Thursday, December 21, 2006

Science vs. Men vs. Women

I work at a popular science magazine that covers research into the roots of compassion, altruism, empathy, and other prosocial human behaviors and emotions. Last month we reviewed a study by Dutch neuroscientist Erno Jan Hermans (and colleagues) that set out to test whether testosterone can inhibit a person's ability to empathize with someone else.

To find out, the researchers dosed twenty women with either testosterone or a placebo, and then measured their ability to mimic facial expressions, which previous research has shown to be one marker of empathy. Their results showed that testosterone might indeed reduce empathic behavior.

I initially objected to publishing a brief about the study in the magazine. I'm automatically suspicious of the methodologies and conclusions of any study that suggests biology is behavioral destiny. Plus, even if the science is solid, I didn't think it would be useful to our readers. If testosterone really does limit empathy, so what? How does that knowledge help our readers, who are mostly educated lay people?

I talked it over with the other editors, including a psychologist who reviewed the methodologies. He felt they checked out. We agreed that reporting the study fell within the mission of the magazine. And so we turned to discussing ways to report the findings that would not play to social stereotypes about men and women. Looking back, I can see that I was learning something about how we can talk about science in popular forums.

It's first critical to begin with the fact that all human beings have the capacity for empathy; it's fundamental to our psychology, with a basis in evolution. Men are human beings and are therefore capable of empathy. That puts the findings in broad perspective. In addition, we need to keep individual variance in mind; I've met lots of men who are more empathetic than many women, and I'm sure you have, too.

Second, it's important to acknowledge the limits of the study. To get those, you first have to read the study and talk to the scientists themselves. Most scientists are extremely reluctant to speculate or make sweeping generalizations based on limited findings, for good reasons; they're also careful to acknowledge the limits of their methodologies and to suggest further areas of study. This doesn't stop journalists, politicians, and bloggers from seizing on findings and putting them at the service of their personal and political agendas; hell, I've done it plenty of times. (That's our job, but I think we can perform our jobs more responsibly.)

In the brief we are publishing in the magazine, we were careful to reflect the limitations of this methodology, noted by the researchers themselves. "While facial mimicry may be one component of empathic behavior, it is clearly not the defining feature," writes Mario Aceves, a fellow with the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, in the brief. "Before we conclude that testosterone leaves men at an emotional disadvantage, additional studies must show that testosterone affects the many other dimensions of empathy."

My colleague Jason Marsh asked Erno Jan Hermans for a comment. "[Testosterone] reduces empathetic behavior; we can't say it reduces empathy,” he said. His research also shows that while "testosterone is a regulating factor in gender-specific behavior... obviously you can never rule out that there are cultural differences in play."

Last and certainly not least, scientific findings of this type don't dictate some kind of automatic ethical or political response. They do not prove that men are by nature emotional dolts, and therefore not accountable for idiotic behavior. They do not suggest that women are in essence loving, nurturing, dove-like creatures of ethereal beauty. No woman who wants to live in a more empathetic, compassionate society should plan to launch all-female communes in South America--even if you were to screen out women with high levels of testosterone, you're still not going to achieve a feminine utopia like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. Human beings are too complex. Attacking complexity is not the path to a better world.

Science is an evolving dialogue, in which new conclusions are constantly modifying old ones. Newton wasn't wrong about how motion changes with time, but Einstein took his ideas to the next level when he showed how mass bends spacetime. When back in the Seventies, Irven DeVore and Robert Trivers launched the field of sociobiology--which sought to find biological bases for human behavior--critics quite rightly raised the specters of Social Darwinism and Nazi eugenics, both of which invoked biological science as justification for policies that ranged from abandonment of the poor, denying rights to women and many other people, forced sterilization, and systematic genocide.

But as sociobiology branched off into evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology, researchers discovered some things about human beings that directly contradicted the specious, self-serving assumptions of the Social Darwinists. Scientists like Johnathan Haidt, Leda Cosmides, Marc D. Hauser, and many others have found that human beings appear to be hardwired for compassion, altruism, cooperation, and so on. Biology might indeed be destiny, but it's a provisional, sanguine kind of destiny that doesn't automatically lead to pessimistic or destructive views of humanity. Above all, a great deal of new science is demonstrating the degree to which we humans are tough, adaptable little monkeys, defined right down to our neurons by a capacity for continuous growth and evolution.

Whenever we read about some new study about parents and children, men and women, we should remember how searching and tenuous the science is, and refrain from sweeping generalizations that might contradict our deepest moral instincts. We can't ever know where our questions will lead, but we can't be afraid to ask them.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Children and choice

By Chip -- Last week the website flagged an article and discussion in the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper about their "Motherhood Manifesto," which argues for, among other things, quality childcare, universal health insurance for children, and other public policies to support children and their parents.

The article attracted an interesting discussion at the paper's website, including criticisms of the notion that society should provide anything to parents and children. The argument was that having kids is a choice: "Why should I have to pay for your choice?"

The most common response, including the main response from, was a kind of utilitarian logic, that kids are the future of our society, and these policies are "an investment" in the future:
Some Seattle PI readers are calling policies like healthcare for all kids, access to childcare, and paid family leave, "More special rights just for making a CHOICE...." The "choice" being to have children. This type of thinking glosses over an essential fact that children are an investment every society must make; otherwise there won't be a future at all for that society (we'd go extinct!).
But I don't think we should have to justify societal support for children by focusing on their future benefits to individuals or to society as a whole, because doing so opens up a bunch of questions along these lines: are those kids who are destined to go on to be more "productive" more worthy of support than others?

This kind of utilitarian calculation is a slippery slope, and ignores a much more basic and fundamental reason to support kids and their parents.

For me the more compelling argument is that children are human beings who did not themselves choose to come into this world. If we are a society that claims to be civilized, we owe these helpless humans some basic things.

We as a society don't say that disabled adults who are unable to contribute to the economy should just fend for themselves, and that if their families are unable or unwilling to do so, that's just tough luck.

So when it comes to children, I think the most convincing argument is just this: not that they are future economic producers, or that they are "the future of society," but that they are human beings, regardless of what their parents did or did not do, who their parents are, how "irresponsible" they are, which choices they made or did not make. These kids are not themselves responsible for their situation.

That's the most important reason to provide universal health care, quality day care, decent public education, and other "benefits" -- or rather, minimum basic standards -- to all children. That's why these things, far from being "benefits," should actually be seen as basic rights.

Looked at through this lense, those who are whining about "having to support other peoples' kids" should consider that this is about basic standards of decency: how a society treats its most vulnerable.

But even granted this, why should parents, people who "choose" to have children, get "benefits"?

Our society has decided that families are the main support group for children. Part of the way we assure these basic standards for children is therefore by providing support not just directly to the children, but to their families as well.

Through this lense, the question then becomes, what is the best way for us as a society to ensure basic standards of decency to all children? And part of the answer is to provide resources and support to their families.

I think that few people would whine and complain about the fact that parents of severely disabled adults are the beneficiaries of government programs to help them care for their adult child.

So I see it as a very sad commentary on the state of human decency in this country that anyone would be so grudging about providing minimum standards of decency to the most helpless members of our society, our children.

On Edit 12/20: A similar discussion is going on in reaction to two blog posts by Joan Blades of over at the Huffington Post: Should Societies Support Mothers Raising Children, and Indiscriminate Breeders!?!.

Cross-posted at Daddychip2

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Assumption vs. Assumption

Recently I was swapping emails with a group of feminist activists I've known for 15 years. We were talking about progressive family policy.

At some point in the dialogue, I realized that we were starting from two very different assumptions. Theirs was that progressives should fight first and foremost for daycare and preschool, so that mothers could go to work and pursue worldly ambitions.

I couldn't help but feel that my friends saw kids as a burden that public policy should strive to alleviate, shades of Linda Hirshman. And until, oh, about 29 months ago, I pretty much shared their assumption and priorities.

Before Liko was born, we figured that after six months my wife would go back to work and we'd engage some form of childcare. Wrong. Liko didn't want his parents to go to work. This might have been a problem, except that we agreed with him. We didn't want strangers to take care of our son. We didn't think it was best for him or for us.

And so we changed our lives, in various ways I have documented here at Daddy Dialectic. Since then I have thought a great deal about our caregiving impulse and its relationship to our values, and what it might mean for the family policies I'd support as a parent.

Just to be clear: Childcare and preschool are good. High-quality childcare should, like health care, be available to anyone who wants and needs it. Moreover, I believe that daycare and preschool should be guaranteed and heavily regulated by government. It's a matter of equity as well as economic development. More women (and men) in the workforce is good for the economy.

