MONEY online shopping

How to Stop Facebook from Ruining Your Holiday Gift Surprises

Wrapped bicycle
Michael Blann—Getty Images

Parents who shop online—so all parents, basically—need to know how easy it is for kids to find out what they're getting for the holidays.

Every week, it seems, there’s a new scandal about email passwords being stolen or retail customers’ data being hacked by stealthy cyber criminals. Yet such incidents represent only a teeny-tiny slice of how our online behavior is spied upon and used. In the vast majority of cases, our data is tracked and used in entirely legal ways by search engines, social media, retailers, and advertisers. Legal or not, the repercussions of such tracking—and the ads that inevitably follow—can feel like an ongoing privacy violation.

What’s more, targeted ads come with the potential of revealing secrets about what people have been searching, browsing, and buying online. While the results are generally not nearly as devastating as identity theft, they can create tense situations. In probably the most notorious example, a father found out his high school daughter was pregnant only after Target had sent her coupons for cribs and other baby products—offers that were based on her shopping history.

This time of year, the relentless stream of targeted (also known as “interest-based” or “retargeted”) ads that pop up in banners or on the side of web pages also come with the potential of ruining a holiday gift surprise. Say a mom does some browsing online for presents for her son. Soon thereafter, the items she viewed start showing up in ads on the device that was used, along with ads “inspired” by her browsing history.” If and when the would-be recipient hops on the same device, he’ll see all of those ads. Without much sleuthing, he’ll be clued in about what mom was shopping for, and he’ll have a good idea to expect the new Nike high-tops, game console, or whatever come December 25. So much for the big reveal.

It’s unclear how often this scenario plays out, but it’s a possibility some parents worry about. “I guess you have to pick btw letting your kids use the computer and shopping online, since custom ads follow you and spoil gift surprises,” one mom tweeted recently. Last year the founder of Marketing Land wrote at length about his wife’s frustrated attempts to stop banner ads from Macy’s, ThinkGeek, and other retailers she shopped from popping up on the computer she often shared with her kids.

It’s not just parents who worry about blown surprises. One Reddit user recently posted, coyly and excitedly, that her longtime boyfriend had been getting engagement ring ads in his Facebook feed. Surely, she felt, this was an indication that he was getting ready to pop the question. One commenter followed up with a story about a friend whose boyfriend also was flooded with engagement ring ads before he proposed. Then, as soon as she changed her status to “engaged,” she was slammed with weight loss ads offering to provide assistance “fitting into your dress.” Naturally, the baby-related ads followed after the wedding took place.

“You’re stalked with ads related to what you’ve been shopping for all the time,” says Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned computer security expert and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Security. Nonetheless, Schneier thinks it’s probably “a rare occurrence” for people to correctly deduce what they’ll be getting as holiday gifts based on the ads they see on a shared computer. “When a kid sees an ad for an Xbox, he’s probably just going to think I want an Xbox, not Mom got me an Xbox.”

For that matter, the presence of these ads is no indication of whether anything was actually purchased. As an Al Jazeera column about “curated” and “retargeted” ads noted, consumers can be “stalked by socks” and other items they browsed while shopping online regardless of whether or not they purchased the goods, or whether they searched for such goods randomly, as a goof, or out of genuine interest. “Personalized ads can be right, but they’re often wrong” in terms of being truly appealing to the right set of eyes, Schneier says.

Most e-retailers offer consumers the right to opt out of being subjected to tracking and retargeted ads, but Schneier thinks doing so is a waste of time. Not only are the processes for opting out convoluted and filled with loopholes, there are so many digitized eyeballs monitoring your online activity that successfully negating them one at a time is virtually impossible.

It’s much better and more effective, he says, to install a tool such as Adblock Plus (which blocks some or all ads according to filters checked by the user), Privacy Badger (which automatically blocks trackers or ads that it deems to violate “the principle of user consent”), or some combination of several blockers. Others recommend shopping online in private browsing mode; when using Google Chrome Incognito, for instance, the browser doesn’t save a record of what sites have been visited, and therefore (theoretically) there should later be no retargeted ads that surface as a result.

If you’re dealing with an especially stubborn child or spouse who has a history of noticing what online ads foretell in terms of holiday gifts, you might want to try a different strategy: Spend some time here and there clicking on all sorts of items haphazardly, or purposely browse for things you know he’d absolutely hate to receive on Christmas. The resulting collection of retargeted ads is likely to be so random, nonsensical, and disappointing that it’ll throw him off the trail and he’ll have no clue what you actually bought.

As a bonus, you’ll simultaneously be messing with the retailers, browsers, and other bots that generate these annoying ads in the first place.

MORE:
What Should I Do If I’ve Been the Victim of a Data Breach?

TIME Family

Divorce Rates Are Falling—But Marriage Is Still on the Rocks

Studio shot of bride and groom figurines
Antonio M. Rosario—Getty Images

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is the author of four books, including Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age and Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men Into Boys.

Hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.

Tuesday’s New York Times’s Upshot section featured an article by Claire Cain Miller entitled “The Divorce Surge is Over, but the Myth Lives On.” The piece got a good deal of attention, but Miller manages to reinforce some myths of her own.

