Saturday, January 23. 2010
Emerson Waldorf School held their annual Waldorf Education Day this morning, and the theme was "True Connection in a Hyper-Connected World." Waldorf schools have a very cautious view of media and technology, and believe that TV and computers should be introduced to children in a thoughtful, age-appropriate, and conscious way, when they are ready for it. That generally means that they introduce media much later than others schools, but then have a much more conscious engagement with it later. So, for instance, you won't see a computer in most elementary and middle school Waldorf classes, but you might see an eighth grade class start learning about computers by building their own from scratch.
One workshop I attended this morning on teaching media awareness had an interesting demonstration, that I thought I would pass on. (Hat tip to Jerry Stifelman of The Change Creation and Lisa Braden of the Emerson Waldorf School.)
First look at this ad for Axe Body Spray. "This is 100% guaranteed to offend all feminists in the room," says Braden. Clearly, a callous appeal to young men, at the expense of the dignity of women.
Now, look at this interesting pitch, a part of Dove's Real Beauty campaign. "Seems like a nice, wholesome, love-yourself message for young women, right?" Braden asks. "The complete opposite of the Axe ad."
Now for the punchline: both the Axe and the Dove brands are owned by the same company, Unilever.
The moral of the story: advertising is not a reflection of values, or lifestyles, or ideals. Advertising's sole purpose is to sell things -- and companies will use whatever means necessary to make you buy their products. What our children -- and all of us -- need is a greater awareness of how the media manipulates our opinions.
Friday, November 13. 2009
My seven-month-old son James has the distinction of being a Happy baby. He wakes up happy. You have to turn up the monitor louder than usual, it's so easy to miss his waking up. While my first two sons generally woke up crabby or groggy, James just lies there blowing raspberries while he admires the stitching on his knit blanket. Sometimes he bangs on the bed repeatedly with an open palm, full of enthusiasm, as if to say: "Man, I cannot wait to get going. This is gonna be great." I like to sneak up on him when he's just woken up, just so I can see that serene clarity on his face – unafraid, and full of interest. Then he notices me standing by the bed, and he smiles like I am the best thing that could possibly happen to him today. If I died today, my final thoughts would be of that wake-up moment.
I have a theory on why people like dogs so much. Dogs are consummate optimists. To a dog, everything in the world is interesting: "Man, check out this bush! I mean, just smell it! Did you catch the whiff of . . . and what's that? Wow!" Every day is a good day to a dog. No matter how many times they fail to catch the squirrel, every time the squirrel comes into the yard, they chase it, with full-tilt commitment. As far as they are concerned, today is the day they are gonna catch that sucker. And when you come home at the end of the day, they are always very glad to see you, and make a point of saying so. In short, we keep dogs because we want to be reminded that happiness is possible.
My son James has near dog-like powers of happiness.
He is also remarkably good-looking. There is so little one can say about a human being before their first birthday, other than routine observations of their appearance or their disposition. "He's so cute/adorable/beautiful" usually top the list of comments, but people sense that even those rubrics are insufficient for this particular child. "No, I mean, really, he's really good-looking." Once my wife walked down the street with him, and a stranger abruptly interrupted her cell phone conversation to step forward and say, "Now that . . . is a beautiful baby." Talk about super-powers . . . Superman might be able to leap over tall buildings, but my son can shatter cell-phone bubbles.
This isn't just a proud parent qvelling over his kid. I have a philosophic point. The last year or so I have been lost in the wilderness, philosophically speaking. I have struggled with doubts and fears and reservations. As Rumi put it, I wake up "empty and scared." I have tried to use Reason to nail down the purpose of my life . . . and yet James reminds me every day that Life is not a rational proposition. What we believe, what we know is only a small fraction of how we live, how we hold ourselves as we move into life. Love and joy, the things that give meaning to existence, while always transcend reason.
Monday, June 29. 2009
Kenny wrote an excellent defense of the rights of minors in his essay "Of Strip-Searches and Students," in which he commented on the recent Supreme Court case of Safford Unified School District v. Reading. 13-year-old Savana Reading was strip-searched by school administrators on suspicion that she was carrying ibuprofen. (Yes, you read that right -- an OTC drug available in every household in the country is contraband in a government-run school.) The High Court found (thank God) that Savana's 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated. But Kenny is looking for a larger legal precedent. He wonders: why shouldn't minors enjoy the same legal rights as adults, when it comes to respecting their basic human dignity?
