Author Archive: Jillian O'Connor

Top 10 questions about Santa you’re afraid your kid will ask

1. How does Santa get all those gifts all over the world in one night? I don’t believe the toys use little umbrellas to fly down, like on “Rudolph.” 

You know, it, um, happens. Like … magic. Yeah, magic. And aren’t you glad it does all work out?

You like getting the toys, right? I wouldn’t want anything to … happen … to slow Santa down, or impede him in his … mission. It would be a shame if you got in his way with these questions.

Do we have an understanding here?

2. Why does he look different sometimes? Why was he wearing a fake beard when I last saw him?


Merry whatever — here’s your card from my delightful family

It’s December, so it’s time to put together some sort of stock greeting card with pictures of my kids on it so people don’t think we don’t love them anymore. The kids, that is.



He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice … well, OK, that’s not true

“We’re trying to prove that Santa is not real!”

Oh, really? “Why would you do that?”

“Because the reindeer don’t die. Because he doesn’t die. How does he even stay alive for so long?”

Um, I don’t know, buddy. How is it that you’re 8 and still believe this stuff? And why don’t you ask me directly if he’s real or not?


Sit down! This is P.E.

Twice this year, I received notes home that informed me that my child had refused to sit still and listen during his P.E. class. You know, GYM class.

The time when our children are supposed to get a state-mandated amount of running-around time at school, lest they grow up to be morbidly obese people who, say, sit still and listen all day. (And maybe work in five hours of TV, too.)

I know disciplining grade-school kids can be really tough for teachers, and I know my child is no angel, but I am pretty sure he’s entitled, by law, to be as active as he can be when it comes time to go to a course that exists so that children will grow up to be as active as they can be.

It’s his fourth year in school, and we’ve never had anything other than glowing reports. But this year, there is a new emphasis at his school on listening to painstakingly detailed game rules and practicing drills.

As one very talented soccer fanatic boy I know recently shared, “They actually found a way to make soccer boring!”

Are teachers now so attentive to getting our kids into shape that they are implementing rules and curricula that make it necessary for kids to hear lectures about how fitness is awesome, while getting almost no opportunity to get physically fit?

What a mistake. To sit and listen in their academic classes, kids need time to run like banshees. Or they’re going to be pure terrors when they get back to reading and math.

The solution? “If he won’t sit still,” I wrote, “you could try having him run around first.”

I’d love to hear what’s going on in other P.E. classes. What are your thoughts?


Frozen yogurt: This just got real

Nothing sets off my inner copy editor like a cheerful, brightly colored sign full of advertising nonsense.

And grammatical errors. (Oh, how I love to find those grammatical errors.)

“We use REAL ingredients because it’s better for you.”

(First off, is Menchie’s trying to tell us that its ingredients are better for us? In that case, the subject it was looking for is “they.” The ingredients are a “they,” not an “it.” Of course, this presumes that Menchie’s was not simply using an unclear antecedent in the signs that were posted at stores this fall.)

And I am glad to hear that the ingredients are real, and thus do in fact exist. I do hate when I buy food that is a figment of my imagination.

The company clearly wants to tell us that it uses “real ingredients.” Real ingredients as opposed to fake ingredients, I suppose. One could assume that if the ingredients are fake, that they do not in fact exist. Saying that an ingredient is “real” doesn’t give us a whole lot of evidence about what kind of ingredient it is. Just merely that it’s in there, and that it has, um, matter.

Most people will be excited by that and assume that this unregulated and meaningless term “REAL” means that the ingredients are “pure ” (another term meaning nothing), or from organic milk, or more healthful than other kinds of frozen yogurt.

You see, Menchie’s never actually does make that claim, in a legal sense. But the company’s chest-pounding about realness sure does make you feel like you must be doing something healthy as you eat your candy-covered frozen dessert.

But any ingredient that is present in any concoction, anywhere, is “real.”

Even, if it’s, say, artificial flavors. Yup, they are in there. Up near the top of the list for the flavor cinnayumm bun. “Natural & artificial flavors” are on there, right next to modified food starch — perhaps another favorite of the crowd looking for real, healthful ingredients?

These are listed before the third last ingredient, which is … artificial flavor. Apparently, Menchie’s stuff is so real they had to put in artificial flavors twice, in two separate listings.