That’s not to say the piece is wrong in its basic facts. The divorce surge is over. (Or most people believe it is: this paper offers an alternate take.) In truth, the rise in divorce has been over for 20 years. Divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president and the Internet was only a mite in the eye of wierdos hanging out in California garages. In fact, this “news” may well be older than many of its readers who were probably not even been born when divorce rates were already on the downswing.

It’s also the case that people remain strangely attached to the idea that half of all marriages end in divorce despite numerous stories over the years showing otherwise. Miller links to one of those stories—from 2005, that is, nine years ago. I myself published a book that took stock of the trends in 2006. Family scholars have talked about the turn-around in divorce rates repeatedly. Yet the myth lives on. If you want proof of that, check out the media reaction to the Times piece: a “fascinating story” in the words of the Clarion Ledger; “surprisingly optimistic numbers,” marveled the Huffintgton Post.

So why has this particular myth been so difficult to extract from the hive mind? Why are people so (ahem) wedded to an idea that is not only untrue but has been for almost a generation? Two reasons. The first will no doubt sound clichéd: Hollywood. In la-la land divorce is about as common as Botox. When beautiful, famous people split up, fan magazines, entertainment networks, and social media sites spring into action, making sure we see albums of photos of crying, stoic, rehabbed, and then newly partnered, actors and actresses claiming they’ve never been happier. Social psychologists refer to a cognitive bias they call the “availability heuristic.” Striking events—plane crashes, Ebola cases, the Kardashians—make the weird seem more commonplace than it is precisely because the brain is so impressed by it. Of course, the availability heuristic gets some help from the television shows and movies these same famous people write, star in, and produce about marital crackups that often bear a striking resemblance to their own.

The second reason the myth lives on is not only more troubling but exemplified by the Times article that seeks to dismantle it. The younger generation, whether they know divorce is declining or not, believes that marriage is on the rocks. From their vantage point, they’re right. While fewer American adults have been divorcing over the past decades, a growing number of people in their own cohort have grown up apart from one parent, almost always their fathers.

How can divorce be declining but at the same time more children growing up with single parents? Because—and this is the story that Miller underplays—so many parents never marry in the first place. A little history is in order here: When divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s, American were not simply suddenly looking at their spouses and deciding en masse that they couldn’t take it anymore. They were reacting to a changing understanding about what marriage meant. Instead of an arrangement largely centered around providing for and rearing the next generation, it was becoming an adult-centric union based on love and shared happiness, which as an upper middle class grew in size, became closely linked to granite countered kitchens, European and spa vacations, and weddings with 200 guests.

One big reason that divorce rates began to fall after 1980 was that people, almost always those with less education and less income for the required accouterments of marriage, took the logic of the divorce revolution and ran with it. If marriage and childbearing were no longer tightly linked but rather discreet—even unrelated—life events, and if they were not earning enough to enjoy the middle class status objects enjoyed by their more educated peers, then why marry at all? Why not just have kids without getting married? While college educated women continued to demand a ring before they became mothers, the percentage of poor women having kids outside of marriage was already on the rise; now working class women, many of them temporarily cohabiting with their child’s father, also bypassed the chapel on the way to the maternity ward. In his forthcoming book Labor’s Loves Lost, Andrew Cherlin quotes one young unmarried father this way: “You need way better reasons than having a kid to get married.”

By missing this larger picture, Miller ends up adding single parents—who after all have a null chance of divorce—to good news numbers about marital stability. Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles from the Population Center at the University of Minnesota try to take into account the new reality in a recent paper. Their findings are sobering: “because cohabitation makes up a rapidly growing percentage of all unions,” they write, it has “an increasing impact on overall union instability.” And by accepting that marriage and children are unrelated, she can ignore the biggest problem with this rising instability. Experts have shown us in a virtual library of research papers that the children of single parents are at greater risk of everything from poverty to school failure to imprisonment. Their large numbers will almost surely help perpetuate inequality, poverty, and immobility.

“Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time,” Miller writes. As it happens, hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.

That is, for anyone concerned about inequality and America’s lower income children.

 

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 Family

Tips on How to Talk to Your Kids About Ferguson

Scott Olson—Getty Images A Ferguson firefighter surveys rubble at a strip mall that was set on fire when rioting erupted following the grand jury announcement in the Michael Brown case on Nov. 25, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

Experts suggest that it's important to get the conversation going

We’d all love for our kids to be able to get along with all kinds of people. And school curricula are full of chatter about how to celebrate our diversity.

But the fact is, people from different backgrounds don’t always see eye to eye. And sometimes those tensions can raise deep questions for kids, like the nationwide protests that have erupted over the events in Ferguson, Missouri. These stories may be especially disturbing for kids when they involve children near their age, like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.

Race is such a tough topic that it can be tempting to avoid, especially for white families, who are three times less likely to discuss race than families of color, according to a recent study by the Journal of Marriage and Family. But race is an important subject for every family to address. Research suggests that kids who talk openly about race in their families are less prejudiced and that kids who make friends from different backgrounds have better social skills.

So how can we talk with our kids, not just about diversity, but about the tensions our differences can create?

Elementary School: Young children may be frightened by the images they see on the news, Cynthia Rogers, an instructor in child psychology at Washington University in St. Louis has observed. It’s important to let them share these feelings, and also to assure them that they are safe. But even at a very young age, studies have shown, kids already notice the differences between themselves and others. So, experts like Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology at Berkley, recommend that parents talk about difference. The central message to communicate: it’s okay to be different. In fact, our differences are something to explore and celebrate.

