Sunday, March 31, 2013

Advice on how other people raise their children: proceed with caution

So here we have yet another childless guy handing out advice on what parents  are doing wrong, and why they should all just relax because it's really got nothing to do with them. Kids will turn out how they turn out, our nature is ingrained in us and there's not much we can do as parents to change or  modify it. It's a brave dude who wades into this debate wielding nothing more than an opinion.

[F]rom my vantage point, watching the kids of my three siblings and of my many peers grow up, I’m struck less by the genius or folly of diverse child-rearing techniques than by the way most of the children matured into who they seemed, from the get-go, destined to be.

I'm sorry, I didn't realise that Frank Bruni has a PhD in psychology. Despite the reams of research to the contrary he seems to be insisting that it's almost entirely nature that determines how we turn out. Why? No reason - well, no factual reason is provided, just it's kind of what he's noticed among his (no doubt middle class, white) relatives' and friends' kids. And really, (should I say Frankly? lol) I would be equally as unlikely to take his advice even if he did have children, because of the limitations of extrapolating what's good for us all on the basis of one's own experience.

So here's the thing. He gets it half right. We are all born with certain temperamental traits that aren't going to change no matter what we (or our parents) do. However, this is very different to saying that no matter how you parent a child, their outcomes will be the same. Bruni has a very eloquent, witty style. His argument is not only persuasive, it's funny. And I'm sure many readers will recognise themselves (or people they know) in his anecdotes. But 1 + 1 does not equal 5. Even though some  of his criticism is valid for some  parents, the alternatives he is suggesting are not. And neither does he take modern parenting in the context of modern life.

There is no accurate way of knowing how a whole generation of today's children (with their disparate circumstances) are going to "turn out"  because, quite simply, they are still children. We can't study something that hasn't happened yet.

Above all I’m confounded by the boundless fretting, as if ushering kids into adulthood were some newfangled sorcery dependent on a slew of child-rearing books and a bevy of child-rearing blogs. The counsel keeps coming, from every possible corner and from unexpected shamans. The actress Jessica Alba just produced a book, “The Honest Life,” which includes her take on mothering, and she noted pointedly in a recent interview that it’s more relevant than the tidbits proffered by the actress Gwyneth Paltrow in her online newsletter, goop.

It's true that this generation of parents has way more information immediately available to them than any prior. And with that information comes anxiety over whether we are doing it right. This is a double-edged sword. Why can't we just muddle along like we used to? There is more than a bit of revisionist nostalgia in this argument. Every generation has faced its challenges. In 'our day' there were no teenagers with mobile phones, but we didn't have access to the amazing raft of knowledge that kids these days have at their fingertips either. It's possible to deny a modern teen a phone, but don't kid yourself that you're harking back to a simpler time by doing so. Most of the other kids will have access to one and it's in this context that you're making your decision.

We also didn't wear seatbelts as much so more kids died in car accidents. Smacking and hitting children was  more socially acceptable. Our parents smoked indoors. As Maya Angelou says, when we know better, we do better. More information means more power, we just have to use it wisely.

Why all the choices — “What would you like to wear?”— and all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They’re toddlers, not Pakistan. I understand that you want them to adore you. But having them fear you is surely the saner strategy, not just for you and for them but for the rest of us and the future of the republic.

If Bruni is going to use anecdotal evidence as the basis of his argument to scold modern parents then I can do the same to achieve the opposite. How about this: most parents I know are more engaged with their kids, more aware of their emotional state, and have access to more relevant information on current child development. Bruni despairs about families run as democracies, and children getting actual choices  - shock horror. He ignorantly asserts the (unfortunately commonly held) view that children do need to fear their parents a little, despite vast amounts of research which indicates that all fear-based parenting does is teach the child to try harder not to get caught.

About the feeding: explain to me what’s gained by the voluminous discussions, within earshot of little Edwin or Edwina, of what he or she probably won’t eat or definitely won’t eat or must somehow be made to eat, perhaps with a bribe. Any food that lands on the table after that much tortured preamble is bound to be eyed with suspicion and ultimately spurned, in part because it has ceased to be a vessel of nutrition or an answer to hunger at that point. It has become a power struggle: the parents’ wishes versus the child’s defiance. And the battle seems to end one and only one way. With chicken fingers.