Good for the economy, but is it good for children? Is it necessarily a good thing for all mothers and all fathers to march off to work every morning? There are literally hundreds of empirical studies that answer no to these questions; taken together, they suggest that parents working outside the home too much, too early in a child's life is bad for the kid as well as the parents.

Numerous studies, writes Jane Waldfogel in her new book What Children Need, indicate that "Children whose mothers work long hours in the first year of life or children who spend long hours in child care in the first several years of life have more behavioral problems...Children do tend to do worse [in health, cognitive development and emotional well-being] if their mothers work full-time." The effects of paternal employment have hardly been studied; social science firmly places the burdens and joys of caregiving on moms.

Does this mean that conservatives are right? Are working moms guilty of neglect and responsible for America's social ills? Emphatically: no. First of all, we need more men to contribute more to taking care of kids: there's no evidence at all that dad can't do it just as well as mom.

We need to be careful in interpreting these results [writes Waldfogel], given that in nearly all cases studied the fathers were either working full-time themselves or were not in the household at all. These results tell us the effect of having two parents working full-time or a lone mother working full-time. And so their clearest message is that children would tend to do better if they had a parent home at least part-time in the first year of life. They do not tell us that the parent has to be the mother.

Second, the studies also show that parental sensitivity and responsiveness "is the most important predictor of child social and emotional development--more important than parental employment."

Third, we need genuinely family-friendly policies that respect parents' choices and will allow parents of any gender to stay at home as much as possible with their kids for at least the first year. To my mind, this needs to be the progressive policy priority. The shape of such policies is well-known and widely implemented outside of the US, consisting of paid parental leave and wage replacement, job and legal protections, guaranteed health care, requiring employers to consider requests for part-time work, etc. As usual, the social democracies of Scandinavia set the standard. As usual, the United States looks like it watches too much Fox News.

It should be acknowledged that support for parents to stay home can help keep parents out of the workforce or inhibit career growth. There are solutions to this problem. Sweden combines support for parents to stay home with comprehensive daycare and preschool programs for when they go back to work, with good results. But I don't want to move to Sweden. It's too damn cold.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How the Sun Rose

Early morning. Liko goes to the window and sees the light spilling over Mt. Diablo.

"What are you doing, Liko?"

"The sun. I want to hold it."

"What will you do with the sun?"

"Put it in the sky."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

God vs. Stay-at-Home Dads

God hates stay-at-home dads:

Men and women were created by God for specific roles and when men start giving up their responsibility to be the primary provider for their household, they’re falling short of the goal. Men should be out there doing whatever it takes to insure that mom can spend as much time as possible with her family because she is uniquely equipped by God for the role of managing the household and the kids on a daily basis.

No evidence offered, Scriptural or otherwise. Surprised? Probably not.

And evangelical Christians wonder why they've become so marginal to mainstream discourse.

Actually, most of this post is spent pushing an idea that I agree with:

Turn down that promotion. Give up some money. Do what it takes to be there for your family. People speak of quality time, but I remember that any time I spent with my dad was cool. Even if he just took me to the bar with him so that he could drink. Hey, we were still hanging out together.

Do they even allow kids in bars? That aside, it's interesting to explore the common ground that progressives might have with evangelicals on family issues, which are normally seen as divisive. Might we work together to win more family-friendly workplace policies?

In other news, the Ottawa Citizen covers a new book, Do Men Mother?, by Carleton University professor Andrea Doucet:

Many fathers who opt to stay home with their children do so as a fallback when they need a career change or are seeking a break from work, according to new Canadian research.

And once they are at home with their children, they are likely to combine paid work with child-rearing and offset the time at home with an eye to an eventual return to work rather than immerse themselves in the social world of parenthood.

The author of a new book about fathering says men’s reality is at such a remove from the conventional image that she wonders whether the term “stay-at-home dad” is even relevant anymore.

“So many do keep a hand in the labour market, whether through a bit of part-time work or through some studying/retraining, because so much of male identity is tied to earning or achieving or simply doing something apart from caregiving,” said Andrea Doucet, author of Do Men Mother?

“I think that men do not face the same fatherload because they do carve out time for themselves, even when they are at home with the kids. Perhaps there are some interesting things that we can learn from men.”

Her book, which is the result of four years of conversations with men who are primary caregivers for their children, charts the many differences in the way men and women view stay-at-home parenting, from their motivations for doing it to the way they shape their at-home experiences.

The article includes an excerpt from the book. I'll definitely be reading Do Men Mother?; I'll review here when I do.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

rad dad # 5 out now


This is tomas from rad dad and rad dad #5 is hot off the copy machine with a beautiful cover once again by local artist and crafty card creator artnoose. It has essays that deal with radicalism and parenting, the follies of fatherhood, playground politics, and single fatherhood…

It's three dollars plus postage (63 cents) and issues 3 and 4 are still available while they last.

And as always I’m looking for submissions for the next issue of rad dad. I was thinking about how fathers deal with separation and divorce or how discipline is connected to the father role or even a whole issue on bad dads and the failures we face…as well as pieces that deal with sexism, gender, pop culture, relationships; feel free to just send something in.

I'm hoping to get the submissions by early march and it will be available march 18th.

Hope everyone's well…

tomas moniz
1636 Fairview st
Berkeley ca 94703

Friday, November 10, 2006

Queer vs. Queer

Still working on my "Science vs. Parents" post. In the meantime, see this essay in the Bay Times about the impact of the "Gayby boom". Writes Dr. Rick Loftus:

KGO anchor Pete Wilson's idiotic remark calling the birth of Supervisor Bevan Dufty and his friend Rebecca Goldfader's baby Sidney a "travesty" resulted in a firestorm which brought the reality of gay parenting into sharp public focus. Once, parenthood might have seemed to gay men like an exotic tourist destination across the ocean... More and more, however, gay men are snapping up real estate and putting down roots on the "Father Shore." According to the Urban Institute, between 1990 and 2000, the percent of gay male households including at least one child had quadrupled, from 5% to 20%...

What's striking to me is how invisible these men often remain in our community. Until I started doctoring them, I had no idea how many gay men in San Francisco were parenting. Some would say the absence of gay parents from gay culture isn't an accident that "gay parent" is an oxymoron, that the two worlds collide. And Pete Wilson is hardly the only person to suggest gay life and parenthood are incompatible. An April 2006 story in the Los Angeles Times, for example, illustrated the tensions resulting from the increased presence of families with children in the Castro. Concerned over how the street's racy storefront displays might affect their kids, parents - straight and gay - complained to the city. Traditional gay activists countered that there's only one neighborhood in all the world with as unabashed an embrace of gay sex as the Castro, and if parents - straight or gay - don't like it, well, they can live elsewhere.

I live on Castro St. at the Noe Valley/Castro border, and I confess that I've started to wonder how I really feel about Liko seeing posters of men in bondage getup, striking provocatively explicit poses - which, as Loftus notes, is a dilemma that unites gay and straight parents. (I'm actually curious if readers, especially older parents with a bit more perspective, have any thoughts on the issue.) Loftus continues:

What does all this mean for the cultures of gay men in San Francsico and the world-at-large? To my mind, it’s a welcome annex to the ever-expanding Winchester Mystery House of queer life-paths. I also see it challenging assumptions about gay culture, both by enemies external to our communities, but also by those within LGBT cultures. Recent efforts on behalf of gay marriage, for example, have uncovered rifts in our ranks, as radicals worry advocacy for presumably monogamous LGBT marriages may neglect, even undermine, queers with less “conventional” lifestyles. Some may see queers who choose parenting and family paths as “sell-outs” betraying “true” LGBT culture.

Of course that’s ridiculous, and provincial. When you consider that the Castro twenty years ago had taken on the icy pall of a ghost town due to AIDS, its present-day rejuvenation—including the patter of a few tiny feet—is a sign of resilience. What could be a better symbol of hope in the face of so much death, than the smattering of baby carriages and snugglies now spotted amongst the next generation of gay men walking its streets?

Well, it'll be interesting to see how the Castro - and queer families - will evolve over the next several years, and what differences and what common ground they'll find with straight families, both traditional and non-traditional.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Nature vs. Nature

News flash: "Women’s Math Performance Affected by Theories on Sex Differences," according U. of British Columbia researchers.

I'm working up to a nice big blog post on sex differences, science, and social responses. Later this week? See you then.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Hormones vs. Meteors

Things have been slow here at Daddy Dialectic: I've started a new job; Chip's been traveling; I'm willing to bet that Tom and Chris, both teachers, are preoccupied with school. But here are some more links to keep you busy and amused:

1) I ran across this sort of goofy post on the happiness and anxiety of being a stay-at-home dad. You can just hear the hormones racing around inside this guy's head (I've been there), but he raises some serious issues about what happens to your confidence and direction when you opt out of the work force.