Middle School: Just as with anything else, kids learn best about race by actual experience, not lectures. As kids form friendships in middle school, encourage them to connect with kids from different backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to talk about those differences with your kids. And be open to the fact that your family isn’t “normal” to everyone else. In fact, when we connect with families from different backgrounds, we may learn just as much about how different we seem to them.

High School: At this age, students will be aware of big events like Ferguson, and have their own opinions, Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University professor with a focus on African-American history has noted. So parents can encourage high school students to share those thoughts and feelings. And also encourage them to learn about the history of race and civil rights, so that their understanding can grow as they absorb new perspectives.

The bottom line on talking about race with kids: just talk. We don’t have to have all the right answers for our kids to grow up with less prejudice. We just have to start the conversation. And if you want to go a bit deeper on how to use the events in Ferguson as a springboard for more discussion, a bunch of academics have put together some reading lists on Twitter under the hashtag #fergusoncurriculum

This post originally appeared in the T/Parents newsletter. Sign up to get it in your inbox every week.

TIME Sports

Football Head Impacts Can Cause Brain Changes Even Without Concussion

Tetra Images - Erik Isakson—Getty Images/Brand X

New study looks at high school athletes

As the world mourns the loss of Ohio State University football player Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead in an apparent suicide on Nov. 30, concerns about the long term effects of head injuries sustained by footballers continue to mount. A day after Karageorge’s death, a study has been released that suggests sports-related head impacts can cause changes in the brain even when there are no outward signs of a concussion.

In fact, researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., say some high school football players in the study exhibited measurable brain changes after a single season of play, even in the absence of concussion.

The Wake Forest team, lead by Dr. Christopher Whitlow, focused on youth players, a group that until now had been widely overlooked in the research into the effects of the repetitive head impacts associated with a typical season of football. “For every one NFL player, there are 2,000 youth players. That’s close to four million youth players and the vast majority of research on impact-related brain injuries has been on the college and professional level,” says Dr. Whitlow, noting that two-thirds of head impacts occur in practice sessions, not games.

Read More: High School Football Player Dies After Injury

In the first-of-its-kind study, the researchers hooked up 24 high school football players between the ages of 16 and 18 with helmet-mounted sensors to assess the frequency and severity of helmet impacts and then sent them out to play ball. As the players hit the field, the sensors allowed the researchers to monitor the severity of players’ head impacts. The team collected data from the helmets before and after every game and the high school students also underwent pre- and post-season diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the brain. “We looked at both structural and functional neuro-imaging and evaluated the players’ neuro-cognitive function,” he says.

“We found some changes in the brain that are concerning,” said Dr. Whitlow. “They are concerning because kids with more impacts had more changes and the kids with fewer impacts had fewer changes.”

While none of the football players were concussed during the season, the researchers found that there were microstructural changes in all of the players’ brains, especially in those players who were deemed “heavy hitters.” That direct correlation between game-related hits and changes in the brain is not exactly surprising, but may be unsettling for parents of youth football players.

Read More: The Tragic Risks of American Football

Not that Dr. Whitlow wants people to pull their kids from the peewee leagues or ban high school football just yet. “The high school athletes weren’t experiencing any of the classic symptoms of concussion—dizziness, nausea or double vision,” he says. “While the changes in the brains are concerning, because there were no symptoms of concussions, we don’t yet know how important these changes are.”

Dr. Whitlow sees the results of the study as only the first step in identifying a potential problem with allowing youth players to continue to play ball. He and his team want to determine whether these changes in the brain are permanent or transient and whether they are associated with subtle changes in neuro-cognitive functions. “Once we can identify risks, we can intervene to reduce those risks,” he says. Interventions could include improvements in technology and helmet safety, identifying maneuvers that could be particularly dangerous, making changes in the diagnoses of head injuries and identifying subtle changes that could be harmful.

So what’s a parent to do? Dr. Whitlow suggests they get involved in their kids’ practices. “You have to put these risks in the context of the health-related benefits of playing sports. The take home message is that parents need to use common sense. The best thing for parents to do is know what is going on on the field, know the symptoms of concussions, get to know the coaches, find out if there is a trainer on the field who can diagnose concussions.” He also directed parents to SaveInjuredKids.org for ideas on how to reduce head injuries and to learn to identify the signs of concussion.

“Football is the great American pastime,” said Dr. Whitlow. “I think it’s going to be around for another hundred years and what we’re trying to do is make it safer.”

Got Kids? Special Offer for Families from TIME

TIME Family

Breakfast: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Bob Thomas;Getty Images

New study suggests morning meal is no academic cure-all

Breakfast has long been considered the most important meal of the day, especially for elementary school students. Everyone from parents, to teachers, to cereal manufacturers have touted the importance of a nutritional morning meal, but is there evidence to back the positive effect of breakfast on academic performance? A recent study has somewhat muddied the waters on this issue.