I’M equally confounded by the all-encompassing praise. Not every kid is gifted at every endeavor, and I wonder about the wisdom of telling him or her that a bit of doggerel is Shakespearean or that a wan patch of warbling is an “American Idol” audition waiting to happen. I wonder why everybody has to be a winner. You can eliminate the valedictorians from high school but you can’t eliminate them from life, which metes out Super Bowl rings and stock options with an uneven hand, and is probably best tackled with some preparatory girding for that. Do today’s parents provide it?

I agree with his basic sentiments on not using food as a power struggle and also the dangers of over-praising. Again, there is a fair amount of research and debate on this within early childhood circles. I have to question, though, exactly what type of parent he is referring to when asking whether 'today's parent' provides the necessary structure that their children need. This is just another form of stereotyping. Replace the word 'parent' with a particular nationality or gender and the same generalization becomes laughable. Does 'today's woman' care too much about her hair? Does a Chinese person these days eat too much rice? How can we discuss 'today's parent' as though they were one homogenous group? Of course there are trends in parenting, as it has always been so. The way we act generally is influence by social mores. But can we get away from the "do better" school of advice? He seems to be referring to a particular cliched version of Western, affluent parenting, which he would do well to specify (if writing for the NYT is not specific enough).

So parents: cut yourselves some slack. Take a deep breath. No one false step or one missed call is going to consign your children to an entirely different future. Make sure that they know they’re loved. Make sure that they know their place. And make peace with the fact that you don’t hold all or even most of the cards. There may be a frustrating sense of helplessness in that realization. But there’s a mercy, too.

It's okay, parents, take a load off. Quit thinking so hard about allowing your children so many darn choices. This crazy notion you have that children should somehow have some agency in their own lives is just a product of your own self-involvement. Apparently you're all trying waaay too hard. It's really simple if you just follow his age-old, baseless advice.

Of course Bruni is entitled to his narrow, presumptuous opinions. I just don't think the 'mock and judge' style of advice-giving which relies on recognizable but by-now-tired stereotypes is particularly helpful. He just comes across as a kind of smartypants. He seems to be suggesting we should take the methods by which "we" (meaning he) was raised - no phone, fear-based, not being given an over-inflated sense of self, and  translate them into today's parenting. Just a few decades ago, not only was parenting not a verb, many fathers had much less involvement in their children's development. These days, things are changing and more fathers are getting to experience the benefits as well as the challenges of intricate and complex relationships with their children. When and if your turn comes, and you try to apply ye olde parenting philosophies, good luck with that, buddy. Let me know how you get on. And when you end up with the most spirited, never-sleeping, strong-willed child in the world, call me. So that I can read back every word of that piece to you and watch you eat each one.

For Alex Who Is Seven

I got this idea from Andie at bluemilk, and I enjoyed her post so much that I decided to do one of my own.

I think it's all too rare that we celebrate and recognise our children for specifically what makes them, them. The infuriating, the great, and everything in between. Of course we all love our children but I know I am sometimes guilty of getting carried away on the abstract emotion and it's good to stop and consider what it is about this little person that's so wonderful. Occasionally the kids will say to me, "What if you had another kid instead of me? Would you love them as much?" - a philosophical doozy if ever there was one. The 'sliding doors' of parenting. Do I love my children for who they  are or simply by virtue of the fact that they are my children and I am biologically designed to love them? I tell them the answer is: both. Of course I am designed to love them, and I do. But I also love what is unique in them. The biologically-driven love is there already. The other things are what I search out and name.

So this is for Alex. I know he is quite private and so am I, but I hope he doesn't mind me sharing this, when he's old enough to understand it.

Ten Things I Love About You

1. The intensity with which you do and feel everything. You won't put a lid on it. You react viscerally to the world. This is not over-sensitivity, you do not need to "suck it up" although the world keeps telling you to. It's okay. Keep expressing yourself. The delight, the rage. It's all truth. I'm not afraid of it. It does make me worry for you sometimes, and I can see so much of myself in you. But I won't look away, or tell you to get over it. On the day before your birthday, you had been moody all afternoon. You walked up to our whiteboard and drew this.

