TIME Parenting

The Problem With No-Share Parenting

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Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.

A child who is 3 or 4 can be conditioned to share, to empathize, and to be generous

Don’t force your toddler to share. In fact, don’t encourage it all. It’s not even good for your child. Parents who insist that their kids “take turns” and give up their toys to other children on the playground are doing it mostly because they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of other parents. In short, we promote sharing because it’s easier for us as adults and not because it’s the right thing for a 3- or 4-year-old.

Is this parenting theory the future for young American parents? I hope not, but it’s possible. A number of psychologists, religious educators, and conservative commentators seem to have arrived at a consensus teaching our kids that to share is bad for them, and we need to back off. Such advice would seem to be contrary to conventional wisdom and accepted ethical norms, not to mention just plain common sense. Do we really want “stay away from my stuff” to be the governing rule for children in the sandbox? I remain hopeful that the “no need to share” movement will be no more than a fad.

The anti-sharing crowd offers a number of rationales for its approach. Rachel Boldwyn, writing recently on Christianity Today’s website, makes the following arguments: First, kids are incapable of sharing. A toddler is naturally possessive and should not be expected to act beyond his age. Second, forced sharing or mandated turn-taking is not really sharing at all, but simply means that a child is complying with the demand of a more powerful individual — the parent, or teacher, or caregiver. Third, forcing a child to share disrupts the value that he derives from extended play, truncating his ability to concentrate. According to Boldwyn, the Biblical verse“training up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) means that we must see our children as distinct individuals, separate from their parents, and this means avoiding the notion that they must share because we as parents want them to share.

But Boldwyn misunderstands the passage and the psychology. It’s true that a 2-year-old cannot comprehend sharing and the implications of ownership. It is also true that Biblical ethics cannot simply be imposed; ethical systems work best when a person willingly embraces the values involved. But children are not adults and are not competent to make the range of decisions that adults must make. That is why we are instructed to “train” them in the way they should go.

And this means that a child who is 3 or 4 can be conditioned to share, to empathize, and to be generous. Conditioning will include some mandated turn-taking and forced sharing, but that is what training is about, and what the Biblical text intended. It is also consistent with what child development experts accept as necessary and appropriate. Children are forced to do all kinds of things that are important to their welfare: eat in healthy ways, learn basic manners, and avoid hitting and hazards to their safety. The problem is not the compulsion, but a parent who is harsh rather than firm, or arbitrary rather than caring. A parent who makes a 3-year-old take turns with a toy is not a problem if the parent is loving and models sharing in his own behavior.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, writing in the New York Post, offers yet another reason not to encourage a child to share: It could send a message that all stuff is collectively owned, and that a child is entitled to use it just for being around it. This is absurd. Toddlers by nature are selfish beings; they are concerned with themselves and their own needs. The danger of a nursery school or playgroup, therefore, is not that it will teach our children communism, but that it will fail to teach them the values of love, trust, and generosity that are central to all of the Abrahamic faiths. A major goal of parenting and toddler programs, therefore, is to help children learn the language of “we” rather than “I,” and teaching them to share is part of that.

I recently attended the birthday party of my 3-year-old grandson. When disputes arose over toys, the parents quickly intervened, almost all of them telling their children to take turns and share. The results varied, although the children, despite being “forced” to take turns, in most cases quickly moved on — as children usually do. The parents were of different religious backgrounds, and many of them did not know each other, but it was interesting to see them instinctively and immediately resort to a language intended to promote cooperation and sharing. From what I could see, they reacted as they did not because of their own ego needs or fear of embarrassment but because they thought it was the right thing to do. And it was.

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

Be a Helium Parent, Not a Helicopter One

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

Parenting by panic is damaging to children

When police keep parents from their own children for the crime of letting them walk home alone, something has gone radically wrong.