A 2005 study by Tufts University researchers found that elementary school children who ate common breakfast foods (oatmeal and cereal) once a day for three consecutive weeks scored better on a battery of cognitive tests—particularly on measures of short term memory, spatial memory and auditory attention. But a study out on Nov. 24, also from Tufts, finds that students enrolled in Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) programs did not obtain higher math and reading standardized test scores than students in non-BIC schools.

Like the national School Breakfast Program (which provides free or low-cost breakfast to children before the start of the school day), Breakfast in the Classroom meals are available to all students regardless of income level. However, BIC is served in the classroom after the opening bell—ensuring that children enjoy a well-balanced meal without having to wake up early and get to school in time for SBP. Students in 18 states across the nation have had the benefit of a free in-classroom breakfast with their peers thanks to BIC, a huge feat considering that millions of children live in households where a healthy breakfast isn’t an option. But while the immediate nutritional value of Breakfast in the Classroom is apparent, research is ongoing as to how the program affects academic achievement.

In order to ascertain whether students in BIC programs performed better academically, Tufts researchers looked at 446 public elementary schools in urban areas that served low income minority students—189 of which did not participate in BIC during the 2012-2013 school year, and 257 of which did. While BIC schools demonstrated increased overall attendance, there was no notable difference in academic achievement between BIC and non-BIC schools—specifically regarding standardized tests in math and reading.

The results are curious, because the increased attendance at BIC schools presumably means that more students are getting more instruction on important coursework, yet the scores didn’t point to better results. It’s possible that breakfast programs aren’t the solution to narrowing the achievement gap between children whose families face poverty and those who don’t, as educators were hoping.

Tufts researchers, however, insist that the study’s failure to duplicate previous findings that breakfast increases academic performance shouldn’t necessarily cause parents to doubt the benefits of BIC —nor the importance of a healthy breakfast in general.

“These findings should not be interpreted as a definitive conclusion on whether Breakfast in the Classroom affects achievement,” says study author and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy research associate Stephanie Anzman-Frasca.”There are a number of potential explanations for the lack of differences in standardized test scores across schools with and without Breakfast in the Classroom.”

One of those explanations might be that schools often encourage parents to feed kids breakfast on test days, so students who weren’t in the program may have arrived well fed anyway. There’s also the question of whether standardized tests are an appropriate measure for academic achievement. “Given the mixed findings across studies linking school breakfast and academics, it is important to continue to conduct research in this area, with longer-term follow-ups and multiple measures of academic outcomes, before drawing definitive conclusions,” adds Anzman Frasca.

Rather than abandoning the programs, she’s calling for more research. “Collecting multiple measures of academic performance, such as test scores as well as classroom behavior and attention, would be a good way to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Breakfast in the Classroom’s impacts as research in this area continues.”

TIME Parenting

Problems With Breastfeeding Triggered My Postpartum Depression

baby and milk
Getty Images

I really felt that my inability to exclusively breastfeed my son was a complete personal failure that would affect him for the rest of his life

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

When I was pregnant, I was all about breastfeeding. I knew it was the best, healthiest, smartest way to feed my unborn baby. I read “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” and “Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding” and I was convinced that my baby and I would be naturals at it. I scoffed at the price of formula in the pharmacy. I wondered who would choose to buy it when you have perfectly good, milk-producing boobs attached to you, giving out baby food for FREE.

I planned to nurse my baby wherever I was if he or she needed to eat and I DARED anyone to say anything nasty or ignorant. I even looked up the damn laws regarding public breastfeeding in NYC and whether anyone could legally ask you to cover up. I was just so sure that breastfeeding would come so easily to us; I didn’t even acknowledge the fact that it might not work out.

Then my son was born. The blissful, drug-free birth I hoped for turned into an elective C-section when my OB demonstrated for me exactly how small the opening between my hip bones was during a painful pelvic exam. Basically, there was little chance my 8lb 13oz baby was going to come out without significant trauma to both of us.

I went past my due date with my cervix still high, closed and tight. My doctor advised that we could induce (which I was not a good candidate for given the state of my cervix) where I would go through painful, drug-induced contractions for up to three days. If my big baby didn’t come out by then, I would have to get a cesarean. Or, we could just cut to the chase (pun intended) and I could have the C-section without the three days of hell prior to it. It was a no-brainer — I scheduled the surgery for the next day.

The C-section was successful and my beautiful, healthy boy was born kicking and screaming. In fact, he gave a brilliant demonstration of how well his kidneys were functioning by peeing on the doctor seconds after he took his first breath. We did skin-to-skin contact to stimulate milk production and he latched on like a champ as soon as we hit the recovery room. He nursed contentedly and everything was going just as I hoped it would, until our first night home from the hospital.

He nursed for close to two hours before we went to bed. Being the naive first-time parents that we were, we assumed he would sleep for HOURS after eating that much. We were quickly proved wrong when he woke up screaming 20 minutes later. After diapering him, burping him, rocking him, swaddling him, and trying every other trick the nurses in the hospital taught us to soothe his cries, we realized he must be hungry. I put him to the breast and he popped off, screaming.

After trying this for close to an hour with no success, and both my husband and I nearing exhaustion, we fed him a bottle of the ready-to-feed formula gifted to us by the hospital “just in case” he had trouble nursing when we got home. He sucked it down as if he hadn’t eaten in days and slept peacefully for hours, but I lay awake guiltily crying at how I had failed my son.