But I have to give the chain a break, because the company wasn’t making a claim that really goes against any laws. Menchie’s was simply stretching the boundaries of language, and praising the virtues of a product that does, in fact, exist.

Unless, that is, the company wants to make us believe that frozen yogurt flavors full of artificial flavors and covered in commercially produced candy are in fact, from nature (you know, REAL ingredients).

Now that might be misleading.

After all, Menchie’s only said it uses real ingredients. Not that all of its ingredients are real.

Did you read that sign wrong?

Comments welcome.


Cinnayumm bun ingredients: 

Here are ingredients for the flavor pineapple cake, which bears an impressive badge telling us it contains “real pineapple cake batter.” The ingredients also list the very real “natural & artificial flavors” and later, “natural & artificial flavor,” as well as Yellow Lake 6 and Yellow Lake 5. All real. (On another day, I will discuss how natural flavor is no guarantee of anything close to nature, either.)

The flavor harvest pumpkin boasts natural & artificial flavors, as well as the very real food colorings Yellow 5, Red 40 and Yellow 6:

Trick-or-cheaters: It’s chocolate, now with less chocolate!

Halloween is a time when we let go of long-held standards such as “no candy bars for breakfast” and “no slasher-movie imagery for 18-month-olds.”

And most parents look the other way when another parent steals all of a child’s Almond Joys and pilfers a Twix or two.

But you might want to think twice before sharing in your kids’ take, or letting the kids eat it, because this stuff isn’t entirely made of food anymore.

Some major chocolate brands have taken out the cocoa butter and replaced it with … well, the derivative of a product that sometimes serves as a laxative (like those times Mussolini used it as a way to torture, embarrass and occasionally kill prisoners) or an outright poison, like when it’s used to make ricin, Walter White’s poison of choice on “Breaking Bad.”

Do you want food that comes in close proximity to it? It is made from the very useful castor bean plant, which is widely considered one of the most dangerous plants in the world, and also makes really nifty biodiesel and lubricates machines and engines well. This exciting ingredient is called PGPR, Polyglycerol Polyricinoleate. (See? It even has ricin in the name.)

The FDA knows about it, and deems it all OK. PGPR didn’t kill any rats or give them cancer in the 1950s and 1960s. (And we know how advanced detection of rat cancer must have been in the 1950s and 1960s.) It also helps manufacturers use more soy lecithin. If we eat more of this filler, candy companies can have a better bottom line, and we’ll get less … cocoa butter. I love when companies remove a major component of an item and sell it to me with less of it. Don’t you?

That’s OK, right? You may enjoy eating a viscous, yellow product you would never even touch as a raw ingredient so the company can alter the candy’s thickness for less. And then they can leave out those pesky ingredients that occur naturally in chocolate production, like cocoa butter, that are just so expensive and gooey and hard to use for the beleaguered chocolate company. Wouldn’t you rather they got some extra money by selling off that ingredient to cosmetic companies for other products, rather than giving you the stuff you think you’re already paying for and eating?

On its Web site, Hershey’s explains that it uses PGPR “to improve processing characteristics of chocolate.” It also helps in molding chocolate. Right. Because we know that there were such difficulties with that before 2006, when Hershey’s altered the formula by giving us less cocoa product — and more chemicals that had to be studied in many labs so companies would know how much they could safely feed to us.

It makes you think. How did Hershey’s ever manage to mold chocolate for the 106 years before that? It couldn’t have been that difficult.

It’s merely more expensive.

Hey, chocolate makers: How about you not add products that are fantastic for greasing engines to your products without checking with us first, OK? Maybe you could add a little tag that says “Now, with even more emulsifiers!” or “Rich in ricin derivatives.”

I suppose it is reassuring that the FDA has labeled PGPR as GRAS, Generally Regarded as Safe. An even better idea might be to lobby to change that label to “Generally Regarded as Chocolate.” You know, generally. Or “Now! Even more like chocolate!”

That might be a good distinction to make, since studies that say that chocolate has great health-enhancing qualities all count on it being, you know, made from actual chocolate and actual cocoa butter, and not just the FDA legal minimum of each, along with a substance created in a lab.

As usual, my mother was horrified to hear the news about this quiet switcheroo. “Why are theyputting that in there?”

As usual, the answer was not uplifting. “Because it’s cheaper,” I told her. “Because they can.”