2) Speaking of hormones, Popular Science reports that, "though men do seem to be getting better at playing stay-at-home dad, they still can’t claim to be the best fathers in the animal kingdom. Among primates, that honor may belong to marmosets, small tree-dwelling monkeys whose males spend 70 percent of their time caring for newborns. The result of all this baby time, according to new research, adds up to more than just a sensitive monkey. The nurturing actually boosts mental activity."

Good for the marmosets. But does daddyhood make human guys smarter? I can say without any doubt in my enfeebled mind that I've gotten worse at many cognitive tasks; the other day I forgot how to do long division. However, I also feel very strongly that I've become more emotionally and socially intelligent. It's been instructive for me to see toddlers grow personalities; it's helped me realize how precious and unique each of us is, which makes me much smarter about how other people are feeling.

3) Smartmom posted a right-on critique of the film Little Children and its relationship to reality. I've blogged before about the absurdity of stay-at-home moms and dads getting it on together, which I've gleaned is a common fear/fantasy about the impact of stay-at-home dads on the playground.

"When Smartmom’s pal Tofutta had a massive crush on a stay-at-home dad she met at Tots-on-the-Go," writes Smartmom, "she barely had enough time to go to the bathroom, let alone plan an afternoon interlude." So true. Go-to-work spouses: you have nothing to fear, really. Your stay-at-home partner is more likely to get struck by a meteor than have a torrid affair with Patrick Wilson.

Last but not least, an election is coming. Don't forget to vote! And don't forget to get a friend to vote!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

i don't know -- an intro from rad dad #5 out in mid november

Note: as the essay says I am hoping to travel around the bay area -- sf, san jose, santa cruz, sacto, santa rosa, and the east bay -- in December to do some readings with another zine writer, artnoose who does kerbloom!, and hopefully with other parents/writers (hint, hint) so if you are interested in helping make it happen or can suggest a place to contact for a reading or even something cool to do with my kids in your part of town, please let me know. And of course rad dad #5 is 3 bucks and will be out in mid November…

I was tabling at the sf zine fair and I forgot how much I enjoy talking to people, especially strangers, talking about parenting, about politics and teaching, talking about just about anything. I shoulda been a sales person even though it is true I hate the limelight and how everyone comes up and says, “so you're a rad dad huh?” But here at the zine fair, it was just kinda fun and silly. My daughter was sitting with me and I always threw the question to her.

“Well, he tries to be.” She laughs and says, “No, he is.”

But more than selling, more than getting cool stuff, more than meeting cool people, I realized how much we need to talk to each other about our lives, our choices and their implications. I realized how many people wanted to ask me things when I put myself out there. Like these two bgirls (to use my youngest daughters term for gender blenders) looking at my zines, picking each one up, seeing my story on vasectomies. One simply looks at me and smiles and states: “So what, you can’t cum anymore?”

I stared not sure what to do.

“You know,” she continues, “because you got it cut.”

“No,” I smile, ”I can.”

“Oh, it’s just clear or something?”

“No, it's just the same.”

And as we were debating this I realized there are three other people listening and snickering, and I think I’ve turned a bright red, and my daughter has suddenly moved four tables away. The bgirl laughs and says “Really, I just wondered if that makes you not a father anymore?"

I appreciated the honesty, the frankness and go on to say something about not being able to impregnate someone makes me no less a father than when my kids aren’t with me.

“So what makes a father?”

“I don’t quite know but take one and then write me back and you tell me.”

And it went on like this; people wanted to talk: the mom holding an infant laughing at my rad dad business cards chuckles, “How does changing diapers challenge patriarchy?”

“I’m not sure, but there’s gotta be a connection right? I mean if more men did it and more men stayed home and more men respected breasting feeding and more…”

Or the dyke couple who asked about how parenting reinforces gender roles because they were thinking of adopting.

I just shrugged and said that it’s certainly changed my notions of gender but I don’t know and I asked what they thought and gave them a rad dad and asked them to let us all know what they came up with.

Or the woman who empathized with my struggle to deal openly with my son about smoking pot. She proudly boasts that she and her husband smoke pot everyday and they have a 10 year old. She paused and then asked what I thought she should talk to him about. Don’t ask me I joke because my son can’t seem to get enough and I struggle with how to handle it, how to keep the lines of communication open without totally condoning it, while my partner worries he’s becoming an addict. I just don’t know, but I thank her for talking with me, for sharing with me because it feels good to know other people are out there, struggling to make the right choices. And someone out there might know something we all need to hear, might have an experience that sheds light on some of these questions.

Because there are so many questions that I don’t know answers to.

But one thing I do know is that we need community; I know how invigorated I was, inspired by so many people wanting to talk about fathering, about parenting, about being parent allies! I want more community, so I am setting out right now to say publicly: I wanna create a radical parents conference. I imagine something like ladyfest where parents get together in the locations and create a meeting of people who realize that parenting is a key component to so many of the struggles we all face to change this world, to create and nurture the world we want to be a part of and the world we wish to leave behind. As for the conference, I don’t know what that means, I don’t know what it looks like or what it should be about, but I do know there are hella cool moms and dads out in the world that I wanna sit around with and talk to, be inspired by, get angry with. So help me. Write back; start something up. If you’ve already done some work, keep it up and tell me how I can help.

As for me, in December I wanna go around northern California to read a bit from rad dad and to meet other parents out there. Then in April my daughter and I will hit the road for a tour of the northwest with artnoose, an amazing friend and artist. If you know a place to read at, to meet with other parents, a place to crash, a museum or park to go to, let me know!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What if it were your family?

A quick follow-up on my Oct. 13 post about Bevan Dufty and his new child: A smart and strikingly sane op-ed on the "what-if" scenarios often posed to non-traditional families appears in today's Chronicle.

Also: Salon has an essay on parenting that's well worth a look.

Also: Check out the blog "Navigating the On-Ramp," documenting Kim Moldofsky's efforts to transition from stay-at-home- to go-to-work mom. "How will I handle a full-time job plus everything already on my plate and not turn into an overstressed bitch?"

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Odds vs. Ends, Once Again, with Focus on TV

Daddy Dialectic readers have been sending me tips right and left. Here are some hot spots:

1) Alex (in Boston, MA) pointed me to this blueprint for a policy program that values families, "including legislation, articles, research reports and other resources, to help legislators and advocates bring these policies to your states." It's an amazing resource.

2) Lara (in Colorado) sent me an incredibly disturbing expose of women who were fired from their jobs for getting pregnant. "I've seen more (pregnancy discrimination) clients ... in the last couple of years than I've seen in the past 10," says an attorney. Meanwhile, Cooper Munroe (in Pittsburgh, PA) shared this piece on a PSA campaign urging women to vote. The link between these two items goes without saying, yes?

3) Today The New York Times covers a new confirmation of long-term trends in work/family balance:

Despite the surge of women into the work force, mothers are spending at least as much time with their children today as they did 40 years ago, and the amount of child care and housework performed by fathers has sharply increased, researchers say in a new study, based on analysis of thousands of personal diaries.

“We might have expected mothers to curtail the time spent caring for their children, but they do not seem to have done so,” said one of the researchers, Suzanne M. Bianchi, chairwoman of the department of sociology at the University of Maryland. “They certainly did curtail the time they spent on housework.”

The researchers found that “women still do twice as much housework and child care as men” in two-parent families. But they said that total hours of work by mothers and fathers were roughly equal, when they counted paid and unpaid work.

Using this measure, the researchers found “remarkable gender equality in total workloads,” averaging nearly 65 hours a week.

Guys, we still need to do better. In ten years, I'd like to hear that men do just as much housework and child care as women in two-parent families.

In "To Be Married Means to Be Outnumbered," The Times tracks the rise of non-traditional families. "The numbers by no means suggests marriage is dead or necessarily that a tipping point has been reached. The total number of married couples is higher than ever, and most Americans eventually marry. But marriage has been facing more competition. A growing number of adults are spending more of their lives single or living unmarried with partners, and the potential social and economic implications are profound."

4) Finally, Chris at the Institute for Southern Studies (in Durham, NC), shared a brief story in Slate about a possible link between TV-watching and autism. "Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3. The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders."

We don't own a TV. We dumped it shortly after 9/11 and haven't looked back. But we do watch DVDs on our computers and once a month we watch kids' movies with Liko. While obviously we're against excessive TV-watching, I must admit that Liko seems to get a lot out of the occasional Baby Einstein. Instead of staring slack-jawed at the screen, he really interacts, verbally and physically, with what he sees and hears, dancing, repeating words, and pointing to things around the house that he sees in the movie. (He calls movies "moo-moos" and calls my laptop the "moo-moo machine," as in, "Daddy took the moo-moo machine to work.") I guess my position, which seems common-sensical, is that a little bit of TV is fine and even beneficial. But I don't think we'll ever actually own a TV. The temptations, and the potential harm, are just too great.