Things didn’t get easier as time passed. Even if he would nurse, he would scream minutes after finishing. It was clear he wasn’t getting the nourishment he needed from me. I used a breast pump round the clock since he continued to refuse my breast but had no trouble drinking from a bottle. Every mommy-blog I read said to withhold bottle feedings so he would take the breast but it broke my heart every time I heard his hungry cries and I would give in and feed him either pumped breast milk or formula. I became totally exhausted because the only time I could pump was when he slept, going against the age-old “sleep when baby sleeps” maxim.

When I wasn’t pumping, I was poring over articles about how to increase milk supply and drinking teas designed to increase production.

Exhaustion is one of the main contributing factors to postpartum depression and before I knew it I was crying multiple times a day about my perceived failings as a mother. I felt so much guilt every time I gave him a bottle that wasn’t breast milk, but pumping doesn’t maintain a milk supply the way that a baby nursing directly from the breast does.

In addition to my guilt, I felt rejected since my son wouldn’t nurse from me. I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me that I couldn’t master breastfeeding, which I foolishly thought would be the most natural thing in the world. The blogs stressed that I should just continue to offer the breast and pump every two hours. I felt weak when I would choose a short nap over pumping. I hated myself whenever I allowed someone else to give him a bottle so I could get a few hours of sleep.

I constantly second guessed myself and my abilities as a mother. In my darkest moments, I wondered if it was a mistake to have a baby in the first place. I wondered where I got off thinking I was capable of caring for another human being. I wept for my poor son who was stuck with a mother who was so woefully unable to give him the care he deserved. It felt like a cruel joke. I felt miserable during the time in my life that should have been the most joyful.

I saw a lactation consultant and she confirmed that my baby was only getting a fraction of the milk that he needed by nursing. My milk supply was plentiful at that time as a result of my round the clock pumping, my baby’s latch was perfect, and his sucking reflex was strong. We just couldn’t find a reason why nursing was unsuccessful.

I felt some relief that my problems with breastfeeding weren’t entirely my fault. But I couldn’t get over the idea that maybe if I just tried a little harder or read a few more articles that I could get it right. I really felt that my inability to exclusively breastfeed my son was a complete personal failure that would affect him for the rest of his life. Every time he refused the breast and I had to give him formula, I was devastated.

This went on for two weeks, although it felt much longer. I didn’t know if I would ever feel happy again. I went to my OB to have my stitches removed and when she asked me how I was feeling, I completely broke down. Somehow she convinced me that giving my son formula didn’t make me a bad mother while dabbing my tears away with gauze.

She reminded me that motherhood didn’t equal martyr-hood and that I needed to take care of myself in order to give my sweet baby the best care possible.

Once I took that to heart, and allowed myself to sleep without feeling guilty that I wasn’t pumping, I felt better within days. I felt like my pre-baby self again and for the first time since we got home from the hospital, I really enjoyed being a mom.

My son just turned three months old and he is thriving. I still pump, and I still feel guilty sometimes. But my baby is happy and healthy and I know I’m doing the very best I can, for both of us.

My copious middle of the night research on formula vs. breast milk lead to me recent studies which suggest that maybe breast milk isn’t that superior to formula after all. I know that every time I heard “breast is best,” a little piece of my heart broke that I had to give my baby less than the best.

So much of the literature on baby care completely ignores self-care for mothers. Maybe instead of pushing something that is unattainable for so many mothers, we as a society should just advocate whatever is best for baby AND mom — even if that means formula feeding.

Kaity Garcia is an executive assistant working for an international investment bank in New York.

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 Parenting

The Cult of Kiddie Danger

swings
Getty Images

We think we are enlightened in this quest to keep kids safe. Actually, we have entered a new Dark Ages, fearing evil all around us.

The Richland, WA, school district is phasing out swings on its playgrounds. As the district’s spokesman recently told KEPR TV: “It’s just really a safety issue. Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

Ah yes, those dangling doom machines. All they sow is death and despair.

But while this sounds like yet another example of how liability concerns are killing childhood (seen a see-saw anywhere in the last 20 years? A slide higher than your neck?), it’s deeper than that. Insurance underwriters are merely the high priests of what has become our new American religion: the Cult of Kiddie Danger. It is founded on the unshakable belief that our kids are in constant danger from everyone and everything.

The devout pray like this: “Oh Lord, show me the way my child is in deathly danger from __________, that I may cast it out.” And then they fill in the blank with anything we might have hitherto considered allowing our children to eat, watch, visit, touch, or do, e.g., “Sleep over at a friend’s,” “Microwave the macaroni in a plastic dish,” or even, “Play outside, unsupervised.”

The Cult’s dogma is taught diligently unto our children who are not allowed to use Chapstick unless it is administered by the school nurse, nor sunscreen, lest they quaff it and die of poisoning, nor, for the same reason, soft soap in pre-k. It doesn’t matter that these fears are wildly at odds with reality. They are religious beliefs, not rational ones.

What’s more, this is a state religion, so the teachings are enforced by the cops and courts. Those who step outside the orthodoxy face punishment swift and merciless.

You can’t step outside at all, in fact. Americans are not allowed to believe any public place is safe for their children, ever, without constant supervision. Trust is taboo.