And, finally, they can do this because only a few buyers are reading ingredient labels and asking questions. If you see an acronym, look it up. You may not like what you find.

Some products that do contain PGPR:
Hershey’s with Almonds
Mr. Goodbar
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
Cadbury Fruit & Nut
Cadbury Dairy Milk

Some products that don’t contain PGPR:
Nestle Crunch
Hershey’s Kisses
3 Musketeers
Theo chocolates
Newman’s Own

Previously posted on my consumer protection blog, The Old Shoe (

Parents with small children may now not board

We had some pretty intense travel time with small kids this week.

Well, one is small, just under 3. The other is small only if we decide to mark him thus because he can kind of fit in a a stroller for a nap if he wants to. And I think he’s small because he sometimes actually wants to get in a stroller and take a nap. He’s, uh, just 68 months.

I’m having some issues with maybe never wanting to get on an airplane again, at least not until the boys are in 16th and 19th grade or so. But my main problem these days is understanding how getting on the plane earlier with tiny combative children –and aren’t they all?–could possibly help anyone. Common sense would dictate that it’s best to delay that process as long as possible. No toddler ever has found sitting in an overheated plane on a tarmac reassuring. Not without tequila. And I hardly ever meet preschoolers who do shots these days.

With all that waiting, we just give them more time to complain, and give those very special overly attentive flight attendants more time to breathe down our necks to put the belt low and tight across their laps.

And yet we all jump to get on that plane early! Is it the special privilege of being first? Did we not win at enough birthday party games? Is it to make up for all those bad lottery ticket purchases? Why why why do we all want to rush on the plane?

Can someone please explain this? Has getting on the plane earlier ever helped any other parents out?

Previously published at my blog

Is your kid sick again? When a ‘virus’ strikes 12 times a year

Sometimes, it’s good news to hear that your kid doesn’t have a cold, but an obscure rare disease.

If it’s the twelfth “virus” that’s given him a fever of 105 every 28 days for the past year, the diagnosis of that obscure rare disease becomes a downright blessing.

This is the strange state that is being the parent of a child with PFAPA syndrome, a benign condition that brings about very high fevers for days with alarming regularity, and no obvious cause. (It also brings that interesting acronym, which stands for periodic fever, aphthous stomatitis, pharyngitis and adenitis. Try rattling that name off as a party trick for your nurse- and doctor-friends, who have likely never heard of it.)

Often, the child has mouth sores or a mild sore throat. But in other cases, the child merely has some slightly swollen glands: an indication that, yes, your child might be fighting something. But what that is is anybody’s guess for the parents for months, and very often, years. Otherwise, the child is happy, healthy and robust, and doesn’t even catch a smidge of illness when all the big kids around him are flu-ridden and miserable.

It just doesn’t make sense. And you become certain you’ve gone insane.

My trip to this twilight zone started innocently enough, with what was certainly a late bout of roseola in the two-year-old. For six to seven days, he had a fever above 103 and 104 – all the time — and no other symptoms. We didn’t medicate him when he seemed reasonably content and playful to help him fight off this apparent mystery virus. We brought him to the pediatrician twice, and she found nothing but swollen neck glands.

Every morning for about seven days, my husband and I would expectantly check him for a red rash on his torso, the rash that gives the infant condition roseola its nickname, baby measles. The fever ended. The rash never came. But the fever did again, 28 days later. As did my newfound fears: Meningitis? Could it be meningitis? Is he septic? Quick, let’s check him for cuts! Can Kawasaki disease be cyclical?

And is yet another medical staff member going to tell me “some kids just get high fevers with every illness”? Really? And always with no other symptoms? Am I being punked by pediatric residents?

He surged to 105.8 one day, which resulted in my running with him — yes, running like a lunatic, with him precariously placed in a broken-down stroller — to the nearby regional children’s hospital. Verdict? “It’s just a virus.” It was another six-day fever that started high, stayed high, and wasn’t going down much with acetaminophen.

Twenty-eight days later, we were on vacation in Hawaii, and the bizarre mystery fevers were a distant memory, until 56 days later (yes, that is indeed 28 times 2). And 28 days after that, a crazy-high fever spiked to the 105s again.
Twenty-eight days later, same cycle, same pattern. And so on, and so on, and so on. For the next 13 months.

