes. According to Young’s Supreme Court petition, her manager told her that UPS offered light duty to workers who sustained on-the-job injuries, employees with ailments covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, and those who had lost Department of Transportation certification because of physical aliments like sleep apnea; not—the manager said—to pregnant workers. UPS wouldn’t allow Young to return to her former role either since her lifting restriction made her a liability. As a result, Young was required to go on extended, unpaid leave, during which she lost her medical coverage.

Young sued UPS in October 2008 for allegedly violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act since the company failed to provide Young with the same accommodations it gave to employees who were not pregnant but equally unable to work. Young has lost the two previous rulings in the case. A district court decided in February 2011 that UPS’s decision not to accommodate Young was “gender-neutral” and ruled in the company’s favor. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed that decision, ruling UPS had established a “pregnancy-blind policy.”

Since the Supreme Court decided to hear the case in July, UPS has announced changes to its policy for pregnant workers. Next year, it will offer temporary light duty to pregnant workers who need it. Despite that reversal, UPS maintains that its denial of Young’s light duty request was lawful at the time and that its policy change is voluntary and not required by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief supporting UPS, calling attention to companies that offer pregnant employees “more than what federal law compels them to provide.”

Young, meanwhile, has received support from across the political spectrum. Pro-life organizations as well as groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have filed briefs backing Young and calling on the high court to rule in favor of workplace accommodations for expecting mothers.

The justices will hear Young’s case nearly six months after the EEOC issued new guidelines to employers on how to treat pregnant workers amid the increase in bias complaints.

“There are lots of women like Peggy Young who need temporary changes at work during pregnancy and too often, even if employers are routinely accommodating disabled workers, pregnant workers are pushed out to unpaid leave or fired,” says Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of National Women’s Law Center. “This case is really about whether pregnant women will continue to be asked to make the impossible choice between their jobs and their health.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Parenting

Raising a Deaf Child Makes the World Sound Different

baby ear
Getty Images

When I found out my son couldn’t hear, I figured out that I wasn’t really listening, either

Just before my youngest son Alex turned two, we discovered that he had significant hearing loss that was likely to get worse. A few weeks later, I found myself in the gym at the school my two older boys attended. I was there for the regular Friday morning assembly. I’d been in that gym dozens of times for such events—dutifully clapping and cheering, chatting with other parents, and then moving on with my day.

On this morning, my routine was upended. The noise of the kids filing in echoed through the bleachers; the PA system squealed once or twice. When quiet kids took the microphone it was hard to hear them. All of that was normal, yet I hadn’t really noticed it before. Now, I was hearing the world differently, imagining it through the ears—and the hearing aids—of Alex, who might someday be a student here. Having a deaf child, I realized, was going to teach me to listen.

Once I started listening, I started to learn. Research came naturally—I am a journalist—and became my coping mechanism. Through books, conferences, and conversations with as many experts as possible, I began to understand the power of sound—how the speech of parents and caregivers and teachers shapes a child’s spoken language; and then, how a child’s own spoken language—the rhythm and the rate of it—helps that child learn to read. I also saw and heard more clearly the troublesome effects of sound’s alter ego, noise—the unwanted, unlovely cacophony of our industrial world, or the magnified, amplified effect of too many people talking, or music that’s too loud or intrusive.

What struck me most was that sound doesn’t matter any less for hearing children like my older boys. From the minute a child is born, every experience that child has is being etched into his or her brain. Sound, or its absence, is part of that experience. Neurons make connections with each other, or don’t; the auditory system develops or doesn’t, based on experience. Sound is essential for anyone learning to speak and to listen—and that includes every hearing child, as well as every deaf and hard of hearing child using hearing aids or cochlear implants, which send sound signals directly to the auditory nerve.

Before we figured out that Alex couldn’t hear, he was using every visual cue available—smiles and frowns, waving hands, pointing fingers—in order to make sense of his world. For a time, he compensated well enough to fool us into thinking he could hear, but he couldn’t keep up once his peers started talking.

