A New Perspective on Dr. King

Race in America can be a tricky discussion, as can the part that various famous figures have played in American history. The latter tend to be flattened into caricatures, then either worshiped or demonized; thus, we have Martin Luther King Jr, a martyr for civil rights and the brotherhood of man, vs. Martin Luther King Jr, the serial adulterer who didn’t take proper care of his family.

This sort of caricature is necessary when introducing new concepts to small children, because a great deal of oversimplification is necessary for them to comprehend it. You can’t have a nuanced discussion of King’s place in history without covering slavery, in general and in American history; racial relations in the 19th and 20th century; the Civil War; the different perspectives of black American intellectuals; what is signified by “African American,” “black,” and “people of color”; the development of various theories of race, genetics, socialization, and types of capacity; Ghandi; Martin Luther; communists, the FBI, and Malcolm X; the subjective nature of historical scholarship; etc.

However, oversimplification can lead to outright falsehood, as in a discussion of the Pilgrims not even mentioning religion. (The King was being mean to some people, so they decided to go to America so he couldn’t be mean to them anymore.)

And then we have the children themselves, who show an amazing capacity for forgetfulness, distortion, and inversion, as one of my kids did this past Friday. I asked my daughter, “Are you still learning about living and nonliving things?”

“No…today we learned about…I forget his name….”

“Martin Luther King, Jr?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“So tell me what you learned about him.”

“Dark-skinned people used to be able to do all sorts of fun things, but then he changed that.”

“Fun things? Like what?”

“They used to get their own drinking-fountains, and they got to sit on the back of the bus. But then he had a dream and stopped that.”

“And was that a good thing?”

“Yes, because then the light-skinned people got to do fun things, too. And he’s not real…wait a minute, he’s real, but he’s not alive anymore, but his dream is still alive.”

I have read many essays on Martin Luther King, Jr, but this is the first time I have been introduced to him as liberator of the deprived light-skinned people. My first reaction is that no matter how you simplify a concept for a child, the child can still get hold of the wrong end of things. Ultimately, however, this little tale demonstrates that for a child, “learning” is something that takes place continually but not continuously; it occurs by fits and starts, new information supplanting, supplementing, and illuminating the old, until at last a child arrives at adulthood knowing, we hope, at least something true about the world.

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For the Umpteenth Time, Folks: Children Are People

Commentator Matt Walsh discusses a highly restricted set of topics (transgenderism is sick, abortion is murder, men need to man up, feminists hate men, ADHD is overdiagnosed, the Left is hypocritical), sometimes combines arrogance and naivete in an unlovely mixture, and takes too many words to get to the point. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a recent article in which Walsh explains why Duncan Jones shouldn’t use Twitter to express regrets over having children, or moan about how awful it is to have to take care of children.

Let’s take a look at the tweets Walsh was critiquing.

I have 2 kids. 2 1/2 years & 9 months old respectively. I’ll tell you something I never see anyone admit… they are exhausting, frustrating & life-destabilizing. They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but it’s HARD & not obviously a good choice in life.

This is where people feel compelled to say “i wouldn’t change it for the world!” But you know… Of course I’d reconsider! It’s exhausting! Its banal! It’s like looking after a dog you can’t housetrain. What it is, is that it is. & they are mine. Hopefully they turn out ok.

In what circles does Jones travel, that he’s never seen anyone admit that kids can be frustrating and exhausting? I write this post having come back from the doctor’s office with an antibiotic for my youngest kid’s ear infection, as well as a nebulizer for his RSV. The nebulizer involves keeping a mask on the child’s mouth and nose for about 10 minutes, a few times a day. About the time that my husband and I were hoping to enjoy his birthday dinner in a nice restaurant, we shall instead be trying to restrain a screaming 2-year-old in an effort to clear his bronchioli. So yes, I, like Duncan Jones, like Matt Walsh, like just about every parent ever, am fully aware that taking care of kids requires enormous amounts of time, energy, and money.