In Maryland, two children, ages 6 and 10, were held for hours after a 911 call alerted police they were unaccompanied in a park last week. Police had picked up the same children while they were walking home alone in the not-so-wild streets of their neighborhood last December. Their mother has said that parenting is an exercise in “risk management.” That is exactly right. Children once were given the chance to explore, to stumble, to be hurt, and to heal. It is time to reject helicopter parenting and replace it with helium parenting.

We should hold on to our children as a child holds on to a balloon. Let them rise, float on their own, but keep a grasp on the string. In time we will need to release our grip, but in the meantime, instead of hovering from above, we should be holding lightly from below. Think of it as parental string theory.

Most parents now monitor their children so closely with electronics that there is no true escape. We beep, buzz, text, Facebook, Skype and skulk our way around each other’s space, especially that of our kids. We aren’t just helicopter parents; we are helicopter parents with radar.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, my brothers and I walked to school each day. We played football unsupervised in the streets. On Saturday afternoons when we were the same ages as those Maryland kids, we would walk around the neighborhood and visit people. The chances then as now, that a child would be snatched by a stranger were extremely rare.

As we are made increasingly aware of each crime, America has become a strange paradox — a society whose fear rises with each advance in security. We are safe and scared. The more medicine eliminates diseases, the more obsessively we put Purell on our hands. The more meticulously we test our drinking supply, the more we turn to bottled water. Almost any risk has become unbearable — but without risk there is no life.

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Human beings have a cognitive bias that overestimates the frequency of dramatic calamities. In his book Protecting the Gift, child-safety expert Gavin De Becker points out that compared to a stranger kidnapping, “a child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents (correctly) never even consider the risk.” People regularly miscalculate real risk — that is why some who are terrified of planes don’t buckle their safety belts in cars, even though the chances of a car accident are far greater than dying in a plane crash.

This nation was built by immigrants and pioneers. Both take great risks. In our attitudes toward our children, however, we have become a timid nation, making the circle of our children’s lives ever smaller, leaving them in front of a screen to experience the world. Parenting by panic is damaging to children.

Seeing kids walking home from school should lift our collective spirit. Children have walked to and from school for generations. Remember Shakespeare’s “whining school-boy with his satchel/ And shining morning face, creeping like snail/ Unwillingly to school”? Walking to school is an age-old rite of passage. Faced with the admittedly terrifying prospect that something might happen to our daughters and sons, we choose to transmit our terror to them rather than our confidence.

Helicopters are big, expensive, cumbersome, and dangerous. They look down. Balloons are colorful, joyous, and free. Be a helium parent. Look up.

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

Hundreds Attend 10-Year-Old’s Birthday Party After Mom’s Facebook Plea

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Courtesy of NBC

At least 500 people showed up to the party Saturday while the Shakopee, Minn. Mayor Brad Tabke proclaimed it "Mackenzie Moretter Day"

A Minnesota mother was so distraught when all of the girls invited to her daughter’s birthday party said they wouldn’t be there that she took matters into her own hands and got an incredible turnout.

Ten-year-old Mackenzie Moretter has a developmental disorder called Sotos syndrome, which causes children to grow at a faster rate but often delays their social and intellectual skills.

“Kids are friendly to her, but she doesn’t have friends. No one calls and talks to her. I’ll show up at her school and she will be playing alone,” her father, Matthew Moretter, told NBC affiliate KARE.

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TIME Parenting

Why Kids Who Believe in Something Are Happier and Healthier

Johan Ödmann—Copyright Johner Bildbyra AB

Spirituality better predictor of happiness than achievement, says author

Despite more than a decade of widespread attention on happiness and the benefits of positive psychology, there is an epidemic of unhappiness in children and teens. Quite severe unhappiness. Health statistics over the past decade show that beyond the 20% to 25% of teens with major depression are another 40% (yes, that’s a total of 65%) who struggle with intrusive levels of depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well.

