Wednesday, November 5. 2008
Whenever we go out to Elmo's (a wonderful local diner that has nothing to do with Sesame Street) my family gets crayons and paper. The wait staff hands out pictures of their mascot, Dillon Duck, which children are encouraged to color in. Usually I just turn the page over and draw something else to entertain our squirmy brood. "What are you gonna draw?" Aidan asked one night. "I think I'll draw . . . you!" And I drew my first impression of my oldest son:
He laughed, with an unmistakable "Yup, that's me!" glee. Malcolm laughed, too.
"Draw me!" said Malcolm. So I drew the first image of Malcolm that comes into my head:
Malcolm laughed at that, too. "He's . . . " (pointing at the Aidan-picture), "... going 'ARRGGG!', and he's . . ." (pointing to the Malcolm picture) ". . . going 'WAAAAA!' " And both boys cracked up.
I hung on to those pictures, because they represent a koan to me. These boys do love each other, and care for each other, and yet the overriding impression in my mind is Aidan the Terrible trying his best to torture his little brother, and generally succeeding. Aidan is a sensitive boy who plays music on his recorder and makes amazing hand crafts and delights in making tiny presents for his baby cousin. He also seems to derive endless pleasure from provoking his brother. Several times a day I hear some new brouhaha, and I come out of my office and say, "Aidan, I see you laughing, and Malcolm crying . . . what's wrong with this picture?"
I swear I was never like this. I argued plenty with my brothers, but I never took such delight in seeing them upset.
The situation is complicated by the fact that they both embrace these victim/victimizer roles. Sometimes Aidan is perfectly innocent, but Malcolm is "drawing the foul," shrieking bloody murder the moment Aidan suggests something he doesn't like. And Malcolm has learned how to play the game, too . . . if he chances upon some behavior that annoys Aidan (say, clicking his tongue) he will repeat it endlessly until Aidan is in a towering fury, will Mal just sits there with an innocent, "What? I'm not doing anything" look on his face.
It terrifies me to think of my sons becoming bullies. Yet I see their relationship circling around an endless cycle of trying to inflict pain on each other. It was with that in mind that I went to see Kim John Payne, and expert on bullying, give a lecture at our school. (...to be continued)
Friday, October 31. 2008
On the afternoon of Halloween, Aidan came home looking tired, and with almost no voice. He went to bed for a couple hours, and when he got up he had a fever of 102. "nnnnnnnooooooooOOOOOOOO! I have to go trick or treating!" His mom smiled a gentle sad smile: "I don't see how we can let him . . . "
But in the end, we let him. What the heck. There are all of six houses on our street. He'll survive. He put on his goblin costume. It looked remarkably like the costume of a homeless person, except for the green mask. He took the green mask off after the first house -- he was too hot in it. This is the third year, I think, he ditched the mask. (Note to self: no more masks.) He troops along, without the wild screaming enthusiasm of his cousins, but still glad to be there. I ask him, before the last house, "How you doing, Boo?" "Tired." Janet had noted earlier: "You know, he's actually a lot easier to get along with when he's sick. Takes the edge off."
He has exactly one piece of candy at home, and then he goes to bed and passes out instantly. There is no fanfare, but I sense a sort of victory.
We work so hard to give our kids safety, the right food, the right education . . . and yet still, so much of their happiness comes down to getting to trick-or-treat when you're seven and have a 102-degree fever. We came so close to making the wrong decision.
Saturday, July 12. 2008
I know this may seem like a small thing. It's a kid's book. It's been around forever. People like it. Why should I even bother? But it bugs me. It continues to bug me every single time I sit down with it. I can't take it anymore. I have to tell the truth and shame the devil.
Busy, Busy Town, supposedly one of Richard Scarry's classics, is a fake.
Ok, maybe that's a rash thing to say. Someone will sue me for libel. But the evidence is so overwhelming that something weird is going on.
When toilet-training our two boys, we encouraged them to sit on the potty by reading to them while they did their business. The favored bathroom reading was (you guessed it) Richard Scarry. As much as I love Richard Scarry and regard What Do People Do All Day? as a timeless classic, I am conditioned to literally yawn every time I open the books up, as a result of our endless potty sessions. "No, I'm not done yet, Dad. Keep reading."
After such close study over two kids' worth of reading, I couldn't help but notice . . .