This isn’t some grand new truth, but a cliche. But the more bothersome part of the tweets is that Jones seems to doubt that his becoming a parent was a good choice, because his kids just aren’t providing fun and amusement commensurate with the difficulty of raising them. And the heart of Walsh’s critique is that if we cannot find joy in our children, it is the fault not of the children nor of parenting, but our own selfishness.

“In my experience, kids are the most difficult when you try to relegate them to the background so you can do something else with your time. Of course, sometimes it is necessary to do other things, like sleep, or work, or have an adult conversation, or spend some time with your spouse, or watch a movie that isn’t about talking animals or princesses. That’s when they can feel especially frustrating and burdensome. But if you find that your children are always frustrating, always a burden, “rarely fun,” and generally “life-destabilizing,” that’s probably because you are trying to keep them in the background and out of your way far too often. If you find no joy at all in parenting, it’s almost certainly because you have made no effort to actually focus on your kids and invest yourself in them. You are trying to live as if they don’t exist. Children will absolutely “de-stabilize” that sort of lifestyle, and rightfully so.

“I’m not saying that we should be completely focused on our children all the time. They do need to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them. But it doesn’t revolve around us, either.”

Now, I do not think that parents need to be their kids’ playmates very often, unless maybe the kid is an only child and too young to go play with other friends. But it is important to spend time with them and make them feel a part of your life and household, even if they’re “helping” with a chore that would take far less time without their assistance. It’s important to teach them, by precept and example.

It’s important to help them realize that they, too, are human beings–not accessories that can be put away when not in use; not little godlings to be fawned on and worshiped; not toys or pets or machines or anything but people. To treat them merely as expensive nuisances is to deny that their own viewpoints are just as valid as yours, and to regret their existence is repugnant.

 

What Do Children Know That We Don’t About a Silly Book?

I like some poems and can quote a fair number of them, but have no true “poetic” sense.  This left me feeling like an impostor when discussing poetry with others who do seem to have a proper appreciation of poems. I experienced a recurrence of this feeling when reading The Happy Man and His Dump Truck, a children’s book from the mid-20th century in which an unkempt man gives a pig and some other animals a ride on his dump truck. There is no conflict, no antagonist, no complexity to be resolved. The pictures are brightly colored, but nothing special. There is no seductive rhythm, no soothing repetitions, no rhyme or language-play. It is, however, a favorite of my children, it has stayed in print for more than half a century despite garnering no awards or critical attention, and I have spent far too much energy trying to figure out why. One review from Goodreads express the same sentiment:

“I have to admit, I am at a loss to explain the enduring popularity of this book at Goat Central. My wife, who originally had our copy when she was a toddler, tells me it was one of her younger brother’s favorites when he was two or three years old, and now the Bean can’t go more than two or three days without this one coming right back into rotation. It could be Tibor Gergely’s illustrations, which have an interesting, kind of Asian feel to them at times (the dog sliding down the dump truck has a definite Chinese dragon feel to him). It could be Miryam’s use of repetition, which effectively takes the place of the usual rhythm and rhyme one finds in Golden Books from the forties and fifties and does it one better, with more subtlety in diction (if not in content) than I’m used to. Whatever it is, the Bean adores this book. It may hold the current record for most times read. If not, it’s in the top five.”

Perhaps it’s the combination of dump trucks and animals (which make animal noises at the end) that enthralls? I’m not sure, because other books with trucks and animals have not enjoyed the same popularity.

I am unable to dismiss this book the way I do Brecker Bunny Asks for Help, which is a vilely-written, preachy, pamphlet-type “book” that employs some of the lamest, most wretched doggerel imaginable to teach children not to play with lighters. (After reading such gems as “Brecker and his buddies are just like you and me, and they are also super smart about fire safety” I wanted to light a pile of paper towels on fire out of sheer spite.) My middle son loves this book because it’s got bright illustrations and fascinating-to-him discussions about burning things, and I understand his liking even while having none of my own.

But it is not just my son who likes The Happy Man and His Dump Truck. My other kids do, as well. Kids who come over to our house and read this book like it. It’s got an average rating of 4 1/2 stars on Amazon. I do not hate the book the way I do some other children’s books–especially Brecker Bunny–but there’s clearly something missing in me that would allow me to respond with the same enjoyment that children do when they read this book. Perhaps it is merely that I know too much about what “should” make a good children’s story, but I can’t help feeling that if I’ve gained in literary appreciation I’ve also lost something as shown by my inability to take pleasure in the man giving farm animals a ride. Ah, childhood! Ah, adulthood!