In today's photo, you can see Liko and me at a game of the Reno Silver Sox, who took the championship trophy of the new Golden Baseball League in their inaugural season. Who wants to see a bunch of preening, bloated millionaires lumbering around a diamond? Minor league baseball is the way to go! Go Silver Sox!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bevan, Rebecca, and Sidney vs. Pete Wilson

I've blogged before about Bevan Dufty, my representative on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Bevan got together (in vitro!) with lesbian friend Rebecca Goldfader to have a baby, who was born two weeks ago and dubbed Sidney.

Talk-radio host Pete Wilson rushed to the defense of the traditional family:

The Dufty-Goldfader baby is, in my mind, a travesty... I do not now nor have I ever accepted the idea that a baby is a toy, that it is a social science project or a possession. A baby is a human being, a delicate thing, our past, present and future. It is not an experiment. It is not an opportunity to see how far you can carry your views on parenting, alternative lifestyles or diversity in family structures.

I wonder, how does Wilson know that Dufty and Goldfader see Sidney as "a toy... a social science project... or a possession"? His only evidence for this assertion seems to be that Dufty and Goldfader are queer and therefore, in his little mind, incapable of true feeling for a child born of both their bodies.

It is raw, bleeding prejudice that drives Wilson to attack two-week-old Sidney as "a travesty," and it doesn't take much of a leap to connect Wilson's comments to attacks on stay-at-home dads, working and single moms, and anyone else who doesn't fit the version of the family that conservatives pass off as immutable. (In fact, historians date the nuclear family as starting sometime in the mid-19th century, coinciding with the move from agricultural to industrial society.)

So much for stating the obvious. It's much more interesting to think about the impact of the birth on the upcoming District 8 election, in which Dufty is facing off against two opponents who are positioning themselves as culturally, though not politically, to his left. I don't need a poll to know how my neighbors are going to react: now that he and his family have been attacked, we'll circle our wagons around them. Queer and non-traditional families are simply too widespread in the Castro and Noe Valley; residents will take Wilson's comments as an assault on the identity of the district.

I've stopped making predictions about elections, since I'm usually wrong, but in this case I'll make an exception: Dufty was going to win anyway, but as a result of this incident, Dufty will win in a landslide.


Speaking of San Francisco exceptionalism, I recently discovered the Left in SF blog, which has an amusing post on Bill O’Reilly's latest attack on San Francisco. Also, Jason at Daddy in a Strange Land pointed me to the new Anti-Racist Parent blog, which seems promising. Check it out.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Red Families vs. Blue Families

Good news:

Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves....

“I’m looking at the data,” said Ron Luce, who organized the meetings and founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, “and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”

Just to be clear: If kids want to get down with Jesus, that's fine with me. I'm against not against the faith; I'm against the political agenda that's been hitched to the faith. If the base that supports conservative movement political power is in a long-term demographic decline, hallujah!

You know, here's something for evangelicals to think about: as the power of the church grew in Europe, so did its corruption. There's quite a lot of evidence that weaving religion into government resulted in wholesale rejection of the faith by Europeans who were oppressed by the combination.

Are evangelicals digging their own graves, seeking secular power at the expense of their moral power?

Also: my buddy Abby sent me this fascinating essay on red-state families vs. blue-state families. Check it out.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Power of Magical Thinking

For the first year of my son’s life I was the sole means of support for our family. I worked at an independent media organization that by the time of Liko's birth had turned from a dynamic, innovative nonprofit into a failing business. With others I had fought against that direction, but in the end we were beaten. In dribs and drabs, my allies left.

In the summer of 2005 I joined them, depressed and humiliated by what I saw as a professional failure. I sent out a few desultory resumes, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that what I really wanted to do was spend more time with my son. Unfortunately, my wife’s job would not be enough to support the three of us. I knew that I would freelance and consult, but there were no guarantees. In the middle of anxiously sleepless nights, I envisioned us homeless, forced to live with relatives.

Despite our fears, we made the leap into being a “reverse traditional family.” Like many stay-at-home dads, I didn’t want to stay in the house all day. The minute my wife left for work, I’d take Liko out the door and onto the streets. Together we’d walk, moving from shop to restaurant to playground to bench to friends' living rooms and back to the playground, stepping into the flow of the city.

“Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair,” writes Annie Dillard in her essay “Seeing.” This is equally true of cities. It is also true of parenting. They are worlds unto themselves, containers of consciousness, definers of perception; but we are never quite able to hold them in our senses. During these months of uncertainty, San Francisco seemed to constantly shift in and out of focus, and so did my son. The babble from Liko's mouth sharpened into words, the syllables flashing like sunlight on windows. We'd cross the street and on the other side, he'd seem suddenly older.

During these months of transition I found myself doing a funny thing (“found myself,” meaning that thought followed action; perhaps also meaning that I uncovered an aspect of my personality that I'd never seen before). I'd give away money to anyone who asked for it: five dollars to a beggar, one-hundred-and-fifty dollars to a canvasser for California Peace Action, a dollar to the barista who made my $1.40 espresso. Once I found a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk; without thinking, I turned and gave it to the man behind me. (“Uh, thanks,” he said, and hustled away, maybe worried that I’d change my mind.) This went on for months, and only began to fade once I felt my freelance work was a going concern and the financial uncertainty had ended.

This week I started full-time at my new job, as managing editor of Greater Good magazine, a publication of the Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being at UC Berkeley. This morning as I edited an article on homelessness and begging, I recalled the period of my life after I left my job, when I gave away hundreds of dollars to absolute strangers.

Why did I do that? It seems crazy, given the uncertainty we were facing. Though it might seem like I am bragging about my own generosity and martyrdom in writing about this, in fact this is the first time I’ve admitted it to anyone but Liko (who merely gurgled mysteriously whenever I gave away cash). My wife did hear about the donation to Peace Action; at the time she gave me a pained, disappointed look. I mumbled something about wanting to stop the Iraq war, which sounded pathetic even to me. In context, my actions seemed foolish and even self-destructive. I hid them like an alcoholic hides a bottle.

The comparison with alcoholism might be warranted. I was addicted to giving away money, with each donation like a hit of some drug that alleviated my burdens. In the instant I handed over the money, my anxiety over money vanished. I felt floating, free, above it all. Of course, in a minute I’d fall back to earth, but that just caused me to want another hit.

Obviously I was not motivated by spiritual love for humankind, though certainly such moments have come up to me from behind, scaring me half out of my wits with their imperious demands that I change my life. I told myself at times that I was just looking for good karma; on a semi-conscious level, I believed that by helping others, it would somehow make people more inclined to help my family and me. I felt that the world was accumulating some kind of debt to me, quite without its consent, and that when I needed it, I could go to the world and ask to be repaid.

(In the article I edited this morning, the author paraphrases and quotes Søren Kierkegaard: “Sure, he said, we think a person who is loved owes a debt of gratitude to the one who loves them. There is an expectation that it should be repaid in kind, on installment, ‘reminiscent,’ [Kierkegaard] says sarcastically, “of an actual bookkeeping arrangement.’ Instead, [Kierkegaard] turns the whole thing on its head: ‘No, the one who loves runs the debt; in feeling himself gripped by love, he feels this as being in an infinite debt. Amazing!’” Kierkegaard was never a parent, but he seems to have understood parenthood well enough.)

There’s a phrase for this: magical thinking. Maybe the magic worked. I got plenty of work as a freelancer and consultant, more than I could handle given my responsibilities as a dad. When I found out about the position at Greater Good, at first I didn’t even consider applying. I was happy having so much time with Liko, making my own hours and doing work I wanted to do. Why mess with success?

Though it fell upon me almost by accident, being a stay-at-home dad irrevocably changed by interests and direction – it might not be an exaggeration to say that it changed the very core of my being, whatever that is. But I picked up a copy of Greater Good and thought about its mission – to “highlight ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism” – in relation to my life and my writing, in which I had increasingly turned my attention to parenting and kids. I met with the staff, and they told me about how they were researching the childhood roots of adult happiness, trying to figure out how to foster pro-social emotions and behaviors, and challenging, on scientific grounds, worldviews that depict human nature as primarily sinful, dark, and violent.

At the same time, I heard about another job at Stanford; this time the attraction was a heap of money. I applied for both and both were offered to me. In the end I don’t think that I had any choice. The mission of Greater Good vastly outweighed the salary at Stanford. Once again, I gave away money, hopefully to someone who needed it more than we do. Once again disappointments and fears dissolved, and I felt some degree of freedom.