The local children’s hospital’s urgent care clinic became our new haunt on many weekends. Most of the time, we were sent home with the diagnosis of “a virus” and the advice to keep doing what we had been doing – which of course, seemed to always lead to a fever of 105.8. (It also led to two horrible urethral catheterizations, since the feverish and cranky boy steadfastly refused to pee in any cup for anyone.

When your kid spikes major fevers with no explanation, the doctors need to check for a urinary tract infection. Even, apparently, when the kid has this pattern every damned month and never has a positive test for a UTI. I just consider us lucky that the physicians never got around to coming at us with paperwork for a spinal tap. Every month.)

Finally, after two summer fevers, during which I knew exactly what day his fever would go to the 105s, I started demanding answers; I stopped wishing it would all stop happening.

I asked his excellent pediatrician if the fevers were a concern to her. “Well, it’s not like he’s getting a fever every month,” she remarked. Um, yep, it is.

That’s when I went back over every e-mail about a missed playdate, every begging request to kind friends to pick up my older child at school, every darn monthly letter explaining to my sick child’s co-op preschool class that I would be missing my required classroom day yet again, and did anyone want to sub for me for, say, the seventh time?

That was when we knew for sure that we were on to something. It was as if we were tracking a menstrual cycle. Every 28 to 32 days, he got a visit from the fever fairy. It was not in our heads. After a quick but traumatic blood draw at our pediatrician’s office to look for signs of cyclic neutropenia, a very rare but serious disorder of the white blood cells, we were given a referral to the children’s hospital’s infectious disease unit.

By that time, from my many Google searches for “recurrent fever,” I knew we were likely dealing with PFAPA, and that it is considered harmless and is not infectious, but the few postings online from other frantic parents told me that the only people who really knew a whit about periodic fevers were infectious disease specialists and rheumatologists.

And, this, for a disease that is neither rheumatological nor infectious: A no man’s land of childhood conditions.
The day of the big appointment, I came armed with my sloppy but detailed handwritten diary, and discussed the history at length with a resident. And then the ID doctor came in. She was the person I had longed to speak to for more than a year. Her greeting: “This is not a virus.”

I have since read others’ accounts, and this is the most gratifying thing a parent can hear after months or even years of uncertainty and late-night fears spurred by a borderline delirious child in your bed, screaming about shadows again.

We have not yet opted for the current first line of defense –one or two small doses of the powerful steroid prednisone given at the start of a fever — but already we are resting easier. We know it’s not meningitis, or a raging infection, or cancer. Or a virus. And expensive genetic screening has almost certainly ruled out any possibility that my son could be dealing with another rare but more serious periodic fever syndrome, such as familial Mediterranean fever or TRAPS (formerly known as familial Hibernian fever).

PFAPA is certainly not fun, but in almost every case, it does go away, say doctors, usually by the time the child reaches the double digits in age. (It generally starts in early childhood, between the ages of two and five.) With a tonsillectomy, it can go away even faster. Since the precise mechanism that triggers the fever is unknown, it’s still a mystery why removal of the tonsils and sometimes adenoids seems to work. But it seems that in 80 percent of cases or more, it does.

In the case of my son’s specialist, at least, the course of action is usually to try prednisone first, then daily cimetidine (yes, Tagamet), then finally to seek a surgical option, which is, of course, more invasive, but has had good results for many kids. Is there a chance this disease is arising because young children used to have tonsils removed routinely in alarming numbers, and now it’s a discouraged procedure? No one knows, and there are very few doctors studying this.

It is known that PFAPA was once a disorder believed to exist in a smattering of children when it was first identified in the 1980s, as Marshall’s syndrome. Today, there are more than 400 parents who are active on the Facebook page PFAPA Child. Of course, not every family is aware of the page, or even aware that their child is suffering from such a condition, so it seems there are quite a lot of us out there in the United States alone.

After the diagnosis, a 105 was just a sign that we needed to back up the ibuprofen given five hours before with some acetaminophen, not a sign that we needed to get to a hospital at break-neck speed. I learned to appreciate the little things, like the beautifully smooth operation of a brand-new oral syringe for liquid ibuprofen.

And my time-tested ability to measure out 1.5 teaspoons with my eyes closed. And to not even blink when I read 105.8 on a thermometer. It’s just another month in the life of a PFAPA parent.