On Respecting Our Children

Besides being funny, the Facebook group Sanctimommy Says What reminds me not to give in to the temptation of mocking others’ parenting styles. As long as the child’s life or health isn’t being endangered, it’s really nothing to me how others feed their kids, make decisions about where they will sleep, or discipline their little ones. In this blog, I try not to take cheap shots at those parenting decisions that are different than mine.

There are exceptions. Americans choosing home birth multiply the risk of their child dying or suffering a major disability. Failing to vaccinate, failing to get real medical care when your child is sick, and hurting or neglecting a child in one’s care are also demonstrably harmful to the child. And whatever our style of parenting, we must respect our children as human beings. What does this mean?

First of all, people who write about their kids should not write that which is denigrating or hurtful to them. I assume that someday my children will be able to read this blog, and even though I’m sure they’ll be much too bored to comb through my posts I would hate for them to come across something that makes their heart clench up. “Wait–Mom–you thought that about me?” The internet is forever, and parents should never give their children grounds for thinking that they were unwanted, unloved, or an inconvenience.

Related to this idea is that children should not be considered means to an end. Your children are not instruments for your happiness, or your chance to live out failed dreams, or your opportunity to demonstrate how awesome you are. Children do bring great happiness, and any decent parent will be proud of their children’s accomplishments, but it is wrong to be so wrapped up in your children’s lives that they are mere extensions of you.

Perhaps a subtler form of disrespect is for parents to interact with an imaginary child, rather than their real child. A parent who allows the two-year-old to set the rules, or expects perfect self-regulation in a three-year-old, is not seeing his actual child. It does a great disservice to children not to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and to treat them in an age-inappropriate manner. All kinds of parenting styles may lead to this sort of disrespect–from strict parents who expect their 15-month-old to be perfectly still and silent for a 90-minute church service,* to attachment parents who “dialogue” with their toddlers about morality and behavior instead of telling them not to hit little Susie, to tiger parents who become frustrated when their 10-year-olds just can’t seem to grasp advanced calculus. We should expect a great deal from our children, and children rise to meet challenges, but it is counterproductive to say the least consistently to set the children up for failure or be disappointed that they cannot do x or y.

We can also fail as parents when we don’t allow them appropriate amounts of self-determination. Asking a 6-month-old’s consent for changing her diaper is not teaching bodily autonomy, it’s just plain stupid. Setting bedtimes for young children, controlling what foods are kept in the house, having curfews and electronic device restrictions are all reasonable regulations for parents; but as our kids grow, they need to be allowed to practice making choices. Your child doesn’t want dinner? Don’t force her to sit at the table until midnight; some parents allow their kids to get themselves an appropriate substitute, and others just shrug and say that’s fine, but that’s all the food that’s available until breakfast. Let kids wear crazy color combinations if they want, unless the setting is formal or the proposed clothing is not weather-appropriate. Give children some unstructured playtime. On the other hand, do not provide endless candy and sodas for your kids, or allow your teenagers to wear skimpy clothing to school, or let your preschooler set his bedtime.

I have already touched on this, but it is also disrespectful to your children to fail to discipline them. Setting clear rules and having consistent punishments not only helps teach them acceptable behavior, but also gives them the security of an orderly world. A child in a chaotic household not characterized by a just rule of law doesn’t know what to expect–will Daddy give me a treat, or slam me against the wall?–and develops in a dysfunctional way.

And what about love and attention? Children need it, but we should not be making them the center of the universe. People talk about “affluenza” and the ills of spoiling rich kids, who never learn how to get along with others or develop a proper perspective of their place in the universe, but even poorer parents can slavishly devote themselves to preventing their children from crying. This is completely self-defeating, because children who do not experience unhappiness or disappointment do not develop resilience. The Iliad tells us that the gods pour out both joy and sorrow, and pretending that nothing is unpleasant is an excellent way to set your child up for depression, failure, and anxiety. My mother couldn’t bear to tell 16-year-old me that my beloved cat had died; I looked for her for two weeks, posited that she might be gone, and was only then informed by my friend that her dad had found my cat and buried it. (My friend did not know of my ignorance of my cat’s fate.) This was unspeakably cruel, although my mother meant well.