Read Kenny's essay if you haven't already. Then come back here, because I want to propose another angle from which one could construct a theory of the legal privacy rights of minors.
^ ^ ^
It's hard to talk about the legal rights of minors without also talking about the legal rights of parents. In general, the law provides parents with absolute power and authority over their children. Children do require a lot of governing, relatively speaking, and our culture trusts that the parents are the ones most likely to have the child's best interests at heart when using that authority. A parent's powers are pretty broad – they can search, seize, and physically restrain the freedom of their children as they see fit. Most people see that arrangement as appropriate; so long as the children are not physically endangered and adequately provided for, parents should have that right to exercise those powers. (As a matter of good parenting, I think parents are well advised to restrain their use of those powers. You should, in general, treat children with all the respect and autonomy you would accord to any adult, within the bounds of the child's ability to hold up their end of an adult relationship. But I still think it is appropriate that parents have the legal right to those powers.)
The only problem with that arrangement is that it gets us used to thinking of children as entities without rights. We wouldn't think it wrong to search our own children's rooms if we suspected wrongdoing, so we generalize that out to "children have no privacy rights at all." I think parents have rights that may trump the child's right to privacy (or association, or religion, or speech, or many other constitutional rights) but that doesn't mean the children don't have those rights at all.
Things get especially murky with schools, in which the teachers and administrators are acting in loco parentis – that is, they are delegated some of the powers of the parents while the children are in their care. They are permitted to control where the children go, what they are allowed to say, and can even apply certain punishments. The question is: do teachers and administrators have the same powers as parents when it comes to privacy, or not?
My feeling is no. I think the only parental powers over children that are given to other adults are those that are explicitly delegated from the parents. If a school wants the right to search a child's backpack or locker, they need the explicit consent of the parent. If a parent does not delegate those parental powers, then a child has exactly the same constitutional rights as an adult. (You may find, by the way, that adults don't have as many rights as you might think. There is no legal expectation of privacy in most workplaces, for instance – your email can be read, your desk searched, etc.)
This model isn't perfect. Savana could still be strip-searched for ibuprofen under this legal theory, had her parents signed some consent form that gave administrators the power to do so. As long as there are bad parents, there would be bad outcomes. But this, at least, would start us from the correct basis: children have the same rights as adults, unless some other parental power prevails.
Thursday, February 26. 2009
Driving the through the countryside, taking the back roads to the NC Zoo in Asheboro, we saw lots of "real" North Carolina:
At the zoo, I felt myself melting in with the rest of the people there. I was just another parent with their kids. For so much of my life I've carried around a feeling of specialness, apartness . . . "I'm not like them", "I'm better than them." I could feel that softening, disintegrating. I am really not much different than any of these people.
And yet . . . I saw a man telling a woman, "All I ask you to do is to keep them with you and out of trouble," sounding calm and rational and like he's never, ever actually had to take care of children. The woman seizes a child, whacks him on the bottom several times, her face vicious: "Don't you walk away! Ever! We'll do this old-school!" Then, later, on the tram behind us, she tells her son: "You stop crying right now! It's because you don't listen to Uncle Tom." Ah . . . "Uncle" Tom. The boyfriend. And mom's beating on the kids because she's terrified the children will drive away her man. Evidently step-parenthood is contagious.
The kids had the most fun on the playground. It was a good one, with really squishy half-artificial mulch that had almost enough spring in it to feel like a trampoline. The play-sets were done in an elegant garden theme: knobbled squash big enough to climb on, twenty-foot-tall spider web, a praying mantis just begging to be ridden. The boys played so hard they eventually shed their coats and sweaters, charging up slides and hanging from giant vines with goofy grins on their faces. You can surround them with marvels, but they will still take the most joy in moving around and climbing.