Then looked me in the eye and walked away. I get it.

2.Your empathy and kindness. The way you come and crawl into bed for a cuddle when I have a sleep-in on the weekends, then get up and tuck me in and tell me you'll come back and let me know when Dad has made the tea. What a wonderful way to wake up.
When Maya told me at your birthday party that she was feeling left out, and you were having so much fun with your friends, I pulled you aside and told you what Maya had said, and you went over to comfort her and give her a hug. When you took treats to school to hand out to your classmates, you made sure to take an extra one for  Diego, the school bus driver.

3. Your persistence. This drives me crazy but I am so happy that you stand your ground and don't back down easily. You keep going until you are satisfied, with an answer or an outcome.

4. The way you question everything. Nothing is a given. Sometimes we go down such long paths of questioning that can only lead to both of us pulling our hair out in frustration (often while I am driving on a freeway). Sometimes the only answer I have is "I don't know." Other times it's "let's find out." When you were two you asked me who makes it day and night, when you were three it was what happens when saltwater and fresh water come together in the ocean or sea? And questions of death, theology, human behaviour ("why do kids give me presents that they would like instead of thinking about what I would like?" "why do some grown ups think they know everything more than kids? I bet they don't know as many Star Wars characters as I do"), and of course " would you die if XX happened" (often with demonstration using a teddy or toy as model) continue to come thick and fast. And innumerable questions about thieves, traps, and the Home Alone movies. You make me question and define my position on almost everything. This is a good thing.

5. Your enthusiasm. When you started Grade One you began to write  and illustrate your own books, and asked me how you would go about getting them published. One of your suggestions was to sell them out the front of the house. Pretty soon many of the other kids in your class were making books too. Your enthusiasm is catching. Since developing an interest* in the Trash Pack you find new and inventive ways to play with them. I love how you do this.


6. Your perceptiveness. You notice things that pass other people by. Your superb memory helps, but you also have a singular attention to detail. When you were three, I pointed out the sun at dusk and the way it dipped below the horizon. "No mummy," you corrected me, "It's not the sun that moves, it's the Earth." Whilst watching The Wizard of Oz, you asked what the wicked witch drank if water killed her. How did she live without water?
You also didn't like the Pete the Cat book where the cat gets his shoes covered with red strawberries followed by blueberries, and sings about his blue shoes. You felt that it should be purple shoes, since the red was already underneath, and you asked me to substitute the word purple each time blue appeared in the text.
You call me out when I'm distracted. "Mum that was the kind of 'yeah' you say when you're not really listening. Look at me!"

 A detailed rendering of the Trashies.

7. Your sense of reason. A few days after feeling disturbed by the lack of logic in Pete the Cat, you commented that perhaps they had said blue instead of purple because it fit into the rhythm of the sentence better - blue was only one beat and purple two. So it seems you had made peace with the factual anomaly for the sake of artistic license. Even after a meltdown you're always prepared (once calm) to come back and talk it through, and try to see the other point of view.

8. Your interest in and awareness of issues that affect other people. You ask me why there are not many Chinese or brown people on TV. You tell me your friend is not very lucky because there are not many brown superheroes to choose from. Mace Windu is one of the only ones. You ask about homeless people and how they got to be homeless. When you were four you said to me, "Some people might think $1 isn't much, but if you haven't got $1, then $1 is a lot."

9. Your refusal to be any one except just who you are. You won't be drawn into chit-chat by adults, you refuse eye contact because it makes you uncomfortable. You don't like having attention drawn to yourself.   Since before you wore socks with sandals for an entire term to preschool, you've never been worried about following the crowd. I was wondering whether the usual need to fit in might at some point supersede this individuality. So far it hasn't. When Maya started crying at the mention of getting a hair cut, you told her, "Beautiful is not important. Boys try to be cool, but I'm not cool and I don't care."  Ironically, this lack of concern about being cool, and this ability to be your own self, makes you the coolest kid ever in my book.

10.  The way you execute your rapid-fire karate moves, anytime anywhere. Getting ready for school, getting ready for a bath, whenever the mood strikes.

Can't Hold Us

Coolest song.