So here I am. I go to work in the morning and come home in the evening. Shelly stays home and takes care of Liko. We’re a traditional family again, though we don’t think of ourselves that way. A year ago it seemed like life had kicked me in the stomach; in fact it had given me a gift. For that I’m grateful.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Paddling vs. Waterboarding

Yesterday's New York Times contained an interesting piece on paddling in public schools:

As views of child-rearing have changed, groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Medical and Bar Associations have come out against corporal punishment.

“I believe we have reached the point in our social evolution where this is no longer acceptable, just as we reached a point in the last half of the 19th century where husbands using corporal punishment on their wives was no longer acceptable,” said Murray Straus, a director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.

Among adherents of the practice is James C. Dobson, the child psychologist who founded Focus on the Family and is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most influential evangelical leaders.

DuBose Ravenel, a North Carolina pediatrician who is the in-house expert on the subject for Mr. Dobson’s group, said, “I believe the whole country would be better off if corporal punishment was allowed in schools by parents who wish it.”

I also just stumbled across this essay by Randall Balmer, an evangelical Christian and professor of religious history at Barnard College, which I share as a follow-up to the previous two posts on conservative childrearing practices:

The torture of human beings, God's creatures — some guilty of crimes, others not — has been justified by the Bush administration, which also believes that it is perfectly acceptable to conduct surveillance on American citizens without putting itself to the trouble of obtaining a court order. Indeed, the chicanery, the bullying, and the flouting of the rule of law that emanates from the nation's capital these days make Richard Nixon look like a fraternity prankster.

Where does the religious right stand in all this? Following the revelations that the U.S. government exported prisoners to nations that have no scruples about the use of torture, I wrote to several prominent religious-right organizations. Please send me, I asked, a copy of your organization's position on the administration's use of torture. Surely, I thought, this is one issue that would allow the religious right to demonstrate its independence from the administration, for surely no one who calls himself a child of God or who professes to hear "fetal screams" could possibly countenance the use of torture. Although I didn't really expect that the religious right would climb out of the Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.

I was wrong. Of the eight religious-right organizations I contacted, only two, the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, answered my query. Both were eager to defend administration policies. "It is our understanding, from statements released by the Bush administration," the reply from the Family Research Council read, "that torture is already prohibited as a means of collecting intelligence data." The Institute on Religion and Democracy stated that "torture is a violation of human dignity, contrary to biblical teachings," but conceded that it had "not yet produced a more comprehensive statement on the subject," even months after the revelations. Its president worried that the "anti-torture campaign seems to be aimed exclusively at the Bush administration," thereby creating a public-relations challenge.

I'm sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a moral issue, not a public-relations dilemma.

Amen to that!

Lastly, I'd like to point readers - especially any readers who doubt the link between conservative childrearing practices and right-wing policy - to this dialogue between Focus on the Family and combat veteran Michael Gaddy about the Iraq War.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Toddlers vs. Conservatives

A friend of ours is studying child language development. She asked us to note down words and phrases that Liko uttered during a 12-hour period. Here's a random sampling, for your amusement and edification. (For parents anxious to make comparisons, Liko is 26 months old. )

Baby, baby singing.
Cold. Cold.
Hold it. Mommy hold it.
Dump. Dump it. Milk.
Thank you.
More - all gone.
Got it, raspberry.
Moon, moon, sun, sun, sun.
Too hot. Too hot.
Dip, dip, dipping, dip, dip things.
Play ball. Liko play ball.
Bye, fire.
Beepbeep. Horn.
Guy sing that.
Sound banjo makes.
Hold them, George.
Daddy don't go. Come.
School - Sasha crying.
I saw a didgeridoo!

The last two lines require explanations.

Back in July, we attended the Didgeridoo Festival in Reno, NV. A didgeridoo is an aboriginal Australian musical instrument. It made an impression on Liko, who excitedly cries out whenever he sees one in a book. I'm still amazed that he can pronounce "didgeridoo."

As for "School - Sasha crying": Sasha is a little girl in Liko's preschool who terribly missed her mommy, and cried and cried. Liko, who also cried and cried when I dropped him off, started talking with us about Sasha at night as he went to bed. After a few nights of this, he said, "Liko crying." Why? we asked. "Daddy left." We asked him if Sasha's mommy came back. "Yes." We said that his mommy and daddy would always come back too and take him home. "Yeah!" Did he have fun at school while daddy and mommy were away? "Yeah!" Did he have a favorite teacher? etc.

Here's what's incredible (to me) about this story: Liko is clearly relating his feelings to another toddler's, remembering things, verbalizing his memories, and using his memories to put things in perspective. I'm proud to say that this is fairly typical of my son, who is exceptionally empathic and compassionate for a toddler; he often tries to clumsily comfort crying babies on the playground (a gesture that is not always appreciated).

I thought of this as I was wasting time reading conservative parenting books - recall John Rosemond's words, quoted here on September 24: “One does not have to teach antisocial behavior to toddlers. They are by nature violent, deceitful, destructive, rebellious and prone to sociopathic rages if they do not get their way.”

My son is none of those things (not yet!) and I don't know any toddler who is as "violent" as Rosemond describes. Sure, Liko cries and stamps his feet when he is upset; sometimes he blindly hits and kicks. But when he does that, I don't see "sociopathic rages" - I see a confused growing boy who is still learning how to deal with and express his feelings. A true sociopath has no feelings. Sociopathology is a mental illness; toddlers are not mentally ill.

Discipline is necessary and so is punishment, but discipline is not synonymous with punishment. It's a distinction the conservative parenting gurus I've read fail to make. Worse, they see evil where there is none. Toddlers are not yet socialized, but the capacities for empathy, compassion, and cooperation are already there and blooming. Conservatives would say that I am merely beguiled by my child, but I see such qualities in all of the dozens of toddlers I know. They are beautiful. I love the way they run, with every part of their little bodies moving independently of the others, and the way they laugh and explore. Toddlers want to share and help; they don't always know how.

Not only does the conservative portrait of toddlerhood fly in the face of my personal experience, it also defies all scientific research into the topic. (I can feel the one or two conservatives who might be reading this shutting off; as the books I've read make clear, they see science as the enemy.) In a 2001 study, UC cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik discovered that 18-month-olds understood that another person's tastes might be different, and shared foods if the other person demonstrated a liking for it, an important first step in developing empathy. Nancy L. Marshall at Wellesley College found that "when toddlers saw a teddy bear suffer an 'accident,' their faces showed distress and concern. They also responded by trying to help or comfort the bear."

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany found "that preverbal toddlers as young as 18 months old understand when adults need their assistance and will do their best to help out, even for no reward." "The current results demonstrate that even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems,” says the study.

And so on and so forth. I found dozens of studies that identified prosocial qualities in toddlers, corroborating what most parents - those whose minds aren't warped by conservative ideology - know intuitively.

When people describe "Daddy Dialectic," they most often seem to use the word "thoughtful." I do try to see the other person's point of view and I try to play fair when disagreements arise, and my colleagues Chip, Tom, and Chris do the same.

And I believe that I'm remaining fair and thoughtful when I say that conservatives - who posit themselves the authorities on morality, family life, and parenting - are today promoting lies and half-truths about parents and children, in the service of an authoritarian ideology. At this point - with oceans levels rising, Iraq falling into the abyss, and evidence for evolution mounting, to name only three examples - it astonishes me that any thinking person, anywhere, would elevate their half-baked ideas over what science, reason, experience, and conscience have to say.

It's time for liberals and progressives, especially those of us who are parents, to stop retreating and take the fight to people who see us as their enemies. We're in a struggle we can't afford to lose.

[The photos that appear with this post are of my wife as a toddler, courtesy of my mom-in-law.]

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Conservative Parents vs. the New World Order

I think you should know that conservatives think you're a terrible parent. I know that it might hurt to hear this. But just listen to what they have to say with an open mind, OK?

Take talk-radio host Mike Gallagher. When he sees a kid pitch a fit in a restaurant and the parents (“well-heeled, well-dressed”) give in, there’s only one possible conclusion: the parents are liberals! Worse, they’re raising a liberal!

Such permissiveness will set that child up for a lifetime of disappointment and misery. Children want to be taught to do the right thing; they expect us to be in charge. Little Henry is going to grow into a person who figures that if he screams loudly enough, he’ll always get his way. He’ll develop into a person with an overwhelming sense of entitlement.

In other words, he’ll become a liberal.

Hearing from parents on my radio show all the time, there’s a clear distinction between conservative parents and liberal ones. Conservatives believe in the power of spanking….Liberals seem afraid to spank their children…I’ll bet anything that Henry’s parents were a couple of liberal New York Democrats.