They wore me out. For the first time, I'm the one who was tired and cranky at the end of the day, while they kept on rushing from one exhibit to the next. At the last stop, the Aviary, I succumbed and sat on a bench, telling them I needed to rest for a bit, and letting them roam on their own. I felt so old, more like Grandpa than Daddy. But I can't sit for long. "That parrot can bite. Don't try to touch him . . ."
Thursday, January 22. 2009
You have probably heard the feminist slogan, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." (It has been mistakenly attributed to Gloria Steinem, but actually originated with Irina Dunn.) I had not given it much thought before, but it came to mind unexpectedly as I was staring at a cracker box in my cabinet:
What do you know? A fish on a bicycle. What could it mean?
Is Pepperidge Farm making a hidden misogynist statement? Is it saying that women really do need men, since fish (or, at least, Goldfish) need bicycles?
I keep trying to imagine the conversations of the marketing team:
"The fish . . . he's just not active enough. I mean, he's just sitting there. What does that make you think of?"
"Umm . . . sitting?"
"Right! Just sitting there, like the kids will be sitting there, on their duffs, watching Power Rangers and stuffing their faces. We can't let the Mom see that. We need something that says active and fun. Now, what can we have this fish doing?
"Ummmm . . . swimming?"
"No, no, no . . . swimming looks too much like doing nothing. Something suburban . . ."
"Right. Next you'll say we need to give him a black t-shirt and lip-ring. Think six-year-old, not sixteen-year-old."
"Hrmmm . . . kinda tough to kick a ball with fins."
"No, really, he could slap the soccer ball into the goal with his tail."
"Ok, have the animation guys see if they can do something with that for the commercial spot. But that's still not going to work for the box. We need something active but not too complicated."
"Right. A fish doing something but not really doing something. I mean – wait. I got it. I'm brilliant."
"A fish . . . on a bicycle."
"Yeah. He's just sitting there, so he doesn't have to do anything, but he's, you know, doing something."
"Ok. . . Bicycle it is."
"Oh, and don't forget the helmet. Gotta look safe and responsible."
Wednesday, December 24. 2008
When the holidays come, I always feel the urge to "keep Christ in Christmas" – to actually teach my young children the spiritual significance of the occasion. For me, the holiday represents the coming of grace into the world. I always get a little thrill when I hear the words of the angel: "I bring you good tidings of great joy." The sense that God is at work in the world, that the highest is somehow moving among the lowest, and conspiring to make something great happen . . . that's the Christmas spirit to me.
But then I sit down with the Bible, and try to prepare myself to tell the story of Jesus' birth to my eight-year-old and my four-year-old. I'm thinking, how hard can this be? Everyone knows the image of a cute little baby lying in a manger, surrounded by animals and kvelling shepherds and kings. What could be cuddlier than that?
But then I read the story, and I find that all the plot-points are premised on some seriously adult themes. The story begins with Mary betrothed to Joseph, and Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and is planning to call off the wedding. You can't even begin to get into the story without having to explain the facts of life, the prospect of infidelity and betrayal and unwed mothers. How do you gloss over that?
Then you have the whole narrative arc of the wise men, the kings seeking out Jesus. That whole narrative hinges on the evil king Herod trying to find this new messiah and kill him, and concludes with the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. What, exactly, is this supposed to teach our children? That if God really likes you, he'll tip you off when the bust is coming down? That if you're not the Son of God, the Almighty is going to let evil kings skewer you in your crib?
Don't get me wrong – it's a great story, full of intrigue, suspense, interpersonal tension, faith and doubt . . . it's just not a children's story. And once you sanitize it from all the adult themes, you are left with just the one scene of the Nativity: mangers and donkeys and camels and a baby. (Well, maybe two scenes – you've got the angel coming to shepherds as well. That's pretty clean.) Maybe that one image is enough. Obviously, it IS enough, because our culture has been able to sell a lot of Nativity scenes and make Christmas a child-centered holiday for decades. And I suppose it's peanuts to sanitize the Christmas story, compared to, say, Easter, which is chock-a-block with betrayal, political intrigue, torture, and capital punishment. But the Nativity seems to lose a lot of its meaning, if you don't know how Mary and Joseph came to be there, and the kings as well.