This little anecdote brings me to my final point on respecting children, and that is on telling them the truth. I am not saying that allowing them to believe in Santa Claus is evil, but we should answer their questions honestly. Not necessarily fully–I do not recommend showing porn to a 4-year-old who asks where babies come from–but honestly. And above all, when we make promises to children, we should keep them. I have been promising my son that we’d play chess when this blog post is done, and so I must wrap it up and keep my promise to him. For as I behave toward him, so he will behave toward others–with, I hope, love and honesty and respect.

 

 

*Note that our kids sit through our church service from a young age–our two-year-old is consistently joining our family for the whole service, which is generally between 100 minutes and 2 hours, plus Sunday School. However, are kids are allowed to read, draw, play with quiet toys, and fidget, and our congregation tolerates low-level kid noise–“the sounds of the covenant.” Of course we take them out if they’re becoming disruptive, but that happens less than you might imagine. 

Good Riddance, 2018

2018: A year of many minor-but-annoying illnesses, costly repairs to the house and septic, tanking stocks in the last couple of months, and (worst of all) a miscarriage. We hope 2019 will be better.

However, all five of us are alive at the end of 2018. This is no inconsiderable gift, though we who aren’t plagued with wars, famine, and extreme poverty are not as grateful as we should be. We still have a very nice roof over our head, my husband is still employed, and we are unaware of any serious diseases threatening the lives of ourselves or our children. Not all of my friends and family can say the same. My husband and I are still married and happy in our marriage, so we face none of our difficulties alone.

In 2018, my kids grew bigger, learned more words, became better at cooking, sawing, drawing, running, and sitting through church. The baby turned two and knows his colors and numbers up through about 13, my middle child is starting to recognize letters and can sing a couple of songs in Spanish, and my oldest is thriving in kindergarten. We visited my relatives across country, had several fun family outings, and met up with friends we hadn’t seen in a long while.

The world around us is safer than it has been for most of human history, but it is confusing. In defiance of the current mainstream, we are teaching our kids that “girl” and “boy” are, with the few intersex exceptions, based upon one’s chromosomes and morphology, and that a woman can only marry a man and a man can only marry a woman. (And even, how quaint, that people ought not to make babies without being married to each other, or to divorce without adultery being involved.) We try to show in our marriage how we believe husbands and wives ought to act toward each other, and to live out the Bible in our lives. Of course, we fail, but then we ask forgiveness.

Predicting the future is a fool’s game. Maybe an EMP or global warming will get us all in 2019, or Jesus will return. Maybe the world will continue to become more peaceful and developed. Maybe Donald Trump will be impeached, or become extremely popular. We do not know what is in the future for ourselves, our families, or the world at large. We trust in God’s faithfulness, as must all those Christians who are being arrested by the Chinese or butchered in the Middle East and those Christians who, like ourselves, live in relative comfort and security.

May 2019 be kind to you all. May the Lord bless you in this new year.

The Most Important Screwups Are Your Own

It is alleged (I do not know the source) that Churchill had the following exchange one night in 1943: ‘Cromwell was a great man, wasn’t he?’ ‘Yes, sir, a very great man.’ ‘ But he made one great mistake. Obsessed in his youth by the fear of the power of Spain he failed to observe the rise of France. Will that be said of me?’ (He was talking about the relative threats of Nazi Germany and the USSR.)

It is easy to consider the negative examples of others in parenting, as in all pursuits. “I won’t scream at my children like she does.” “I won’t spoil my children like they do.” It is harder to consider what mistakes I actually am making, and to correct them. Only a fool thinks that perfect parenting is possible, but as with all important matters (and what could be more important than doing right by one’s offspring), it is good to assess what needs correction, how to correct it, and what measure will show how much progress has been made.