The logical under-current is illogical, as it’s based on a hapless understanding of basic statistics. How many children are kidnapped by strangers in a year? About one in 1.5 million — those are incredibly great odds. But odds don’t matter when we’re evangelizing about a vision of death and destruction.

That’s why, last winter, when a New Jersey mom left her sleeping 18-month-old in the car for 5-10 minutes while she ran an errand at an upscale shopping mall, she returned to find herself under arrest. Though the child was completely fine — he seems to have slept through the whole “incident” — the mom was found guilty of abuse or negligence. An appeals court of three judges upheld this conviction with the comment, “We need not describe at any length the parade of horribles that could have attended [the child’s] neglect.”

In other words: The judges need not spell out their Boschian fantasies. If an authority can envision something “horrible” happening — and even turn that adjective into a noun — it doesn’t matter how farfetched any actual scenario is. (In fact, the danger of dragging your child across the parking lot is larger than letting him wait in the car a few minutes.) Anyone doubting constant danger is a heretic. The mom is now excommunicated — that is, she’s on the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry. Good luck to her if she hoped to work with kids, at least while the case makes its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

And if you can stand to hear another one of these, a similar case concerns a Chicagoland mom who let her young son wait in the car for less than five minutes this September while she, too, ran an errand. An onlooker alerted the authorities, which brought not only the police but also the paramedics, who proceeded to examine the child as if he had been in grave danger. Sure, it’s the same grave danger any of us face when sitting in traffic — four minutes in an unmoving car. But magically, because the mom was not directly supervising the child, it transmogrified into a near-death experience.

Zero Tolerance laws are another code of the Cult, stemming from the same belief that while the danger to a child might seem minimal to the point of non-existent, to true believers it looms large and immediate. And so children have been suspended around the country for a plastic gun the size of a toothpick, a Lego gun the size of a quarter, and the infamous “gun” made out of a Pop Tart. And by “made” I mean “bitten into the shape of, by a 7 year old.”

How can we explain any of this hysteria if not by religious fervor? To see danger where there is none is no longer considered crazy, it’s a mission. Many authorities seem to believe the more danger they can imagine, the holier they are. In a letter home to parents, the principal at the Pop-Tart school wrote, “While no physical threats were made and no one [was] harmed, the student had to be removed from the classroom.”

Had to? Because…he had a Pop Tart? Or because the boy with the pastry pistol was magically dangerous, like a witch with her cat?

In a society that believes children are in constant danger, the Good Samaritans are often terrible people. So, recently, when a woman in Austin noticed a 6-year-old playing outside, she asked him where he lived, walked him home (it was just down the hill), and chastised the mom — Kari Anne Roy — for not being careful enough.

Then this Samaritan called the Inquisitors. Er…cops.

An officer showed up at Roy’s doorstep and despite the fact that the crime rate today is at a 50-year low, a CPS investigator was also dispatched to interview all three of Roy’s children. She asked Roy’s 8-year-old if her parents had ever shown her movies with people’s private parts. “So my daughter, who didn’t know that things like that exist, does now,” says Roy. “Thank you, CPS.”

It was almost seven years ago that I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone and wrote a newspaper column about it. The result? A media firestorm. Back then I thought my crime, in the eyes of the public, was putting my child in danger.

But gradually I’ve come to realize my real crime was that I publicly disavowed the state religion. Talk show host after talk show host tried to get me to recant, asking: “How would you have felt if he didn’t come home?”

I could have sobbed and fainted, claiming it had been only a momentary lapse when I’d trusted my son in the world. Instead I said, “I wasn’t thinking that way. If I did, I could never let him do anything.”

Today it is a sin — and sometimes a crime — NOT to imagine your children dead the moment we take your eyes off them. The moment they skip to school with a Chapstick, wait in the car a minute, or play at the park.

We think we are enlightened in this quest to keep kids completely safe. Actually, we have entered a new Dark Ages, fearing evil all around us.

If we want the right to raise our kids rationally, even optimistically, it’s time to call the Cult of Kiddie Danger what it is: mass hysteria aided and abetted by the authorities. But as earlier holy books so succinctly instructed us, there is a better way to live.

“Fear not.”

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range kids. Her show “World’s Worst Mom” airs on Discovery/TLC international. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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 Family

Parents Should Try Being Present Instead of Perfect

family photograph
Getty Images

When it comes to feeding and caring for our families

For a lot of American families today, the dinner table can feel a minefield, haunted by the ghosts of Leave It To Beavers past and the present-day social and economic pressures to serve up from-scratch meals. The pressure for mealtime perfection can get overwhelming, even for a professional like Cat Cora, the first female Iron Chef.

“It’s a work in progress every day,” said Cora, who emphasized that even someone like her isn’t immune to the worries many parents have about the food they put on the table or send to school or practice with their kids. She shares a household with a wife and four sons, and is a representative of an emerging new modern family– a structure whose makeup is increasingly diverse and “becoming the majority in this country.” For Cora, this shift in family structures is creating a “place where parents both have a role in raising and nurturing the kids.” Yet, no matter how much parental roles have evolved, the pressures to be perfect haven’t followed suit. That’s something we need to change, suggested panelists who joined Cora at a recent New America event, underwritten by Betty Crocker.