Previously posted on my children’s health blog,

Animals aren’t people, too

The Younger has been getting really ticked off lately, because apparently everyone around him who’s older than two knows nothing. Which, if you’re two, is a fairly common scenario to find yourself in.

A frequent conversation about the cat goes something like this:

Younger: “It’s hungry! He meows! He meowing.”

Elder: “No, she’s a girl. Sidney is a girl cat.”

Younger (scoffing): “It’s NOT a girl. It’s a cat!!!”

At this point, he’s turning red and wagging a finger in our faces. He seems truly offended that we appear to be suggesting that the kittycat is … a child! Silly mommy. Silly brother. She’s obviously covered in fur, and likes to lick cream cheese off any given surface. And she’s not even wearing any pink. A girl? As if.

And now I’m racking my brain trying to come up with a language where gender and species is a nonissue. Perhaps we can adopt it in our pronoun-confused household. Especially since he charmingly refers to all female friends as “he.” And occasionally calls a neighbor’s golden retriever a cat.

At best, perhaps we can find a magical place where cats have no gender.  Because really, unless you want to date our cat, does her sex really matter?

Obviously, I’m with The Younger on this one.


This was originally posted on my old mom blog,


Pajama rules swap flame retardants for common sense

Every parent learns that you have to buy kids’ cotton pajamas two sizes too big. We’re not supposed to, according to the yellow hang tags from an unidentified authority, but that is how it’s done in reality.

Otherwise, kids look and feel like they’re wearing too-tight body stockings, and no one wants to sleep that way. (What if you get an itch? You’d then need to completely undress, sliding off that clingy cotton peel just to scratch your thigh.)

If the pajamas you buy in your kid’s size fit more reasonably, it’s because they are made of synthetic fibers (which may or may not have been chemically treated long before the fabric became pajamas) or have been made thoroughly coated in flame retardants that must make it through at least 50 washes in all their chemical goodness.

How did these pajama rules come about? And how many kids in loose cotton jammies were truly in danger before these regulations first came into effect in the 1970s? (And couldn’t that risk have a lot to do with the vastly greater numbers of parents who had cigarettes dangling from their lips in 1975?)

The tight fit is considered protective because no loose fabric means less of a chance that a sleeve or pant leg will be set ablaze.

And the rule change in the 1970s did result in a significant reduction in fire injuries to children. That was back when the manufacturers were using a few flame retardants that were so obviously hazardous to health that they were swiftly banned in 1977.

Today, I can safely say I seldom hold my children over an open flame. Particularly not when they are wearing pajamas. But then again, mine hardly ever wear pajamas anymore since they’re are so darned uncomfortable. The synthetic fibers are too heavy, and the cotton versions are too clingy. I like fire safety, but I also like having kids who will fall asleep at night.

But these fire-safe jammie laws mean nothing if everyone buys a bigger size or ditches the clothes for loose T-shirts and shorts. It’s common sense to avoid clothes that smell like chemicals. It’s common sense to buy clothes that fit. And it’s common sense to keep the kids away from things that make fire.

Until recently I was under the impression that these laws existed to protect kids who woke up in burning homes, but I was wrong. In 2000, a memo from the Consumer Product Safety Commission stated that children should only wear cotton pajamas when they are snug because loose garments catch fire fast. The press release notes, “Children are most at risk from burn injuries that result from playing with fire (matches, lighters, candles, burners on stoves) just before bedtime and just after rising in the morning.”

It sounds to me that rather than changing the clothes, fire prevention experts need to work on looking into households where kids routinely play with fire before bedtime. Limiting access to matches and lighters and teaching kids not to turn on the stove might be, say, a whole lot more effective. Guards that prevent young children from being able to turn on the stove would be a good move, too.

And maybe the parents could just make sure they occasionally look in on the kids. (Sadly, I know, that’s sometimes too much to ask.) I’d have to say that tight cotton pajamas and chemical-coated polyester blends certainly do seem to be a Band-Aid here.

They aren’t really doing the job, either, if most people avoid buying the products. It’s a little like banning brown wooly coats so children don’t get shot by hunters. It’s the free-ranging gun that’s the problem! Just like it’s the free-ranging fire sources that prompted these rules.

Let’s start a movement instead to get the lighters and matches away from kids, and outfit every home with a stove guard.


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