Later on in his book, Surrounded by Idiots - I think he’s referring to his listeners, but that’s speculation on my part – Gallagher strikes out at “wacky mothers… who flaunt breast-feeding in crowded places, like restaurants, shopping malls or department stores.” I wonder if breasts are intrinsically liberal? If so, I’m glad Mike is doing something about them. Mike’s got the breast-beat covered for the conservative movement. He’s their breast man.

Betsy Hart, who has breasts but still boasts back-cover quotes from rock-hard conservatives like William J. Bennett and Laura Schlessinger, takes on the whole “parenting culture,” in which “parents are essentially encouraged to idolize their children, to marvel at their inherent wisdom and goodness…and that’s just for starters.”

In her book It Takes a Parent (as opposed to a village – villages are for liberals!), Hart attacks parents who give their kids choices. Choices are liberal and liberal, as we have established, is bad. “Children learn to make wise choices by having wise choices made for them,” she writes. She talks about just ordering food on behalf of all four of her kids in restaurants – no perusing the menu for them! Letting your kids pick items on the menu is liberal, and remember, liberal is bad. She spends a lot of time in her book criticizing bad parents who let their kids pick their own sno-cone flavors.

What’s a conservative parent to do when kids keep insisting on making their own choices? For anyone who reads the Bible literally, that’s an easy question to answer. You beat them.

Let’s say, for example, that your 2-year-old insists on getting out of bed after you’ve told him to stay put. “The youngster should be placed in bed and given a speech,” writes Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, one of the country’s most influential conservatives. “Then when (the child’s) feet touch the floor, give him one swat on the legs with a switch. Put the switch where he can see it, and promise more if he gets up again.”

In some cases, a switch might be too Rockefeller Republican, if you know what I mean. With especially liberal children, you’ll need to head down to Home Depot and buy some quarter-inch plumbing supply line or PVC Pipe.

"If you want a child who will integrate into the New World Order and wait his turn in line for condoms, a government funded abortion, sexually transmitted disease treatment, psychological evaluation and a mark on the forehead," writes pastor Michael Pearl in his book To Train Up a Child, "then follow the popular guidelines in education, entertainment and discipline, but if you want a son or daughter of God, you will have to do it God's way." Though PVC pipe is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, Pearl recommends such "chastisement instruments" as excellent expressions of the Lord's will.

Too extreme? Not with immortal souls at stake. Children, like liberals, are born demons. “As for thinking there is badness in children,” writes right-wing family psychologist John Rosemond, “yes, I most certainly do, and the evidence suggests I am correct… One does not have to teach antisocial behavior to toddlers. They are by nature violent, deceitful, destructive, rebellious and prone to sociopathic rages if they do not get their way.”

In other words, they’re liberals. That’s why you have to beat the little bastards. Keep hitting the rebellious brats until they vote Republican!

[Revised from a post at the Other Magazine blog.]

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Raising kids and social change

By Chip -- A few posts back in a comment Justin questioned whether being home full time with our kids is actually "social change work"; he argued that it was not, and that raising our kids is not the most important job in the world. In his words it is "important but not revolutionary."

I have to say I disagree.

By revolution, I am assuming Jason means bringing about social change "from below," that is, building consciousness and support among real people. I think anyone talking about "revolution" in the US these days is probably actually referring to this form of change rather than the traditional meaning of the word, which involves actual violence.

And it is exactly in this goal of bringing about social change "from below" where we as parents play a crucial role. There are two ways we do so, one direct, one indirect.

The direct way involves a number of discrete elements. The first is that by spending time with our kids we show them through our actions that we are commited to them, that they are important to us. This gives them the confidence and psychological health to act on their principles in the face of a society that is hostile to those principles and values.

If we let our kids be raised by societal norms, we are doing the opposite of progressive, positive activism. Raising progressive kids requires being very proactive, being very involved in our kids' lives, talking to them from the earliest days about the values that we believe are important, about the changes that need to happen in our society, and living those values.

For me, the foundation or prerequisite to doing that was to be an involved father. First and maybe most directly, in the area of gender relations: if we want to bring about change in that area, we have to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

As a guy, I can thinking of nothing more subversive of "traditional" conservative values than the fact that I chose to stay home full-time with my daughter for the first two years of her life; that I chose to downsize career ambitions to spend time with my kids and to be more involved in their lives than I could have if I had followed my earlier ambitions. I understand that in many ways my ability to do this is related to my class privilege and educational background. Nevertheless, I think that exactly because of those factors, and the resultant fact that I had many other options, it is important for me to take steps to undermine gender hierarchies in the eyes of my kids as well as in my wider community.

Apart from gender, it takes a lot of work to deconstruct or innoculate our kids against the insidious right-wing values that suffuse our culture and society. I'm proud that, for example, my kids actively question US nationalism, that they understand that poverty and injustices are not the fault of the victims but rather of the structure of our society and economy. Getting them to that point is important work. Without this kind of work, social change is much less likely to occur.

So while Justin feared that spending time in the nuclear family is a conservative value, in fact I'd argue that it's a key way to spread progressive values. One reason conservatives cocoon is to be sure that their children absorb their values. In that sense, by not seeing family as vitally important, progressives abandon a major area of work. But unlike for conservatives, whose focus is on a competitive, disempowering individualism, for progressives the family is just the start, it's the foundation of building a conception of solidarity, the only way that social change will come about.

Indirectly, family time is crucial because activists and others committed to progressive social change need a private life. Like all humans, we need love and affection, joy and enjoyment, in order to maintain energy, motivation, and perspective. Nothing energized me more to work for social change than the time I spent with my children: directly, because I realized they are going to be living in the world we create; and indirectly, because of the energy and strength I get from those relationships.

Raising our kids as progressives is a revolutionary act. Dads staying home full time, dads being very involved in their kids' lives, is a revolutionary act. It is the most important job, it is social change work. Unless we model our commitment to a better world, including in the very concrete context of our immediate families, our kids will be much less likely to internalize the kinds of values that will lead them, in turn, to push for progressive social change when they grow up.

As Steve Earl says, the revolution starts ... Now.

Cross-posted at daddychip2

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Public vs. Private

My comrade Badgermama tossed off this fierce, casually brilliant rant on the politics of public schools - go check it out and then come back and tell me what you think. This is an issue I've really wrestled with, and I think Badgermama made things just a little bit clearer for me.

"I keep thinking of those conversations about school funding and school quality," she writes. "The conversations where someone says, 'Well, of course I want my child to have every advantage.' Meaning, I want them to go to the best possible school, and maybe it is time to think about private school. I keep mentally completing that sentence, - '... every advantage over someone else's kid.' And not liking that."

Above you'll see the me, Shelly, and Liko at the Great Balloon Race in Reno, NV two weeks ago. An amazing event. Now Liko wants to be a balloonist! Me, too. But where would we keep the thing?

Yes, we three are indeed wearing matching purple caps.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Melinda Duckett vs. All of Us

In today's SF Chronicle, columnist Jon Carroll pleads with liberals and progressives and decent people everywhere to conserve our outrage and not waste it on the likes of Nancy Grace.

"In these troubled times, outrage is a limited commodity," Carroll writes. "There are only so many hours in the day... So we need triage. We need risk assessment. We need to remember that just because the herd is running some place doesn't mean that we have to run that way too."

But Jon, I think I can spare a moment of spittle-spewing indignation in memory of Melinda Duckett, who was suspected of murdering her 2-year-old Trenton and foolishly agreed to go on national TV to talk about it. Duckett killed herself the day her interview with rabid talk-show host Nancy Grace aired on CNN, which ran an announcement of the suicide at the bottom of the screen. Classy. I've read the transcript and it's pretty clear that Grace grilled Duckett into incoherence, intent on solving the case right then and there in front of the whole audience.

Here's the context: Duckett had been laid off from her job and was going through a divorce with Trenton's father, who'd been hit with a temporary restraining order. Parents, try to walk a mile in her shoes and imagine the stress of a situation like that. Here's a 21-year-old woman, barely an adult, who was probably living every moment of every day with fear and anxiety. She's isolated and taking care of a toddler. She probably doesn't have much help or support. The money was running out. There's evidence that the dad was abusive, though I'm not going to say if he was or wasn't because I wasn't there.

Being a parent provokes a curiously bipolar response to a case like this. On one hand, it seems impossibly monstrous that any parent could commit an act of violence against a helpless baby; some of us want vengeance on behalf of our own children. On the other, I think that if we are willing to dig deep, most parents will find moments when we've all been pushed right to the edge of violence. (Think four in the morning and the baby's been crying for an hour and you've got a big meeting at work in five hours and your spouse is irritable and not much help and your arms are getting tired from carrying the baby and if you have to shush one more time you're going to scream...)