In my case, I spend too much time looking at blog posts, news sites, Facebook, etc. This is detrimental to my children as a bad example; it prevents me from being fully present with them; and it takes time away from necessary duties. I do, however, have reasons to look at a computer screen (especially when I’m working), and I also need some relaxation. My first step in addressing this problem is to note roughly how much time I have spent looking at screens “for fun” up until the dinner hour. This will be depressing, I’m sure. The second is to set a goal for decreasing this time, and the third is to see whether I’ve met this goal.

I am always haunted by the mistakes I do not recognize, will not recognize until my children are grown. But this is foolish, for if I cannot see those errors I should at least be addressing the errors I do see. It is much more productive to fix what you see needs to be fixed than to indulge in fear of nameless problems that you cannot address because they are unknown.

I also find it more helpful to consider good examples of parenting, for although bad parenting points out a certain kind of error good parenting is usually achieved through developing many good traits. The warm, responsive, nurturing parents who invest time in their children, provide appropriate boundaries and opportunities for independence, and encourage their children to meet high standards provide a much more complicated and ultimately helpful model of parenting than that provided by the druggie parents who steal their children’s Christmas presents to get high. I am not likely to sell off my kid’s possessions to score my next fix, but what can I be doing to help my kids correct their weaknesses and play to their strengths? What do I see in this household that is deficient in my own, and is it realistic to attempt to replicate their parenting in this respect?

A final quote for all you good people who comb through pages of parenting advice and parenting missteps (as I do):

““A man can learn all of an opponent’s weaknesses on that board,’ said Gilt.
‘Really?’ said Vetinari, raising his eyebrows. ‘Should not he be trying to learn his own?” (Going Postal)

Train Those Babies

It is neither abusive, nor a denial of a child’s humanity, to train very young children. By “train” I mean use repetition and feedback (mostly positive) to promote desirable behavior and discourage undesirable behavior. This sounds very cold-blooded, and so it can be–but in the context of a loving, secure relationship it helps make the early years much easier.

A child who’s been trained to listen can be taken to restaurants and other public places. A child who has not cannot.

A child who’s been trained to stop when his parents say so can navigate streets and parking lots without being hit.

A child who’s been trained is less likely to be yelled at, because the parent need only say something calmly for the child to obey.

A child who’s been trained to help out feels important and useful. Babies love helping, and capitalizing on their helpfulness increases the child’s bond with the family.

Now the problems with training are that the methods used can be inappropriate, either for the child’s age or in general (ie, withholding love is never acceptable); the parent can be inconsistent with training, which confuses the child; and perhaps the biggest pitfall is that the parent may not recognize when it is time to stop training a child in a particular way. We hope that training a toddler to be kind, helpful, obedient, and not whiny will result in teenagers who are kind, helpful, obedient, and grateful, but you cannot train a teenager in the way that you can a toddler. A teenager’s thoughts and feelings, even when silly or lacking in perspective, must be considered and respected, and by that time the exchange of ideas has to be two-way. You simply cannot pick up a teenager and carry him off to his room for a time-out if he defies you, and if you try physically to restrain him when he reaches adulthood you may find yourself on the wrong side of the law.

It is therefore important to inculcate your values as far and as effectively as you may in your child when the child is young, but to do so in a way that is not an attempt to program a blank disk; your child is no tabula rasa, and will develop into a separate person rather than into a robot that thinks and does what you like. At a certain point, your child will form opinions about various matters that may or may not match your own, and your modeling, reasoned arguments, and respectful hearing are much likelier to win over your child than authoritarian pronouncements.

I believe this principle is widely recognized, but its recognition can lead to a refusal to treat babies and toddlers in  a manner appropriate to their development–ie, to train them. A child quickly manifests her personality as a human being, but the fact is that babies and toddlers are in many ways more like dogs than like adult humans; they are friendly, affectionate, passionate, and need occupation. Like dogs, an untrained toddler can be a trial to his parents; so do yourselves a favor and train those babies.

Good Parenting, Bad Parenting, or Bad Parent?