Kids of middle-class and more affluent families—kids who would seem to have everything going for them—have far higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and anti-social tendencies than their less privileged peers. Why has the mass happiness initiative failed our kids? Science is bringing the problem into resolution.

An increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment.

We want our children to have grit to persist and win, the optimism that they will be more successful, but where does it lead? Children come to believe they are no better than their last success and suffer a sense of worthlessness when there is loss or even moderate failure. Where love is conditional on performance, children suffer.

Now the antidote. A new study just published online in the Journal of Religion and Health by my lab at Columbia University shows that happiness and the character traits of grit and persistence go “hand in hand” with a deeper inner asset: spirituality, which this study measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world.

More generally my research of more than 20 years on adolescence, depression and spirituality shows more specifically how putting a priority on performance stunts development of a child’s inner life and the single most powerful protection against depression and suffering, the spiritual self.

What we have learned is that children are born with an innate capacity for spirituality, just as they are born with the capability to learn a language, read and think. But just as it takes time and effort to develop the ability to speak or read, it also takes time and effort to develop our innate sense of the spiritual.

A strong new body of science, developed during the last decade to what we now consider to be a level of certainty, demonstrates, first, that any sort of spirituality becomes a source of health and thriving for kids and, second, that the lack of spirituality in families and youth culture can be a big source of suffering.

Among other things, our research demonstrates:

  • Spiritually plays a significant role in child social, emotional and cognitive development. Kids with a strong spirituality overall have greater grit, higher grades, more optimism and persistence than kids without a strong sense of spirituality.
  • Teenagers who say they have a strong sense of spirituality are 80% less likely than the norm to have unprotected or dangerous sex, and 40% less likely to use drugs
  • Personal spirituality that includes a direct personal relationship with nature, a universal presence or higher power (by any name) has a clear correlation with physical wellness and recovery from depression and disease; indeed, greater spiritual awareness produces the same readings in brain scans as recovery due to medication.

We have found that the natural spirituality of children and young people can be encouraged and fostered by such steps as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature where a sense of transcendence can be engaged. Parents can demonstrate approval for (and model) such traits as caring for others, empathy or optimism.

Most important, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable, parents must not turn away from questions that children are prone to ask—those difficult “why” questions that go directly to moral issues or to such visceral questions as whether there is a God, how we know, and what that means to us.

In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as human being. In our excessively competitive culture, with often thin support for spiritual development, parents must actively work to help their children to a spiritual life.

Parents who aggressively push their children to achieve “success” in finding the “right” school, achieving the “right kind of job” should consider the science of the matter. Spirituality is more essential to thriving and success than ability to perform. Spiritual children have a sense of inner worth, a sense of the lasting, higher sacred self, much bigger than the day’s win or defeat. And when they achieve their goals – that better job, or that higher income – the studies show that well-grounded, spiritually engaged young people can actually feel fulfilled by their life choices.

That’s something worth pushing for.

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Lisa Miller, Ph.D. is Director of Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, The Spiritual Child; The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving

Read next: How Do You Talk to Kids About God?

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MONEY

Why Millennials Are in for a Worse Midlife Crisis than their Parents

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Marriage, it turns out, lessens the dip in happiness that happens in one's late 40s. But most Gen Y-ers have steered clear of the altar.

I’m a happily married 28-year-old with a beautiful wife and son. My life is good.

But if research is correct, I will grow increasingly more dissatisfied with my life over the next 20 years. Which is terrifying.

The midlife crisis is very real.

Studies show that people are pretty happy when they’re young and when they’re older—thank youthful exuberance and not having to work, respectively. But between 46 and 55, folks endure peak ennui.

That happiness ebbs as one ages is not particularly surprising. Careers plateau, dreams are deferred and bills increase in quantity and frequency.

This U-shaped happiness curve has been the focus of a lot of research recently and many nations (from Britain to Bhutan) have shown interest in augmenting citizens well-being with the intent that gross happiness is just as important to the economy as the gross domestic product.