I've had sleep-deprived, stressed out moms tell me that they feel like they are going to die; one said that she didn't feel like she could control any aspect of her life and that she was angry at everything, including her little boy. I've read that moms who kill their kids often convince themselves that their children are better off dead, given the reality the family is facing. Certainly, there's no shortage of parents, moms and dads, who beat their kids to within an inch of their lives. This isn't to excuse the parents - they should be tried in court and either treated or punished, as the case warrants - but if we can try to understand the conditions that would drive a woman (or man) to that extremity, we might be able to help prevent a disaster or heal a family that's been through one.

That said, I don't know if Duckett was innocent or guilty. I have no idea if Nancy Grace drove Duckett to suicide. Neither do you. I'm less concerned about the facts of the case than about what the Nancy Grace interview reveals about our culture and parenting. In the transcript, Grace is conducting multiple interviews simultaneously, including with Melinda Duckett, her estranged husband Josh, and a circus tent of guests who critique Duckett's "performance" as the interview proceeds.

At one point, Duckett, who was probably exhausted and is visibly confused, says she doesn't want to answer a question "because I'm not dealing with media very well." (Turned out later her divorce lawyer had advised her not to answer certain questions.) Grace turns to Marc Klaas, president of an organization called Beyondmissing and crusading celebrity father of the murdered Polly, for an opinion. "Nancy, in these kinds of cases the media is never the problem," says Klaas, whose job is to appear in the media. "The media is always a friend, it's about sharing information. It's about transparency, it's about working with the authorities. It's about working with the media and it's about getting over that hump that people are looking at you. And quite frankly, Melinda is not doing that very well at all."

"The media is always a friend"? "Melinda is not doing that very well at all"? Who the hell is this guy? He acts like the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" for parents of missing children. Perhaps he should have coached Melinda beforehand, maybe gone through her wardrobe and shared his favorite hair gel, developed some talking points and blocked some tragic poses. Then perhaps Duckett might have performed to his satisfaction for our friend, the media. Even assuming that Klaas sincerely wants to help parents find abducted kids, I'd respectfully suggest that his appearance on Nancy Grace's show didn't help anyone except Marc Klaas. It's fun to be on TV, isn't it, Marc? Remember back when it was just a means to an end? How naive you were, back then. How much more sophisticated you are now.

And how sophisticated we all pretend to be. I scanned editorials, blogs like the one you're reading, and talk-show discussions. Newspapers and many blogs dutifully roasted Grace for being crass, but a substantial number of TV talking heads fell over themselves with support for Grace and her tactics. Duckett was an adult, say the talking heads. She should have known the score, and if she didn't, it's her fault. She should have watched more CNN and maybe taken some notes, for future reference, back when she had the chance, presumably. She didn't even have the common decency to have attended j-school.

Melinda Duckett may or may not have committed a crime. That hasn't been proved one way or the other. But in my eyes, and of course in the eyes of lots of people, CNN and Nancy Grace stand convicted of turning a family tragedy into entertainment. Grace and homelander celebrities like her say they're trying to "reunite families" (direct quote from a press release!), but they do nothing of the kind. Instead they directly hurt the families who stumble, blinking and nervous, in front of cameras hoping for help or vindication or sometimes fifteen minutes of fame.

That alone is wrong, but it's much bigger than the families who land in the spotlight. In a mindless drive for eyeballs and profits, mainstream media cheapen the culture that's supposed to bind us together and they drag their audiences into moral and political fantasylands. Many editorials I read faulted Grace for her journalistic ethics and technique, but to me the media's systemwide failure is moral (in failing to distinguish right and wrong) and political (in abandoning their historic mandate to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - today in the media and in every major institution, it is the comfortable who have their backsides kissed and the afflicted who gets their asses kicked).

When we can't find justice in the real world, we look for it on TV. We seek the appearance of justice and indulge ourselves in fantasies of moral rectification. Maybe that's necessary in fictions like 24 or Over There, but it's terrible and destructive when enacted as ritual slaughter on TV that purports to be reality, starring real people who don't have the benefits of a script, teleprompter, or competent legal representation.

Sometimes when I look out at the world I've helped to make - through inaction or self-indulgence - for Liko, I want to cry. We can do better than this.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Worming Into Books

Cole has always been nuts about books. He's not quite 4, but already he's begging to keep the lights on at night so he can look at "just one more book." He can't really read yet, but he likes looking at the pictures, sometimes narrating the story to himself as he flips the pages.

The teachers at his preschool close the day with story time, and if they are in the middle of one story when I arrive to pick him up, Cole will barely acknowledge my presence until that last page is turned. Any attempt to interrupt will be met with emphatic protestation. The funny thing is, he doesn't like any of the songs or finger plays or clapping games that people tend to intermix into storytime. He just wants the stories, and couldn't care less about any of that other stuff.

One thing I would have never even thought to look for are audiobooks, but my friend Annalee passed along one of Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Treehouse CDs, and Cole was mesmerized by it. He picked out several more stories from the series at the library, and will sometimes sit for more than an hour listening to them. This interest in stories and storytelling is one childhood habit I hope he keeps.

When I took him back too his preschool last week, I saw some of the new parents struggling with sobbing, clingy kids who didn't want them to leave. I was reminded of Cole at this time last year, when most every school drop off was concluded in tears. Often the teachers would have to pull him off of me so I could get to work. It's such a contrast with how he is now, racing into school, taking off his own shoes and jacket, and having to be reminded to give me a hug and a kiss before he zooms off to his friends. The changes sure do come, don't they?

Friday, September 08, 2006

a mythology of contradiction

Lately, I have been obsessed with myths. Stories. The mythology of living. The tales we tell to define ourselves, explain our existence, create communities, clarify enemies. I read an essay by Frank Chin who chastised Maxine Hong Kingston and other Asian American writers for bastardizing the myths of China, creating hapa myths devoid of their “true” cultural relevance. And at first I aligned myself with him thinking of Disney’s Mulan, of Aladdin, thinking of history classes my children come home from and try to explain why they build model California Missions. My daughter acknowledge though that she is also building a cemetery for the dead Indians used to build those Missions. What bastardized and commercialized mythology is being told there? And why does it get retold over and over? What purposes does it serve?

So I see his point, but then I remembered how often I have written about the ways storytelling and talkstory can change you, change minds, change directions; how it can also replenish, can restore, bring peace, solidify, fortify. I believe storytelling is less about the events and more about the narration, the connections; you tell what needs to be told; you create what your people might need to hear. I remembered how when I think back on the most memorable moments of my life, I smile and recall the way they are told, narrated, shared with others over dinner or at bed time or accompanied by beers on Thursday night. It’s the retelling that is so powerful, is what makes us laugh and smile, or cry and feel empathy. It’s how we live on.

So my kids and I talk about the Missions and how there are so many stories; we talk about how I won’t go in them, how I waited outside the numerous catholic churches in Mexico as their mother went in to connect with the stories of her religious upbringing. We then talked about how her and I both learned from our individual choices and the exchanges or explanations we had around them. My children and I talk about how beautiful those Missions are and what it means to have something so beautiful, so spiritual, have such a dark origin. We talk about both sides; we create a mythology of contradiction.

And as my family marched with hundreds of thousand of other protesters during the May first general strike, we heard talk of what an American is (can you wave both an American and Mexican flag, someone scoffs at us). Well, what’s the mythology of immigration? What are the ways to explain boarder crossing, exile, diaspora? We, of course, know thanksgiving, but do we know the Florida Seminoles’ story, do we retell the stories of the southwest as it went from Indian, to Mexican, to American nations. And as Gloria Anzaldua fortells, “will become Indian once again.” Some day. My New Mexican family claims they have been here before anyone, and they survived by growing and welcoming others into their lives, into their stories and histories like the Mexicans, the gringos, your mother, they tell me. My father says I’m a new breed a chiconky. That’s how he tells it.

In Kingston’s book The Tripmaster Monkey Wittman says that language contains the key to the past and to our future; that in the Chinese character for I was imbedded in it the word warrior or fight or even weapon. To say I was to say I-fight. How powerful is that? But it has been lost to us now. But do I believe? This mythology isn’t mine. Do you believe me about my family? I’m sure I’m not they only half-bred boy from some idealistic white mother and some reckless father from the rez, or ghetto, or barrio. There’s probably a whole underground army of chiconkistas roaming the United States waiting for our story, our time. I think it’s time we start spreading the word, finding that language that says I and means Fight.

I don’t know how to read Cantonese or Mandarin; but I know what Wittman means when he says we have lost the fight and to regain it, we need to relearn our language. Or better yet create our own. Chin, if you wanna wage war against the storytellers, cut out your own tongue.