How can one explain this inexplicably poor book at the very end of Richard Scarry's career? A few theories:
I doubt I'm the only one who noticed. Someone posted to Flickr a catalog of changes between the 1961 and 1993 releases of The Best Word Book Ever, so I know people notice these things. But perhaps I'm the only one who cares who actually drew and wrote a book. One of the sad things about Scarry's career was that he sold so many books that literary institutions refused to give the slightest acknowledgement or critical acclaim. By that reckoning, who cares who wrote it, if it's making money?
Friday, April 4. 2008
I started a couple different essays challenging the philosophical assumptions of compassionate communication, but finally realized I needed to let them sit for a while.
There are a few things that I've noticed already, in the actual practice of compassionate communication:
Overall, I've decided there's enough value in the compassionate communication model to invest in learning it and practicing it, even if it proves to be less than the Holy Grail of all human interaction.
Wednesday, April 2. 2008
In contemplating how compassionate communication would impact my daily life, I concluded that it would require a fundamental reordering of the cognitive processes I normally go through in relating to other people.
The usual process would go something like this:
The compassionate communicate approach reverses this whole process:
The really radical part is the notion that you start with the assumption that you are going to consider everyone's needs. When I explained this to my wife, she said, "Yeah, it's really radical . . . sounds almost . . . well, Christian."
BING BING BING BING! Congratulations, you win! That is, indeed, the exact sentiment expressed in Jesus' first and greatest commandment: "â€¦Love thy neighbor as thyself." He invites us to consider the other person's needs as equivalent to our own. And that consideration for the other precedes all judgment; we are to love our enemies as well as our friends.
He is affirming our own needs, as well as those of others. Whether you are trying to meet your own needs, or trying to meet the other's needs, it's all the same: you are serving Life. From that perspective, the only sensible way to live a Christian life is to seek out strategies that meet everyone's needs. I think this is important to point out because so much of the Christian tradition is focused on self-abnegation, denying the self and its needs. I suspect that rejection of the self ultimately creates resentment, and interferes with the ultimate goal of transcending the division between self and other. When we are filled with divine Grace, then we can meet our own needs or the needs of others with equal compassion and acceptance.
Friday, March 28. 2008
Tonight I went to a lecture by John Cunningham on compassionate communication, aka non-violent communication (NVC), as the opening part of a weekend workshop. I had initially been exposed to compassionate communication as a part of the "alternative parenting" spectrum of philosophies. Parents who get involved in La Leche League or Attachment Parenting or Waldorf Education also seem to hover around compassionate communication as a more "enlightened" model of relating to their children and people in general. Janet's API friends would invoke NVC language occasionally in their discussions, and I was cautiously intrigued. I say "cautiously" because, I confess, it appeared rather nutty on first blush: a sort of starry-eyed, liberal, pro-social-non-violent, utterly unrealistic notion of human nature. Just the name "non-violent communication" was a turn-off: a holier-than-thou attempt to position itself beside Mahatma Gandhi, and also slyly imply that your language is violent, you white-male-paternalistic-empirialist-pig-dog-brute, you.
But I read Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, which seemed to be moving along the same philosophical lines, and his careful reasoning and hard-hitting research convinced me that a radical rethinking of how relationships work was not so nutty after all. (You can read my evaluations and critiques of Unconditional Parenting here, here, here and here.) If an unconditional, non-judgmental approach could work for parenting, perhaps it was equally applicable to all relationships. So I had to give compassionate communication a fair hearing.
John Cunningham gave a very good overview of compassionate communication and its underlying philosophy. Here are some of the take-away points from the lecture:
That's compassionate communicate in a nutshell . . . I have lots more to say about this, but this is the meat of what it's about.
Sunday, February 24. 2008
NPR ran a story a couple days ago that gives me hope for our educational system: "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills" [Alix Spiegel, February 21, 2009.]
The basic thesis of the story: it was only relatively recently, with the advent of year-round toy advertisements on television, that children's play in our culture became focused on the toy, rather than on play. Before then, play was fundamentally an activity, a free-wheeling imaginative make-believe in which children narrated stories, individually and collectively. But the focus on toys, with ever-more-articulated detail and pre-scripted stories, restricted the imaginative sphere of the child. Add to that the increasing focus on child safety, and the trend to put kids into adult-managed activities: Little Leagues, karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps, etc. (To quote the satirical newspaper The Onion: "Child-Safety Experts Call for the Restrictions on Childhood Imagination.") In the end, children had much, much less room for imaginative play.