Saturday, December 6. 2008
Malcolm's scene with the pants, and countless others like it, have led me to reflect on a contradiction in my philosophies. Well, not a contradiction – a dynamic tension.
On the one hand, I really don't like complaining. I am generally a stoic, both by temperament and conscious conviction. I believe that complaining is a vice. Complaining creates a climate of negativity, focuses attention on one's distress instead of the matters at hand, and cultivates a sense of powerlessness and ingratitude. I believe it is admirable and desirable to keep your complaints to yourself – at least, until someone has given you permission to share them.
On the other hand, I grew up in a household in which all emotion was viewed with suspicion. The line between proper control and outright repression was difficult to discern. An ability to hide one's emotions was generally more valued than the ability to express them. My family was polite, respectful, generally harmonious . . . but low on intimacy. Which, I think, ultimately thwarted self-knowledge. It takes me forever to figure out how I really feel, because I got so good at stuffing all such messy, scary feelings into dark corners of my psyche.
These two ideals – stoic resolve, and open expression – are somewhat contradictory. I want my kids to be at home with their emotions. I want them to feel free to express what's really going on inside of them. Then again, I don't want them to be whiny brats, either. I would like them to be able to acknowledge feelings, but also transcend them. I know that, in theory, the one should lead to the other: if you consciously accept your experience and observe it carefully, a Buddhistic calm should prevail, a detachment from thought and feeling and a freedom from compulsion. Sounds great on paper. When dealing with my kids, though, I seem to sway violently between extremes. One moment I'm saying, "I can see that you're really angry right now . . . what's going on?" and the next I'm saying, "Oh, for crying out loud, just shut up and be grateful for what you've got!" So much for modeling good behavior.
Friday, December 5. 2008
"I don't like these pants," says four-year-old Malcolm bitterly, tugging on a tool loop sewn into the side of his jeans. "I hate this thing."
"Ok. Let's find you a different pair of pants, then."
"I doooon't like these pants," he wails.
"Ok. I hear that: you don't like the pants. Let's try on another pair."
"We need to get rid of those pants. We need to give them to good-will."
"Look, if you don't like the pants, you don't have to wear them. Let's just find some--"
"We need to give them away to goodwill now!"
"We need to get dressed to go to school now, and we're running out of time. Let's get--"
"I haaaate these pants. We need to give them to goodwill."
"Tell you what? Let's burn them. Cut them into little strips and soak them in lighter fluid and burn the damn things. Now would you please shut up about the pants?"
(Beat.) "I don't like those pants."
What's going on here? If the problem was what he was going to wear today, you'd think that he would have just accepted a different pair of pants. But that's not what he wanted to do. What he really wanted to do was complain about the pants. There was no real intent on solving a problem; he wanted he problem so he could complain about it.
It seems silly and non-sensical when a four-year-old does it. But how many adults do you know who spend all their time complaining about something instead of doing something to resolve the issue?
Friday, November 21. 2008
My son came home this afternoon, with a fresh supply of yarn to supply him for the holidays. Aidan is a high-energy, emotionally volatile kid, and handcrafts (one of the fortes of Waldorf Education) help him settle himself. He churns out knitting projects of his own design and devising at a furious pace. What starts as a wad of loose knits is, a few days later, a stuffed lion. Then he churns out a sweater for the lion. And booties.
This afternoon, however, he is far from settled. He is sobbing hysterically. He started trying to undo one of the skeins of yarn so he could wind it into a ball, but has wound up with an amorphous mop, a glob of fuzzy spaghetti in a colander. "I'll . . . I'll . . . never get untangled."
"It's not so bad," I say. "Look . . ." and I start to wind up the ball, turning over the yarn blob occasionally and fluffing it out to keep the loops from tangling too tightly. "Just keep doing this, and eventually you'll get it all . . ."
"NOOOooo. I'll never get it. It will take forever."
"Well, it might take a little longer than usual. But really, it's not so bad."
"NooooooooOOOOooooo. It could take WEEKS, and I don't have WEEKs . . ."
"Aidan, really. Honest. It's going to be all right."
We went on like that for a while, until eventually Aidan went off to his room to mope, and I just kept compulsively untangling yarn.