Surviving Progress

Watching TV the other night, an ad came on for a car company. The voice over said,

 "Nothing is more valued in Canada than the promise of something new."

The same could be said for any Western country. But what kind of world are we living in when this statement is used to SELL MORE STUFF rather than as a DIRE WARNING about how wrong we have got it?

I understand that it's good to want to  move forward, and that change is exciting. New things are shiny. But when does it stop?

Some may call it an ad campaign, I call it everything that is wrong with capitalism.

The next night I watched a movie called Surviving Progress. Produced by Martin Scorcese, it looks at concepts such as progress traps - ideas and technologies which may seem to be progressing us as a society but are in fact leading us right over the edge of a cliff - and examines the idea of good and bad progress.

In the film Margaret Atwood says: "Nature is not this endless credit card that we can keep drawing on."

Anthropologist Jane Goodall says: "Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite resources is bound to collapse."

I think they should show this in every school.

No I will not take a chill pill

I started to compose this post several weeks ago during the Oscars fiasco and tweeting aftermath. Then I hadn't gotten it quite right so it has languished in the drafts folder. But now all my draft posts are coming out to play, because why not?

This particular incident was a time of rapid education for me. As a white Australian woman fairly newly arrived in Canada, my field of reference on this was very limited. I could immediately see how the Oscars commentary and the ensuing offensive Onion tweet was sexist but I didn't immediately see how it was racist. I have now been exposed to a great many great thinkers and writers on the subject of race and feminist intersectionality via Twitter, and my understanding around this has taken a leap forward. I still have SO much to learn but it was a watershed moment for me.

So here is a wrap-up of as many good posts on the subject as I could find.

Alyssa at thinkprogress had this to say about how we discuss comedy and why it's problematic
Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian about the need for offensive comedy to have an underlying point, especially if it's aimed at minorities- otherwise it's just bullying.

Lindy West at Jezebel expressed her 'sexism fatigue' and her frustration at having to constantly explain why and how something is sexist to people who don't actually seem to want to know.

This post at Derora Noo on why she's tired of being a good sport.

Jose Vilson talks here about the inherent racism in the Onion's tweet and how we see our children of colour.

Margaret Lyons at Vulture argues that this kind of sexism does matter.

Here's T.F Charlton explaining why the Onion's tweet was so hurtful.

Laura Hudson says the Onion tweet was well-intentioned, but wrong.

Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony says the Onion tweet was infuriating but not at all surprising.

Pia Glenn wrote this about why she often pushes the boundary of good taste, and will even defend rape jokes, but not this.

Rania Khalek at Dispatches From the Underclass addresses the arguments about free speech, the intention of the Onion's tweet being irrelevant and the arguments that it wasn't a racist attack. I love the sub-heading of her blog: amplifying the voices of the voiceless. This, to me goes to the heart of the issue. Those with the biggest platform bear the greatest responsibility for using their power and privilege wisely. Women, gay people, people of colour - these are the groups that are so often denied a voice. So when white men say "what's the big deal?" as though it's anywhere near a level playing field, it just shows how blind they are to their own privilege and how much harder they need to work to listen to the voiceless.

And although I am loathe to link to this kind of opposing argument, because I don't think it holds any logical merit, of course you can read for yourself if you are so inclined. (yes this is a completely partisan blog, and I  make no apologies for that!)

Satire is about debasing the status quo - poking fun of something in a knowing way, so that the underlying intent is to skewer the system on which the satire is based. This works well when the satire is directed towards structures, groups or individuals who hold a great deal of influence and power, because it works towards addressing the imbalance. When you make fun of people who already cop it day in , day out, with little redress - it takes the leap from satire into plain nastiness.

When those groups who you are aiming your 'comedy' at have far less ability to reply in kind, when their voices are routinely shut down, devalued and they have far fewer channels to command attention, then all you are doing is contributing to keeping them down. I noticed a distinct lack of jokes aimed at the majority of power players in the room - wealthy white men. The only way Macfarlane poked fun at himself was to acknowledge that people would find his humour crude and offensive - a fact which he seems to take pleasure in, and therefore qualifies as acceptable humour. I didn't say it was funny, but it's fine because in making fun of himself he's not undermining anything or anyone. He clearly holds the power - he has a captive audience of a billion people - so making a self-referential joke about his terrible jokes is not going to put a dent in his confidence.