One recent study on the topic—published in the National Bureau of Economic Research—has me feeling just a little bit less sad about my upcoming depression. It found that married folks like myself will experience a less dramatic midlife crisis than their non-married peers.

Authors Shawn Grover and John Helliwell used data from two U.K. surveys and found that while life-satisfaction levels declined for those who married and those who didn’t, the middle-age drop was much less severe for the betrothed, even when controlling for premarital happiness.

Having a dedicated partner, it seems, eases the burden of watching your youth pass slowly through your fingers. Tying the knot can soften the blow, in the other words.

Moreover, people who consider their partner a friend enjoy the most happiness.

“We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a casual relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend,” the authors wrote.

These findings could leave many of my peers in an emotional nadir: According to data from the Pew Research Center, millennials just aren’t terribly interested in the institution of marriage. Only 26% of people aged 18 to 32 were married in 2013—10 points lower than Gen X when they were of a similar age in 1997, and 22 points below boomers’ marriage patterns in 1960.

My generation still has a few years before they hit the bottom of the U curve. And perhaps an improving economy will make the prospect of marriage more attractive to those in my cohort. Here’s hoping.

I didn’t plan to marry when I did—like most of my generation the thought really didn’t occur to me. But my longtime girlfriend and I walked down the aisle after we found out she was pregnant. And from my current pre-midlife-crisis vantage point, I can see why marrying someone I love and with whom I share a common worldview will make the process of aging slightly less pale and ugly.

Life’s hard, but it turns out that it’s nice to have someone you love to complain about it with.

More From the First-Time Dad:

TIME Family

This Is How You Can Put a Baby to Sleep in Less Than 60 Seconds

All you need is some tissue paper

If you’ve tried everything and nothing has worked, don’t give up just yet. Simply reach for the Kleenex.

In under a minute, YouTuber and Australian father Nathan Dailo sends his baby to sleep by gently tickling the infant’s face with tissue paper.

“The tissue trick isn’t actually anything special. Any light touching on the baby’s facial areas such as the head, forehead or the bridge of the nose also works,” Dailo tells TIME.

The video has garnered more than 4 million views and inspired innumerable other parents to deploy the technique. However, Dailo cautions that his technique isn’t the only one.

“Remember that each child is different, and what works for some parents may not work for others. And always use you’re instincts. You are the parent,” Dailo stresses.

TIME Parenting

A 65-Year-Old German Mom Is Expecting Quadruplets

65 year old pregant with quadruplets
Patrick Lux—EPA Annegret Raunigk, then 55-years-old, poses with her daughter Leila in Berlin on Nov. 3, 2005.

Annegret Raunigk's oldest child is already 44

A 65-year-old German schoolteacher is a busy mother to 13 children—and she’s reportedly about to welcome four more to her burgeoning brood.

Annegret Raunigk, who’s oldest child is 44, told German newspaper Bild on April 4 that she is in her 21st week of pregnancy with quadruplets.

The Berlin native claims the pregnancy is the result of artificial insemination using both donated sperm and eggs. The pregnancy will be documented for German TV show RTL.

Raunigk told Bild that her doctor reportedly suggested selective reduction when they discovered she was having quadruplets, but she wasn’t interested.

Raunigk is no stranger to media attention. She first garnered headlines at age 55 when she give birth to her 13th child, daughter Leila. (Pictured above.) It was Leila, she claims, that inspired her to try for another child.

The teacher’s 13 children are reportedly from five different fathers. She is a grandmother to seven.

Bild reports that Raunigk is due in the summer, and that she isn’t concerned about the possible health risks for a woman her age. “I simply assume that I will remain fit and healthy,” she told the newspaper. Her doctor, who also spoke to the paper, said he is optimistic.

This article originally appeared on People.com.

Read next: Watch This Mom of 6 Boys Freak Out During Gender Reveal of Baby Number 7

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TIME Family

Why Have Kids?