“The Internet makes me cry some days,” said Frederick Goodall, the founder of the popular blog MochaDad, who condemned the shaming of parents on social media. “I always have to tell my wife — please do not look at Pinterest. Do not let that make you feel bad about yourself — just think of it as a fantasy land.” Social media, he suggested, perpetuates stereotypes about “homemaking” with little basis in fact.

And what are the facts, exactly? “Only about one-fifth of U.S. families have the structure of one parent staying home,” said Latifa Lyles, the Director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. “It’s just not a reality anymore. And what that means is that families have less time.” For her, time is the focal point of good parenting, even if that means making PB&J more and visiting the farmers’ market less.

“Because time is so valuable, how we spend that time [with our children] is more critical than anything else,” she said. “When we get into being the perfect homemaker, we lose ourselves.”

We may also be missing the larger point: When it comes to feeding our families, being present matters more than being perfect. “Kids don’t care,” as Cora put it. “They just want to see you. They want to hear your voice. They want to be told they’re loved.”

Critically, this struggle between presence and perfection is one faced by parents from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Sarah Bowen, associate professor of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University, described a recent study in which she and her colleagues interviewed North Carolina moms from low-income and middle-class families over a five-year period about how they feed their kids and the challenges they confront in the process. They found that middle-class moms are cooking 4-5 nights a week but are discouraged by media messages that their meals should be organic and from scratch. Poorer moms are cooking at home too, but since unpredictable work schedules are increasingly the norm in low-wage jobs, they, too, worry that they’re not measuring up.

Both the shame and lack of time may be the structural results of a conflict between policy progress on nutrition and policy stagnation on other family-related policies. Liza Mundy, director of New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program, noted that neither policy debates nor media narratives about childcare and parental leave have kept pace with those about food and nutrition, where a hard-won consensus now exists in favor of cooking healthy and eating well. Promoting healthy eating is important. But the failure to generate policy support for childcare and paid caregiving leave has obscured the lack of real choices available to American families.

Goodall, who used to work in construction, recalled his former boss insisting that he keep his Blackberry turned on while he was in the delivery room with his wife, who was giving birth to their third child. He resigned six months later to start MochaDad, where he has encountered a number of dads who stay at home because of persistent unemployment post-recession, not because they want to. Citing the White House Summit on Working Families this past June and the more recent viral #LeadonLeave campaign (which highlights the fact that the U.S. is the only developed nation in the world with no paid family leave), Lyles also criticized American’s limited choices and the gendered double standard around taking parental leave.

When women do it, employers question their commitment. Most men don’t take leave even when it’s offered, and those who do either face Goodall’s fate or get excessive praise for being dedicated fathers.

Still, there’s at least one national bright spot that could illuminate a path forward for the rest of the country. Lyles and Mundy both pointed to the example of California, which offers six weeks of paid leave to parents funded by the state’s payroll tax. Ten years of data show increased rates of fathers and mothers alike taking leave and reflect support from the business community. These results demystify the dissonance, according to Lyles, and show that having paid leave can become a norm. Mundy echoed this message of hope: “What you want is people making choices in a landscape where they have real options and where they have support.”

Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU, where she has been a lecturer and done research at the intersections between U.S. literary and cultural history and social and political activism. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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.

MONEY Food & Beverage

The Staggering Cost of a Hipster Thanksgiving — and Other Pricey Alternatives to the Classic Feast

Overhead view of Thanksgiving feast
Marcus Nilsson—Gallery Stock

The average Thanksgiving dinner for a party of 10 costs about $50. But who wants a holiday meal that's merely average?

The traditional Thanksgiving dinner feast can be very affordable. On a per-person basis, the average meal easily costs less than bringing the crew to a fast food joint for supper.

But the total price of your Thanksgiving spread can vary by hundreds depending on where you shop, what you’re buying, and the overall quality and prestige of the meat, sides, and dessert, as well as how much time and effort you’re willing to devote to preparing your feast.

To give you an idea of what some different Thanksgiving dining styles will cost you, we’ve rounded up some sample pricing for groups with varying tastes and budgets–including some options for those who don’t want to cook at all.

The Average American
For a classic Thanksgiving dinner, plus leftovers, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates you’ll spend $49.41 this year to feed a party of 10, including a 16-pound turkey plus bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, peas, rolls with butter, carrots and celery, pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream, and coffee and milk. Even though the wholesale price of turkey has soared for supermarkets this year, widespread price promotions have kept overall costs down for consumers, and the bureau’s estimated total for Thanksgiving dinner is only 37¢ higher than last year. That averages out to under $5 per person, which is still quite a deal.

What’s more, there are easy ways to cut costs even lower. If you were to take advantage of coupons, sales, and supermarket promotion, you could spend a lot less and still provide a feast. Wal-Mart estimates that you could buy the same menu for just $32.64 by shopping at its stores.

The Hipster
If you were to upgrade that conventional turkey to an organic, free-range one, the price jumps from $21.65 to well over $100 at specialty shops. A 16-pound turkey from Fleisher’s Pasture Raised Meats in New York City rings in at $127.84, or $7.99 a pound vs. the roughly $1.35 per pound for a supermarket bird. Add in organic, locally-sourced vegetables and dairy for your meal, and the costs for sides rise at least $15 over the Farm Bureau’s projection, according to our estimates. Altogether, a healthy, hipster-approved, fully organic Thanksgiving dinner for 10 will cost in the neighborhood of $170.