I'm also curious as to why some people seem so disturbed and frustrated, even angry, about the "outrage". If some one has a right to be offensive, in the name of free speech, as some people claim, then surely others have the right to be offended and to express this? Outrage is often mocked as though people have an obligation to find the same things outrageous. Every one just calm down, goes the argument, find something legitimate to complain about. Usually it's white men writing this, and one has to assume that they appoint themselves judge and juror as to what constitutes a "legitimate" source of outrage.

We all know words are powerful - I hope that's a basic fact that we can agree on. So why, when something is labelled a "joke", does it get a free pass? If something is supposed to be funny, do we let it slide? If any act of racism or sexism is cloaked in a "joke", should we say nothing? Evil prospers when good people do nothing. Words build a climate, an atmosphere. Speeches change minds. Attitudes spread. All of this matters. Every little bit. It's not up to me to argue whether I found something personally funny or not - but if a significant group of people, especially those who are used to being marginalised, speak out and say 'this isn't right' - then it doesn't matter whether I think it's funny or not, there is an obligation as a society to listen.

Intent doesn't make a thing racist/sexist or not -  in some instances it may make some difference to the way a comment is received but often times it makes no difference. Your intent does not equal the outcome. The outcome is based on the audience's perception. Jokes are subjective, I accept that. Harmless? No. Lots of things are subjective, from how we treat each other to whether a particular colour is more blue or more green. But the fact remains, as a society we strive for a general consensus on what's fair and reasonable. And hopefully over time we try to get rid of the rules that are less fair, and move towards equality. And in doing so we have to decide as a group, even on subjective topics, what's fair and reasonable. Think about the history of violence and oppression against women and racial minorities in the 20th century. Many atrocities were considered 'reasonable' by a portion of people in order for them to be accepted. I'm not suggesting that some off-colour jokes are *as bad* as, say, women not being able to vote, but the attitude that comes from one feeds the other. There comes a point at which an individual's right to free speech and liberty butts up against the greater good. So while I defend a person's right to have their opinion, even if it's a badly-formed one, when the pulpit from which he speaks broadcasts to an audience of a billion people? I think it's right to stand up against it and say, subjective or not, I disagree, and my opinion counts. As does the many many others who have voiced their displeasure. It's not right to sit back and brush it off as 'comedy' when such comedy does real damage. It's not a simple matter of 'causing offence' and hurting some one's feelings. These attitudes are ingrained, marginalised people are further marginalised every day as a result of these words. We shouldn't feel pressured into laughing them off at the risk of being labelled uptight, humourless, or thought police.

When some one tells me not to over-react, not to make a big hoo-ha about it, you can bet that's pretty much exactly what I am going to do. No I will not take a chill pill.

The greatest nation on earth

Crossing the border from Canada to the United States is an interesting experience. In Australia, which borders no other country, you can't do this. I am reminded of the arbitrary nature of nationalism - over here, you're in Canada, a minute later, the United States. People drive back and forth across the border to do their grocery shopping or fill up their cars with gas (petrol - I mean really, North Americans, there is nothing gas-like about it). And yet the two countries, whilst sharing many traits that could be deemed North American, have quite distinct personalities.

The first thing I notice upon entering the United States is the proliferation of American flags. It's lucky they do that because otherwise I might have forgotten where I was for a minute. We drive past many dilapidated, boarded-up houses. I'm not sure whether they are victims of the Global Financial Crisis or just that the neighbourhood we are in has always been thus. They look like they could have been that way a while.

We stop for coffee and baked goods. An older lady with grey hair is our server. We ask for tea and she somewhat defensively tells us we'll have to wait a few minutes because some one didn't bother to put a fresh pot on when the old one was finished. We say, that's fine, we'll wait. She softens and thanks us. I guess she is used to people reacting badly to having to wait five minutes for a cup of tea. Maybe she's been on her feet all day. Maybe she's had enough. She gives us an extra treat to thank us for our patience. I want to give it back to her.