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

In the midst of rapidly changing family structures, why does childlessness still carry a stigma for women?

It used to be that the Cleavers — dad working an office job, mom raising two boys full-time — were the model American family. But the past several decades have seen dramatic changes — recent studies find that only about half of American adults are married today, compared to around 70 percent in 1960. The share of interracial marriages has doubled since 1980. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage. More men than ever are becoming single fathers. More mothers are becoming family breadwinners. More children are being born outside of marriage.

A Pew Research Center study from 2010 found that 20 percent of American women now end their childbearing years without having borne a child, compared to 10 percent in the 1970s. During that time, the public has become more accepting of these women, but 38 percent of Americans surveyed for that study felt this trend was bad for society. When it comes to some other changes to the American family — such as marrying someone of a different race or women working outside the home — the public has said in greater numbers that those trends were good for or at least didn’t harm society.

In advance of the Zócalo event, “Why Have Kids?”, we asked a panel of experts: If Americans have come to accept a range of non-traditional family structures, why does a woman’s choice not to have children still elicit skepticism and judgment?

 

Bella DePaulo — We want other people to share the worldviews we care about most

“As long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.” That was one reader’s response to a 2002 cover story in Time about women who were choosing to stay single and not have kids. At the time, I was just starting to research my first book on single people and I was perplexed. The reader had no relationship to the women in the story — they were strangers. If these women didn’t have qualms about their life choices, why should this guy get so angry about them?

I hadn’t yet recognized the power of people’s views of the world. Worldviews help us make sense of the world. They can boost our self-esteem, enhance our good feelings, and keep our bad ones at bay. We want other people to share the worldviews we care about the most. When it comes to marriage and family, one of the strongest worldviews is that women are supposed to get married and have kids. And if they do, they will be happier and healthier than everyone else — and morally superior, too.

The “problem,” then, with women who do not follow the culturally valued life course of marrying and having children, is that they are threatening beliefs that people hold dear.

What’s more, it is even worse if they choose not to marry or have kids. For example, research has shown that single people who want to be single are judged more harshly than those who want to find a partner. They are seen as lonelier, colder, less sociable, and more miserable. Even more tellingly, other people express more anger toward them. That irate reader of the Time story was not only irked because he thought the women were stupid, but also because they were happy. How dare they claim that life without marriage or kids is a good and happy life — a life that someone would actually choose!

Bella DePaulo, who has a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and the forthcoming How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

 

Elaine Tyler May — Women have opted out of motherhood throughout history

Womanhood equals motherhood has long been accepted as the norm for women’s lives. But in fact, throughout history, women have often opted out of motherhood. In the 19th century, for example, the average number of births per woman declined by half—from eight in 1800 to four in 1900. Many women chose not to marry, and even some of those who married chose not to have children. The rate of childlessness was at an all-time high at the dawn of the 20th century, and then dropped to an all-time low after World War II in the midst of the Baby Boom.

Today, more and more women are choosing not to have children for a wide variety of reasons. Women without children are not scorned or pitied to the extent they once were, but a stigma still attaches to women who choose not to procreate. It is way past time for that stigma to lift. American women today lead rich and varied lives, with or without partners, with or without children. It is time to celebrate all the choices women have, and protect their ability to make the choice to have children—or not. Besides, there are many ways to have children in one’s life without giving birth to them or raising them. Just ask any devoted aunt, teacher, doctor, childcare worker, or anyone with children in their lives. As one teacher said proudly, “I’m not childless! I have 400 children!”

Elaine Tyler May is Regents professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of several books on women and the American family, including Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness.

 

Laura S. Scott — People are ignoring studies that point to happy, regret-free seniors who didn’t have children

Behind all the media attention around baby bumps, intentional single moms, egg freezing parties, and celebrity surrogacy is a belief that the only path to a purposeful and fulfilling life is parenthood, particularly motherhood. If you value the experience of motherhood over all other experiences, you will tend to judge someone who values a different experience.