Both the quantity and the quality of the words children hear in their first years affect language development. Over time, as kids have more experience listening, the auditory processing in their brains speeds up and becomes more efficient. The repetition, rhythm, and rhyme in nursery rhymes, poetry, music and even Dr. Seuss help children learn language by getting them to listen for patterns. That listening practice then forges the neural networks necessary for reading because an ability to make sense of what you hear and break speech into syllables and phonemes is the foundation of reading. How a child reacts to sound—meaning how efficiently his or her brain processes it—on the first day of kindergarten correlates to how many words per minute that child will read in fourth grade. It turns out that problems with processing sound are at the heart of the majority of reading problems. On the other hand, children who read well have built strong brain circuits connecting hearing, vision, and language.

It’s important to note that if a deaf child is going to grow up using sign language, he does not need sound in order to develop that language because his world is visual. Sign language, if it’s a first language, gets laid down in the brain in the same areas as spoken language does in those who learn to speak. Reading, however, is another question. Native signers must learn to read in what to them is a second language, and deaf students have historically struggled with reading in numbers far greater than their hearing peers.

When Alex did eventually attend school with his brothers, he was using a hearing aid in one ear and a cochlear implant in the other. It turned out that small strategies designed to improve the classroom environment for him benefitted everyone. After we taught Alex to politely ask his friends to speak up or repeat themselves, circle time was suddenly full of children using their manners to do the same because no one else could hear the shy kids who mostly whispered. None of the children in his first grade classroom heard the math assignment because the air conditioner sounded like a standing mixer. Swapping out the old equipment helped 20 kids, not one. Ditto for adding carpeting and curtains, and covering the metal legs of chairs. According to the Acoustical Society of America, noise levels in many classrooms are loud enough that those with normal hearing can hear only 75 percent of words read from a list.

Something else happened, too. Alex’s needs subtly shifted some of the group dynamics, encouraging a new level of attention. Hearing people don’t have to look at someone who’s talking to take in what they say, but deaf people do. Although Alex’s hearing equipment does allow him to hear without looking, he still benefits from visual cues, and in his classes we applied a lesson from American Sign Language about the need for eye contact. The lovely thing about looking at someone when that person is speaking is that instead of just appearing to pay attention, you probably actually are.

Paying attention matters on a deeper level. Children’s ability to pay attention matures over time just as their language does. And like language, selective attention—the kind kids need in the classroom—is affected by experience. Practice and you get better at it. Neuroscientists have shown that when children pay attention they learn. Focusing on something specific—one voice over another or your book instead of your friend—results in a bigger response in the brain measured in electrical activity even in children as young as three. That bigger response helps build networks between neurons and trains the brain to learn.

Alex is now in sixth grade at that same school. I can’t change the acoustics of the cafeteria, but in the classroom, we still begin every school year reminding his teachers to stop and listen. We encourage them to amplify sound by, for instance, remembering to face students instead of the board and to damp down noise by consistently keeping hallway doors shut and the like.

At home, the boys used to do homework at the kitchen table while I cooked dinner and occasionally stepped in to quiz them or offer suggestions, often without leaving whatever was simmering on the stove. I no longer do it that way. I turn off the radio and hush my older sons then I sit next to Alex (or whichever boy needs help) and give him my full attention. He learns the material better, and I learn more about him. I wish I had never done it any other way.

Lydia Denworth is the author of I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey through the Science of Sound and Language. She is a blogger for Psychology Today and contributes to Scientific American Mind, Parents, and many other publications.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

When One Twin is More Academically Gifted

My son tested into the gifted program at school, but my daughter didn't. Should I split them up?

Splitting up twins in school is never easy. But splitting up twins so that one goes on the advanced learning track and the other follows the regular program is one of the most agonizing decisions a parent can face. And no amount of Internet searches will give you helpful advice. The consensus: Figure it out, parents. That’s what you’re (not) paid for.