Which, it turns out, was a disastrous mistake. Imaginative play turns out to have a strong role in the development of "executive function," a constellation of cognitive abilities that includes, most significantly, "self-regulation" -- the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. And executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.
What makes this story particularly interesting for me is that it is a sweeping endorsement of Waldorf Education pedagogy. Waldorf distinguishes itself with a strong de-emphasis on early reading, instead making the ideal environment for imaginative play for younger children. In the Waldorf preschools and kindergartens, you will not find a single alphabet block. Instead you will find the raw material for imaginative play: play stands, colorful silk scarves, polished stones, pieces of wood, and extremely rudimentary dolls. You will also see lots of handwork and practical arts: knitting, felting, drawing, painting, cooking, and gardening. These are basic exercises for self-regulation.
The NPR story also helps justify Waldorf's strong prohibitions against exposure to media and commercial messages. Waldorf teachers urge parents to limit, and preferably eliminate, all TV, radio, and computer time for young children. School dress codes forbid brand logos, television characters, and all forms of writing. Now we know why: television targeting young audiences is deliberately, consciously trying to co-opt imaginative play for the sake of selling products.
Think of all the modern complaints about the rise in "attention-deficit disorder", and discipline issues in school. Is it any wonder that they can't sit still and pay attention, if we never gave them the chance to practice those abilities?
I find it exciting and promising that the mainstream culture is starting to realize what Waldorf teachers knew all along: children do not need to be little Einsteins. They need to be little children. They need to play.
Saturday, June 23. 2007
In the comments yesterday, Kenny noted his struggle with Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, and it's assertion that parenting styles do not have a lasting effect on children, at least as far as science can measure, and once all heritability has been set aside.Â I had exactly the same reaction: Yay, someone finally acknowledges human nature! Oh no, my heavy investment in parenting can't have been a waste!Â
I admit I have a stake in this question, and that it's difficult for me to examine the findings objectively. Still . . . something about it stinks. I can live with someone telling me that heretability is more important than nurture, and I can even live with someone telling me that peer influence and individual experience trumps parenting as well. But to say that parenting has zero influence . . . that just defies reasonable expectations, as well as personal experience and common sense. I do not dismiss his findings out of hand, but I do feel the urge to start looking for the holes. We gotta be missing something here.
Let's start with some of Pinker's caveats. He freely admits that all the studies eliminate extreme cases of abuse and neglect from the data; so everyone still agrees that it is possible for parents to screw their children up. This is an important concession, because he still allows that parents can have profound impacts on their children. Of course, most of us strive to do more than just "not screw up the kids." But it does make me wonder how much data got excluded, due to conscious elimination of outliers or just plain sampling error.
He also allows for the fact that parents play a big role in selecting the child's peer groups, by picking certain neighborhoods to live in, sending their kids to particular schools, forbidding them to associate with certain circles, etc.Â But this too seems suspicious . . . you mean that, with all those very important ways that parents influence their kids via peer groups, that none of it translates into a correlation that would be labelled as "parental"? It seems perfectly logical to say that children from the same family are likely to have very similar peer group experiences, which would mean that all those peer influences should show up somewhere on the "nurture" side of the column. It just doesn't seem logically consistent to say, "Peers have a 50% influence, and parental behavior has a 0% influence." Where does the "home" end and the "peer experience" begin?
Pinker also completely sets aside learned skills. Whether a child learns piano or chess from his parents is not interesting to him; he's interested in questions of temperament and ability, which supposedly are more important to final outcomes. But that seems to be a huge set of parenting to set aside. Lots of incredibly important capacities do come down to skills. Sharing is a skill. Being polite and thoughtful is a skill, as much as a matter of temperament or intelligence. Budgeting your money, negotiating compromises, communicating effectively: these are all skills that can be taught, and which parents can and do teach to their children, by example and specific direction.Â (They are also skills that can be acquired fromÂ people other than parents, and at times well past early childhood, so maybeÂ people don't consider them the province of nature/nurture discussion; but it seems to me that the earlier they get them, the better they will be.)
So . . . keep poking at Pinker. Maybe we'll find something.
« previous page (Page 2 of 2, totaling 18 entries)
Syndicate This Blog