There is also the persistent belief that, if you don’t have kids, you will regret it and die alone or in a home with 30 starving cats. Everyone chooses to ignore the multitude of studies that point to happy, socially connected, regret-free childfree seniors who are living their dreams and contributing in many creative ways. The lingering stigma is puzzling unless you factor in the judgment, unspoken regrets, and dare I say, envy, from parents who say, “I didn’t think I had the choice!”

We now have the means and opportunity to remain childfree, but we have to have the intent and will to resist the prenatal messaging, peer and family pressure, and be true to ourselves. We also have to have reliable birth control and doctors who believe us when we say, “I don’t want kids, ever! And I will not change my mind and sue you if you perform this tubal!”

We also need to be able to wrap our brains around this question: “If everyone is invited to decide for themselves if they want to be a parent, how does our thinking and our world have to change to allow for that?”

Laura S. Scott is an executive and reproductive decision-making coach, author of Two is Enough: A Couples Guide to Living Childless by Choice, and director of the Childless by Choice Project.

 

Bill McKibben — There’s also prejudice towards people who chose to have just one kid

There’s another choice that yields almost as much skepticism: the decision just to have one child. Surveys show that the biggest reason for having a second kid is so the first won’t be an only child. There may be plenty of good reasons for having a big family, but it turns out that isn’t one of them: all the data show that only kids grow up to be indistinguishable from their peers with siblings. Not spoiled, not crazy. Just fine.

In fact, it’s a perfect example of how easily we’re led astray by prejudice. The “study” that convinced everyone that only children were odd was conducted in the late 1800s, and the definition of “odd” included “very pretty,” “very ugly,” and “very strong.” (It also found that immigrant children were odd; go figure.) The subjects in the study included not just actual only children, but only children in works of fiction.

Happily science has marched on, and so should the rest of us. It’s time that we learned to accept that people, and families, come in many different shapes and sizes; that they face different circumstances and want different things. It’s time, that is, to stop with the judging.

Bill McKibben is a Vermont-based writer whose books include Maybe One: An Argument for Smaller Families.

 

Melanie Notkin — Choose happiness

We have “Mom-opia” in America—the myopic view of motherhood as womanhood.,. And yet, the latest U.S. Census Report on Fertility shows that 46 percent of women of childbearing years are childless.

This all-women-as-mother view generates “black and white” assumptions for why women make their choices, ignoring nuances and shades of gray. I worked closely with DeVries Global PR on a 2014 national demographic study entitled: “Shades of Otherhood,” inspired by my book: Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, to better understand this cohort of modern women. Of the 19 million childless American women ages 20 to 44, over one-third (36 percent) are childless by choice. Some never felt motherhood was for them. Some don’t feel financially secure enough for parenthood. Some enjoy the freedom to live life to what they envision as its potential. And 18 percent of all childless women are on the fence, having not yet made a choice on motherhood either way.

And then nearly half (46 percent) are involuntarily childless, some by biology, and more often, among the cohort I explore more widely in Otherhood, by circumstance.

The women of the Otherhood are often single, often not by choice, and they choose to wait for love before motherhood.

Still, whatever the reason for childlessness, 80 percent of women in our study said they can live a happy life without children of their own. Moreover, even among those who are childfree by choice, 80 percent are “childfull” — they play an active role the lives of other people’s children.

Whatever the choices or circumstances of childlessness, the only way to live a meaningful and happy life is to live an authentic life—making the right choice for oneself, not by the measure of what society believes is the “right” choice. And the only one who can make that authentic choice is the women who chooses. She chooses happiness.

Melanie Notkin is the founder and author of Savvy Auntie and author of Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness. Connect with her at Otherhood.co and @SavvyAuntie.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.