No one is a good parent all of the time. Most of us mix good parenting and bad parenting in; we hope that the good outweighs the bad, but it takes something special to go beyond a bad parenting moment to be a bad parent. Here are a few situations illustrating the difference:

You investigate a suspicious lack of noise in your three-year-old daughter’s bedroom. You find she’s taken your lipstick and drawn on the walls, floor, and bed with it.

Good Parenting: You think “Aaaaargh! I’m going to kill that child!” You take a few deep breaths, calmly but firmly point out what your child did was wrong and why, and administer an age-appropriate consequence, which probably includes making her “help” clean up the mess.

Bad Parenting: You yell “Aaaaargh! I’m going to kill you, child! What the [bleep] were you thinking?!!” You administer a draconian punishment and don’t give the child simple, clear directions on respecting others’ property and drawing only on paper, with appropriate materials.

Bad Parent: You kill (or hurt) the child.

Your children beg read you to read them a story. You don’t actually have anything urgent to attend to, but frankly you’d like them to go away so you can check Facebook or waste time in some other way (such as blogging, perhaps). 

Good Parenting: You read them a story, or maybe several stories. Then you have them do a chore while you do something productive.

Bad Parenting: You chase them away and waste time. Maybe you even turn on the TV or hand them an iPad.

Bad Parent: This problem doesn’t exist, because you don’t read your kids stories. They have no experience of books. (Even if you’re poor–even if you’re homeless–your kids should have at least one book. And unless you’re poor AND rural, you should have access to a library.)

Your two-year-old grabs his bottom and says, “Poopy, Mama! Poopy!” 

Good Parenting: You change his diaper.

Bad Parenting: You discreetly move him to the vicinity of the other parent and retreat. “Hey, gotta check something here, Honey! Oh, by the way, I think the kid wants to tell you something….”

Bad Parent: You don’t notice he needs a diaper change because you’re too high. It wouldn’t matter much if you did, though, because you traded his diapers for drugs.

Your small child throws a fit in the grocery store because you didn’t buy doughnuts.

Good Parenting: You remove the child from the scene of the crime, administer a consequence, and (if possible) return to check out.

Bad Parenting: You yell at your child.

Bad Parent: You buy the child doughnuts.

You get the idea. Now, enough “bad parenting” moments make you a bad parent, but I know better than to judge another parent for what appears to be a bad response to a particular situation. Most mistakes are fixable–thank God–and children growing up with parents who love them and aren’t raging narcissists or addicts are probably going to be okay. And now, I think, I have some stories to read to my kids, after I change the baby’s diaper.

Christmas With Kids

Long, boring transactions at a bank or store are worse when children come along.

Cooking is more laborious and terrifying, but kind of cool, when children help.

Christmas is better with children.

I’m looking forward to my kids helping me make a horribly lopsided gingerbread house this year, and hang ornaments upon the tree, and write letters to Santa. I’m enjoying their jumping around with excitement at the fact that Christmas is ONLY 32 DAYS away. We’ve listened to Gene Autry Christmas music already. I will love seeing them quivering with excitement and casting longing looks toward the presents on Christmas morning, while we read the Nativity story to them. I’m anticipating them tearing off paper, playing with one toy after another, and having to be reminded to thank their grandparents or aunts and uncles. I can’t wait for them to pick out a toy for Toys for Tots, or for my daughter to deliver little homemade treats to her teachers and bus driver. They’ve got outdoor decorations, town bows and bells, Santa appearances, maybe some caroling to come, and so do I.

Yes, we must be careful not to drown in the constant assault of consumerism that is pushed our way from late November through December. I think it appropriate, however, for a holiday that celebrates the birth of a child to be so purely and thoroughly enjoyed by children. I do not think Jesus would despise the cookie-making, present-wrapping, and parties surrounding the celebration of His incarnation. I doubt He’s upset by songs about jingle bells, snow, and Santa Claus, even as they ride alongside the hymns that celebrate the advent of the Lord’s Christ. For love and rejoicing and merriment are by no means foreign to Him, and especially the pleasure of a child in all that surrounds Christmas.

May your holiday season be joyful, and may you get to hear the laughter of children this Christmas.