The gloss and glamour of the image America projects to the world through its movies, TV shows and music is dazzling. When I was a kid, anything American was, by default, coveted. But there is an underbelly of division in opportunity that the world doesn't see. When the President proclaims with conviction (and he is certainly not the first to do so) that America is "the greatest nation on earth" one assumes this is because of the lofty ideals of equal opportunity for all. The idea that is is a place where any one can make it with a bit of hard work and determination. That in a free market, any one with an idea can work their way up to the top. Individual freedom, liberty and opportunity is prized. But it's not a level playing field. And those in greatest need often stay that way. It's interesting to me that it's taken as a given that every one should want to make it big. That every one should want to make their dreams come true. That capitalism is held up as virtuous and somehow the perfect system for perpetual motion. It's that Oprah-style "find out what you were put on the planet to do" ideation that permeates the aspirational classes. But who on earth was put on the earth to be a waitress, or a janitor, or a toll booth collector? And what would happen to those jobs if every one did what they were "supposed" to be doing? If everyone followed their bliss, the world would collapse. There would be no service workers. So in this system, true equality and liberation for all is not actually possible. Capitalism itself encourages competition rather than the sharing of resources. So this notion of egalitarianism is out of step with the reality of what it takes to make it here.

Our waitress greets us with a smile and shows us to our seats. The food is ridiculously cheap. The service is ridiculously friendly. The portions are ridiculously large. Our waitress has one of her front teeth missing. I assume she doesn't have dental coverage. I wonder what her dream is.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Trouble in Trash Pack land

There is trouble in trash pack land.

A few months ago Alex had some spare pocket money and he decided to purchase a packet of toys known as The Trash Pack. If you’re not familiar with them, these tiny squishy characters resemble a motley crew of assorted rubbish. Dirty socks, old computers, there is even an ant holding a piece of what looks like poo. Their appeal to the six-to-seven-year-old demographic is obvious. Small, detailed, and disgusting. And actually somewhat adorable. You can get all sorts of accoutrements such as the garbage truck, street sweeper and affectionately named “scum drum.” There are endless trashies to collect and swap – a marketer’s dream. As a parent, I approve of the non-violent aspect – I’m quite happy to give the existential minefield of Star Wars a miss for now.

Alex had recognised these toys from a packet he had from Australia, most of which, admittedly, were now lost. His interest was renewed with a vengeance, however, and he became duly obsessed, as is his wont. It seemed his fervour was contagious, and quite quickly the trash pack became the latest craze in Grade One. Kids (including Alex) were hosting trash pack themed birthday parties left and right. All was well with the world.

Then, yesterday, it became clear that the honeymoon was over. Out of the blue, an email was sent to the entire school containing this picture.

That says it all really. Trashies are now persona non grata at the elementary school. Apparently they were causing too many arguments and distractions. 

My first thought was, uh oh, this is all because of the toy Alex introduced to the school. 

My second thought was, if this was all because of the toy Alex brought to the school, couldn’t they have just sent a note home to Grade One? I guess they wanted to make sure every one got the message, without singling any one out. 

My third thought was, oh well, I can understand their viewpoint. Maybe some kids haven’t got as many trashies and are feeling left out.

My fourth thought was, hang on, if they ban trashies, something else will just pop up to take its place. Last year it was Bey Blades and before that Pokemon cards. If they ban trashies then they really should issue a blanket ban on any and all toys being brought from home. That would be more consistent.

Alex took it pretty well. He had been worded up by the teacher at school. He did ask me, however, why the school would ban them when any kid could just buy a packed of 5 from the shop for $6 and then be included in the game. And he would have lent his trashies out to play with until the end of recess if some one didn’t have any.

I have since found out that Trashies were invented by an Aussie company (clearly intended for the American market since no self-respecting Australian would use the word “trash”). Typically, the Aussies are using an Aussie product to create trouble in Pleasantville.

My final thoughts are this. If something takes the place of the trashies and Alex wants in, and I have to either say no or go and buy more expensive toys, I’ll have to suggest to the principal that maybe it would be better to just ban all toys at school. Also, although I can see the school’s reasoning, the rule still seems a little fascist to me. Surely there are lots of ups and downs in school life, and negotiating being a part of a group, leaving your toys in your bag during class, etc, are part of the deal.

Have the trashies been made into scapegoats?