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

Unhappy Families Can Make Daughters Fat

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Michael Hevesy—Getty Images

A new study suggests that stress at home can have a major impact on our kids' waistlines

Childhood obesity has become such a big problem in the United States that the rate of obese adolescents—21%—exceeds the rate of overweight adolescents (14%). It’s been that way for the last decade.

Dr. Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor at the University of Houston, wants to figure out why despite our efforts, that rate hasn’t budged. “Many times when we’re designing interventions and prevention programs, they’re done in schools because that’s where we have ease of access to all these kiddos,” she says. “But the issue is that in those interventions, we don’t think about the family environment and what could be happening at home.”

In her new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine, she decided to look at three family stressors: family disruption and conflict, the kind a kid would experience after a parent got divorced, remarried, incarcerated or if the child experienced a violent crime or death of a loved one; financial stress, a measure of poverty determined in part by whether a mom was unemployed or had less than a high school education; and maternal poor health, whether the mom was a binge drinker, drug user or had elevated depression.

MORE: Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids’ Math Scores

Hernandez analyzed data from 4,762 adolescents between 1975-1990 using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. She measured each adolescent’s exposure to these family factors from birth until age 15, then looked at their weight at age 18. The results showed clear gender differences. In adolescent girls, experiencing family disruption and financial stress repeatedly was linked to overweight or obesity by age 18. That wasn’t true for adolescent boys. Just one stress point—poor maternal health—was linked to being overweight or obese by 18.

When all the findings were lumped together, Hernandez says, the gender differences disappeared. “Not all stress influences females and males the same,” she says. The reason why lies beyond the scope of this study, but Hernandez suspects it has something to do with physiolgocial and behavioral stress responses. Your body secretes cortisol when it’s stressed, she says—which, if chronic, suppresses your body’s ability to feel satiated. “Behaviorally, you then gravitate more towards the more palatable foods, the high calorie, high fat foods, so you’re not reaching for that apple or celery stick,” she says. This pattern seems to be more prevalent in females than in males, she adds.

“We really need to think about how we are teaching our adolescents how to deal with stress, and trying not to use food as a way to deal with stress,” Hernandez says. “Perhaps encouraging physical activity is the way we should be going.”

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TIME Family

How Do You Talk to Kids About God?

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

For secular parents, explaining sex is a cinch, but tackling religion can be terrifying

Talking openly with children about sensitive subjects is hard. It always has been. In my parents’ generation, the three-letter taboo was S-E-X. My older sister was 13 when my dad gave a kid “The Talk” for the first time. It was the ’80s, and my dad dodged it like any educated man of his time. He tossed her a sex-education book and said, “Read this, but don’t do it.”

Discussing sex isn’t quite so scary today. Many modern fathers don’t flinch when their daughters ask about anatomy or start inquiring about how babies are made. But progressive thinking has a way of replacing certain taboos with others. And today, for a great many parents, there is a new three-letter word: G-O-D.

With two of Western religion’s most important holidays—Easter and Passover—in the air, I find myself thinking back to the first time I had the “God Talk” with my own daughter. Maxine was barely five years old when she piped up from the backseat on the way home from her Los Alamitos preschool one day.

“Mommy,” she said, “you know what? God made us!”

I felt like a cartoon character being hit in the back of the head with a frying pan. My heart raced. I’m quite sure I began to sputter. Visions of Darwin and the evolving ape-man raced through my mind, followed closely by my childhood image of the big guy upstairs in his flowing white robes. I couldn’t speak.

And, in the awkward silence that followed, I was forced to confront the truth: The idea of talking to my kid about God—and, more specifically, about religion—scared the bejesus out of me.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak. “Well,” I said, “Who is God?”

Now, I don’t remember if Maxine actually said “duh,” or whether she simply bounced a “duh” look off the rearview mirror. But I can tell you that the “duh” message came across loud and clear.

“He’s the one who made us,” she said, her eyebrows knitted. “Okay… well, what is God doing now?” I tried for casual.

Again with the nonverbal “duh.”