The Vegan
For a vegan thanksgiving, the “turkey” costs would be similar to that for an organic free-range bird. The soy-based Gardein Stuffed Holiday Roast, picked by Slate as the tastiest of the the faux turkey bunch, costs about $8 a pound. The costs for vegan side dishes and desserts would only be about $5 more than those of the Farm Bureau’s classic menu. Combine the price for 16 pounds of faux turkey and all the trimmings and dessert, and a 10-person vegan Thanksgiving dinner costs about $155.

The 1%
Upgrading to a purebred heritage turkey–which are leaner than standard supermarket birds, take twice as long to reach market weight, and have lineage that can be traced back to the 1800s–will cost upwards of $10 per pound for the meat portion of the meal. Factor that in, along with similarly upgraded sides and desserts, and Thanksgiving dinner for 10 will easily run $250 or more.

The Lazy Non-Cook
Not into cooking at all? Prepared meals save you hassle and time, but you’ll pay for it in more ways than simply losing out on the quality of home cooking. A prepared meal for 12 people from Boston Market, which includes an 11-pound turkey, spinach artichoke dip appetizer, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry relish, vegetable stuffing, dinner rolls and two pies, rings in at $99.99. That’s roughly double the Farm Bureau’s estimate for a home-cooked meal–but perhaps it’s money well spent if you’re hopeless in the kitchen or simply don’t have the time.

Supermarkets will happily do the cooking for you as well, for a price. A meal prepared by Whole Foods Market for 12 people, including a fully cooked 14- to 16-pound standard turkey, stuffing, cranberry orange relish, mashed potatoes, green beans and gravy, costs $200. An organic cooked turkey will add an extra $50, more or less, pushing the total up to $250 or more.

MONEY Shopping

12% of Black Friday Shoppers Will Be Drunk (and More Crazy Facts About the Holiday Frenzy)

141128_HO_Lede
Karen Bleier—AFP/Getty Images Shoppers wait to enter the Aeropostale store in Tyson's Corner, Virginia during 'Midnight Madness' at the Tyson's Corner Center in Tyson's Corner, Virginia.. Tyson's Corner Center is the largest shopping center in the Washington, DC area.

How many people will go shopping this weekend? What day actually has the best deals? How much will the average shopper spend? How many of them are tipsy while they're browsing for gifts?

Read on for answers to the above, as well as other nuggets about what’s in store for consumers during the annual Thanksgiving-Black Friday weekend shopping extravaganza.

Less Than 5% The average discount on Black Friday for 6,000 items tracked last year by the deal-hunting site ShopAdvisor; researchers found that the average discount during the holiday period was highest on December 18 (17.5%).

5 Number of hours that RadioShack will shut down on Thanksgiving (noon to 5 p.m.); it had originally planned to stay open from 8 a.m. to midnight, but decided to close during the middle of the day after receiving complaints from employees.

10 Number of employees at a Virginia Best Buy whose sole job is to restock items as soon as there are gaps on store shelves on Black Friday.

12% Proportion of Thanksgiving Day shoppers who admit to hitting the stores on the holiday while under the influence of alcohol, according to a survey conducted on the behalf of the coupon site RetailMeNot.

16% vs. 50% Respectively, the percentages of shoppers ages 55+ and 18 to 24 and who think it’s “a great idea” for stores to be open on Thanksgiving.

22 Number of days before Black Friday that two women in California began camping out at a Best Buy in order to be first in line for deals. They hope to buy a cheap TV.

25% Amount of extra trash thrown away by Americans during the Thanksgiving-New Year’s period, compared to any other time of the year.

28% vs. 32% Percentages of women and men, respectively, who plan on spending $250 to $500 on Black Friday (yes, more guys than girls).

At Least 3 Dozen Number of national retailers, including Costco, Bloomingdale’s, Dillard’s, and Nordstrom, that have decided to stay closed on Thanksgiving.

38% Percentage of shoppers who plan on purchasing holiday gifts with credit cards, up from 28.5% last year and the highest level recorded since the National Retail Federation has asked the question in surveys.

39% Proportion of Americans who feel pressured to spend more than they can afford during the holiday season.

42 Number of consecutive hours that Kmart stores will be open, starting at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving and lasting through midnight on Black Friday.

70% Percentage of consumers who say that stores should be closed on Thanksgiving this year, up from 60% in 2012.

70% Percentage of consumers who say that Black Friday is meaningless because “there will be more sales throughout the holidays.”

71% Percentage of consumers who say they may not like the gift they receive over the holidays.

96% Percentage of consumers who say that discounts are important to their shopping decisions during the holidays, up from 94% last year—and three in ten say that they’ll hold out for discounts of 50% or more before making a purchase.

$407 Average amount spent by consumers over Thanksgiving weekend in 2013, down 4% compared to the year before.

$450 Minimum you must spend at one of two malls in southern California in order to receive a free Uber ride home, starting on Black Friday and stretching through Christmas Eve.

140 Million Estimated number of consumers who will shop in stores or online this weekend, according to the National Retail Federation, roughly the same as the expectations leading into the 2013 Thanksgiving-Black Friday period.

 

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