Because all language starts with stories. When my son asks me about why my mom ran like the prodigal daughter home to her parents after giving two years of her life to the New Mexican desert, what can I say? The myth that was told me from my abuela goes: it was a snowy night when your mom came, mijo, to say good-bye. She looked at all of us and hugged each one of us. But she did not say a word. And neither did we. We all stood in silence. What could we say, mijo, what could we say? Then, she just turned and left.

She never said a word about them again till I was 18. How strong must you be to hold your tongue for so long? The truth is something a little different: my mom, lonely, a single mother because my father left her and then went to jail, trying to survive, knowing she needed family, decide to return home. Who can blame her? What else needs to be said? But the problem was the silence. That is what caused the pain, what divided families years after the events happened. What people remember is the silence that followed my mother’s departure.

Wittman says Repetition makes a custom. Doing things over and over establishes reality. Hearing the words more than once, the people will get it. I want to get it. I want my kids to get it. I want everyone one to once and for all get it. But in order to do so, we must all start talking and start listening. Don’t worry if it is slightly different each time you tell it; don’t worry if someone else tells it differently. Just tell it like it might save your life. Tell it like you're fighting for your kids. For indeed, in these times, in this day and age, it just might and you certainly are.

When the Summer Comes Undone

Whew -- summer vacation is over! Back to school! I'm not always so excited to return to the books and bells, but the end of summer vacation has come (mostly) as a great relief this year, a welcome return to routine and regularity.

I teach high school, and ever since (almost 4-year-old) Cole was born I've cherished the summers where I get to spend long days with him. And I definitely enjoyed this summer, but things were different -- way different. Most notably, Cole's mom left me earlier this year, and, while we were theoretically co-parenting, Cole was with me most of the time. In fact, there was a particularly low point in the summer where I thought she might bow out of parenting altogether. Things have changed since then, and we're now splitting time about 60-40 (I'm the 60), but this summer Cole was with me a lot more than that.

As many of the posts here illustrate, being an attentive parent is challenging. I don't think I was quite prepared, however, for how much more challenging it would be to do it on my own. Cole is wonderful and full of joy most of time, but he's definitely been exhibiting some exaggerated up-and-downs while he tries to deal with his parents splitting up. And, like any little kid, he's constantly pressing the people closest to him, trying to see where the limits are and how people react to different behavior. All that's to be expected, but it's a lot to deal with when you're the only parent in the picture from dawn to dusk, especially while trying to keep a lid on the day-to-day stresses of laundry, dishes, bills, and a messy house.

Things got more challenging when my sister (my only local family member) moved to New York in July. By the time August rolled around, when I was really struggling to find free moments to get ready for the school year. I found myself wishing I could just call in a substitute parent for a day or two. Unfortunately, though, it seems someone forgot to write sick time into the parenting contract.

After feeling the stress of being a single parent, combined with weeks spent walking around the Mission, with its dilapidated (and often deserted) playgrounds and passed-out junkies, left me planning out ways to escape. As Cole gets older, I often find myself wishing I could give him a little more freedom without fearful adults watching him every second. I'd like him to be playing with his neighbors, learning how to ride a bike, and out looking for bugs, and it's sometimes hard for me to picture those things happening in San Francisco.

Living closer to my parents sounds really appealing sometimes, living in Berkeley seems really appealing sometimes. Being able to buy a house sounds really appealing almost all of the time. So maybe a move or a change is order, or maybe I'm just feeling a bit of divorcee depression that will pass now that my thoughts aren't just rattling around in my own head all day long. I'm just going to let things be for a while, and hopefully settle on a plan in the next two years, before Cole starts kindergarten. We'll see how things end up.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hirshman vs. Parents

Linda Hirshman is gaining more publicity, this time in the progressive media: in The Progressive, Ruth Connif takes her ideas apart and doesn't bother to put them back together again; in AlterNet, readers do the job. All the hostility naturally makes me want to give Hirshman a second look: are her ideas really so terrible? I gave it some thought.

But I'm afraid that the answer is still a big, fat YES. What's good about Hirshman is what was good about second-wave feminism. She calls for smart, talented women to resist to the pre-ordained role of the housewife and use their intelligence and skills to make a difference in the world. "You can't have an equal, just and fair workplace and a gendered family," says Hirshman. I agree; I'm all for de-gendering the family.

Hirshman says she wants to start a social conversation about women and work - also fine and good - but unfortunately she doesn't do much to bring the conversation to the next level. She's still stuck in the second wave, and doesn't see how men have changed and are changing as a result of the feminist movement. "What about those who say raising children is the most important job a person can do?" asks the AlterNet interviewer. "I have no idea what they mean by that," replies Hirshman. "If, in fact, it were the most important thing a human being could do, then why are no men doing it? They'd rather make war, make foreign policy, invent nuclear weapons, decode DNA, paint The Last Supper, put the dome on St. Peter's Cathedral; they'd prefer to do all those things that are much less important than raising babies?"

First, as documented here and elsewhere, more men are "doing it" - the advances of second-wave feminism made it possible for more and more men to become caregivers. Wasn't that one of the goals? Second, for forty years many men have been explicitly rejecting the destructive empire-building roles Hirshman identifies as more desirable (making war, nuclear weapons, etc.) than raising children. (There's also considerable psychological, medical, and sociological evidence that focusing on work and neglecting family leads to profound unhappiness and health ills such as high blood pressure, but that's a point to be made at another time.)

Most perilously, I think the very existence of Hirshman's obtusely and arrogantly rendered argument drives a needless wedge between people who should be allies. Recently I've been reading and thinking about the political competition between Red States and Blue States (as part of a project for Political Research Associates), which is more accurately characterized as a rural vs. urban split. In his new book Welcome to the Homeland, public radio reporter Brian Mann cites example after example of "homelanders" (as he calls rural conservatives) who vote Republican because they feel scorned by the intellectuals and city folk whom they see as dominating the Democratic Party. "There's nobody there that I can relate to," says Mann's brother Allen, a homelander.

Mann's numbers, mostly from the 2004 election, are chilling: they show that Republicans have almost completely lost the cities and Democrats have mostly lost the country. The American political mix (e.g., the structure of the electoral college and the Senate, etc.) has given Republicans an edge in recent decades, but it's a precarious edge. Their small towns are in demographic and economic decline, while the cities keep growing stronger. Politically and culturally, we really and truly are becoming two nations, divisible and alien to each other. Though city folk are losing most of the national battles at the moment, in the long run we stand to win the war. Homelanders can sense that their way of life is dying; their fantasies of persecution do have some basis in reality.

Sure, to a degree homelanders have brought it on themselves. In a global society, fear of immigrants and foreign ways is an economic and cultural liability. In a knowledge-based economy, distrust of education and the scientific method is economic death. Homelanders are fighting Darwin in the classroom, but for their own sake they should be reading him. "It's not the strongest of species that survive," Darwin writes, "nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

Sometimes when I think about this I feel galvanized; I want my side to "win" and I want the rubes to "lose" (yes, I'm angry, too). In more reflective moments, I just get depressed and I wonder what kind of country Liko is going to live in when he's my age: it can't be good for a culture and an economy to be split so severely and thrown so far out of balance.

That's why Hirshman's relentless scorn for childrearing, which is so inescapable and important to so many people, troubles me. I'm in favor of fighting when fighting is the only option: we can't afford to compromise with homelanders on issues of human and civil rights (I'm thinking of gay marriage, abortion, and the use of torture, in particular). But does it follow that we have to sneer at everything they stand for? We shouldn't be wasting time telling potential allies in the homeland that it's "stupid" to focus on raising children instead of making money.

From where I stand, our children and the experience of parenthood might be all that we have in common. It is, at least, what I have to talk about when I'm talking with someone from the homeland, and if our styles and roles differ, well, that's something we can talk about. For those of us who have freely chosen to have children, raising them is the most important job we can do; working is a part of that, but I've learned the hard way that there's more to life than work. Denigrating caregiving - as Hirshman certainly does, despite her denials - confirms the worst stereotypes of homelanders hold about selfish urban yuppies; it burns the only bridge we might have.

Perhaps it doesn't matter what Hirshman says or what I say; maybe all the good will in the world doesn't amount to a hill of beans. There are forces at work that none of us can control. But we can never know that for sure, and though there might be things happening that are bigger than any one of us, we as individuals still have ethical choices to make. I don't disagree with Hirshman because I believe (quoting from her interview) "that women's lives aren't important enough to merit a real analysis." I disagree with her because her message is completely at odds with my experience.

OK, that's the last thing I have to say about Hirshman.