This feels like the human condition. One person looks at a problem, and sees an insolvable tragedy. Another looks at it, and sees a little extra work. You could argue that the difference is experience – I've learned certain techniques for successfully untangling string. But what's even more critical is a meta-experience I have and he doesn't (yet) have – knowledge that problems are generally solvable, that patience and persistence work better than weeping and gnashing of teeth. Because I've been through so many problems, even when I'm lost, I don't feel lost. I have a certain kind of faith that sustains me through confusion.
This seems especially pertinent after reading Kenny Felder's essay, "Humility and the Nature of God, or, The Parable of the Dog." The point of Kenny's essay is that we need to acknowledge how dreadfully limited and insufficient our models are in understanding the universe: we can no more understand the full nature of God than our dogs can understand what we do at work all day. The take-home message is intended to be one of humility – "Don't pretend to think you know what's really going on here." But I think you can also turn the parable over and find Hope. No matter how insolvable, intractable, impossible a problem may seem . . . there is probably a way to understand it. Maybe it will take God-like understanding to comprehend it . . . but then again, maybe understanding is not be nearly as far away as you think. At work, we have even codified this principle into Harry's Law: "If you're doing something, and it seems to be really hard, you're probably not doing it right." Once you realize that your current understanding can be transcended by a higher level of understanding, you aren't quite so scared by confusion. You merely pass through it, like walking down a dark hallway from one brightly lit room to another.
Aidan eventually came back downstairs, and seeing how much Malcolm and I had untangled together, got inspired. I showed him the tricks, and he finished unraveling the last of it on his own. "I guess I learned my lesson," he said. (No, really, he really said those exact words.) I was tempted to ask him, "What lesson is that?" just to see what he would say, but it wouldn't matter. It's the experience that matters, the repeated movement from darkness to light, which will ultimately give him Faith.
Saturday, November 15. 2008
I had written earlier about my concerns about teasing and bullying in my own children, as a prelude to discussing a lecture I heard by Kim John Payne, a prominent authority on handling bullying in schools.
Payne turned out to be, above all else, and excellent story-teller. He had made a concerted study of coming-of-age rituals in various indigenous societies, and had come out of the experience inspired to bring a more enlightened understanding of childhood development, and especially managing conflict, to modern Western culture. He told several stories about those experiences, most of which were both funny and interesting. I don't think I'll do him just repeating them, though you could probably hear many of the stories in the books and CDs on his website. But I can at least give the high points of his talk, and the take-home message:
Payne found that all coming-of-age rituals throughout the world shared the same fundamental structure:
The process is shaped like an hour-glass, with the person "squeezed" through an intense experience in the middle (the "liminal" stage) and ultimately released again into greater freedom and autonomy. [My first thought, in seeing this map of coming-of-age rituals, was: "That's exactly the structure of all spiritual experience."]
Payne correlated this structure of coming-of-age rituals with what happens with bullying in the schools. The bullied student goes through a process of isolation and endurance, resulting in extreme disorientation, but ultimately (if things go well) changes and emerges into a new form of belonging to the community. It's not a perfect fit, as analogies go, and Payne didn't push it too far, though he did seem to have some conclusions about what it means for bullying:
The other big take-home message (and I'm not sure if this directly ties into the whole coming-of-age theme or not) was that bullying always starts small, primarily with verbal put-downs. Put-downs have become a staple form of entertainment in our society; for instance, every 18-minute episode of Friends was found to contain over 50 put-downs. Kids follow the example that parents and popular culture set; we are essentially teaching them that verbally abusing others is fun and acceptable. Eventually, put-downs become a compulsive, addictive behavior: criticism creates a temporary feeling of camaraderie, superiority, and power, but later leads to a sense of isolation, shame, guilt, and emptiness. Payne's first recommendation for schools is to teach students, teachers, and parents to become aware of gratuitous criticism in their own communication, and to challenge every occurrence of it. There is nothing profoundly new about such advice: Buddhism includes "right speech" in its prescriptions for moral behavior, and nearly everyone's mother said (if not practiced) "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And yet, I know most people (adults and children alike) would find Payne's "blame, shame, and put-down diet" to be extremely challenging. If we're not complaining or criticizing someone or something, then what do we have to talk about?
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