“God is busy making people and babies,” she answered.

This information could not have been delivered with more certainty. My little girl, who had never heard an utterance of the word “God” in our house, aside from decidedly ungodly uses of the word, now had it all figured out thanks to a Jewish classmate who also happened to be her very first boyfriend. I was beaten to the punch by a cute preschool boy.

I let the subject drop, but my chest constricted all the way home. It stayed that way for hours. Why hadn’t I been prepared for this? What was I supposed to say now that she was getting her information from this boy at school?

As a science-minded non-believer with a generally non-confrontational personality, I was stumped by how to handle the situation. I wanted to be truthful about what I believed to be truth, but I didn’t want to indoctrinate her into my worldview either. And I certainly didn’t want others indoctrinating her into theirs, either. So where did that leave me? Was I to sit Maxine down and tell her that evolution, not God, was responsible for her existence? Was I to impose my own beliefs on her, the way other parents seemed to be doing? Or should I leave her alone to explore on her own timetable? What was the difference between guidance and pressure anyway? What was I willing to “let” her believe, and what wasn’t I?

Luckily for me, I have a husband who is cool under pressure. Later that day, after I’d rather breathlessly presented him with all the facts of the disastrous car ride, I asked him, “What if she believes in God?” His answer, my wakeup call, has become a mantra I repeat often. He said, “It’s not what Maxine believes, but what she does in life that matters.”

What I took from this was: Relax . . . it’s just God.

So I set aside my own irrational concerns and began to talk with my kid about God—lots of gods, actually. We talked about Brahman and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. My husband bought her a Children’s Bible, and I brought home lots of picture books highlighting aspects of various religious cultures.

To my delight, Maxine became genuinely interested in religion—as long as it came in bite-size pieces, rather than overly long oratories. She became engaged in the stories we told, and good at deciphering the various “moral” aspects of various tales for herself. In her hands, the Bible wasn’t a tool of indoctrination, but a tool of religious literacy—even critical thinking. Once when she was reading the 10 Commandments, for example, she got to the 10th and read (aloud): “Never want what belongs to others.” Then she stopped and corrected Moses. “Well, you can WANT what belongs to others,” she said. “You just can’t HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself.”

In the four years that have passed since Maxine first told me about God, we have discussed the subject countless times. I have learned that compassion and an open mind are more important than being right. I’ve also learned that the best way to combat intolerance is with knowledge, and that the best way to combat indoctrination is with critical thinking. No longer is there awkwardness around the subject. We talk about lots of different beliefs, encourage her to learn about what motivates the faith of others, and make clear that there is no shame in choosing an unpopular path. After all, her own parents are happy, well-adjusted, and (I like to think) good-hearted people.

Today, Maxine is 9 and believes in God “two days a week — on Sundays and Wednesday.” Is that logical or rational? No. But who cares? It works for her, and that’s what’s important.

I haven’t always done everything right. I have stumbled sloppily through more than a few conversations along my own journey and regretted my word choices now and again. (Our unique biases have a way of filtering through from time to time, despite our best efforts.) But, because the conversations keep coming, I’ve almost always had a chance to right my wrongs, to clarify my position, to bring a new perspective to each situation. The point here is not to be perfect—as my daughter says, “That would be boring”—but to give us something to aim for.

Exposing kids to various brands of spirituality and religion (not to mention non-religious philosophies) is not only fascinating and surprisingly fun; it also has the potential to improve our children’s— and our own—awareness about and compassion for the multiplicity of kinds of people in the world. Like the “sex talk,” discussions about God may come up sooner (and differently) than you had pictured. But it’s our obligation to embrace it. After all, if we’re not prepared to explore ideas of God, religion, and faith with our curious children, someone else will do it for us.

Someone cute.

Wendy Thomas Russell is an award-winning journalist and author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Russell hosts a blog called Natural Wonderers at Patheos.com and writes an online column for the PBS NewsHour. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

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