As you may have guessed, I have twins, a boy and a girl, and they’re in the first grade. I happen to be a fraternal twin myself, so I’m sensitive to always being compared to a sibling. My son is like his engineer father —completely committed to being a lovable nerd. The other day he found a book of math problems at Barnes and Noble and was so excited it was as if Santa arrived, handed him a gift, and then let him ride a reindeer. My daughter is like her freelance writer mother – studying is not really her thing. She reminds me of the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who is to inherit a large amount of land and says, “But I don’t want any of that. I’d rather sing!” That’s my girl.

We were first introduced to our school’s Spectrum (advanced learning) program last year in Seattle, Washington at the beginning of kindergarten. The kids could be tested that year and would enter the program—or not—in first grade. I hadn’t really thought about whether to have my kids tested. Other parents apparently had. One asked: “Should we have our child practice at home with the same kind of mouse they’re going to use in the test?”

In the beginning, my husband and I laughed at the idea of advanced learning in the first grade. We joked about “Level Two Crayons” and “Expert Alphabet.” But then, as the day to decide about testing came closer, we started hearing from our son’s teacher about how gifted he was. What first grader wants to practice math and reading on his own during the evenings and weekends? My son. And then there was my daughter, who was right on track, but, like most kids her age, was happy to leave school stuff at school. “Let’s just get them both tested and see what happens,” I said.

As far as my kids knew, they were just going to school to talk about what they know and what they don’t. They were never told that the results of the test had any sort of consequences and weren’t the least bit curious. But when we got the results–my son tested into the advanced program and my daughter didn’t–I immediately became anxious. I wanted to let my son move into the advanced program because I knew he would love it and thrive. But I worried for my vibrant, passionate daughter who at the age of six doesn’t think she has any limits. How was I going to separate her from her brother because he could do something better?

As a child I never felt smart enough. Not because of my twin sister, but because of my mother, who was brilliant. She used her intelligence to get off of the Kentucky farm where she grew up and into a New York City law firm. She placed a lot of value on the power of education and what good grades could do. I felt perpetually unable to meet her high expectations. Now I had a daughter who, in kindergarten, was already resistant to doing her reading homework. I was terrified that placing her brother in a higher academic track would affect my daughter’s self-esteem.

I contacted Christina Baglivi Tingloff from the site Talk About Twins. She’s a mother of adult twins and author of six books, including Double Duty and Parenting School-Age Twins and Multiples. “It’s tough when twins differ in abilities,” she says, “and I’d say that it’s the biggest challenge of parenting multiples. [But] kids take their cues from their parents. If you make this a non-issue in your household, I think your kids will follow suit.”

My husband and I have no lofty goals for our kids besides wanting them to be able to pay their own bills, not hurt themselves or anyone else, and be happy. “So many parents of twins try to even the playing field,” says Tingloff. “In my opinion, that’s a bad course of action because…kids then never develop a strong emotional backbone. Your job as a parent is to help them deal with the disappointments in life.”

We ended up putting our son in the Spectrum program and our daughter in the regular learning track. In the years to come, I will make sure that they understand that advanced or regular doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different. I want both of my children to do the best they can, whether that means taking advanced classes or singing the hell out of the school musical.

When my daughter wanders through the house making up her own songs and singing at the top of her voice, I support her…most of the time. “Really encourage your daughter in the arts,” says Tingloff. “Find her spotlight. At some point her brother will look at her accomplishments and say, ‘Wow, I can’t do that.'” While I had been worrying all this time about my daughter feeling outshined by her brother, I had never considered that he might also feel outperformed by her.

Despite all of my talk about how my daughter’s interests were every bit as valid as her brother’s, I had not been treating them the same. I saw the dance and drama as diversions and hobbies. I never gave those talents the respect that I gave to her brother’s academic interests.

Now that I am more aware of how I have been valuing their different strengths, I’ll be able to give my daughter’s interests the same amount of focus and praise as her brother’s. Hopefully, I can assure them that our only concern is their happiness. Then my husband and son can go do math problems together, and take things apart to see how they work, and my daughter and I will lay on the grass and find shapes in the clouds while we wonder about the world and sing.

The truth is, both my kids are gifted.

 

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