Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Flow vs. Its Opposite

Over at the Greater Good blog (my esteemed employer!), Christine Carter McLaughlin & Kelly Corrigan talk about "flow" and what makes their daughters happy, as part of a series of dialogues on the roots of childhood happiness. To define flow, Christine quotes psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

[A] person in flow is completely focused...Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification.

I've experienced the state Csikszentmihalyi describes, sometimes for long periods at a time, but when I hit my thirties it happened less and less often--and now that I'm a dad, it's very rare indeed. The irony is that my son Liko seems to spend ninety percent of his life in flow, broken by spasms of inconsolable rage and weepiness. It's as though on his birth my happiness jumped out of me and landed square in his little body, leaving me with only a bit of residue; I can smell it, like resin in a pipe, but there ain't enough to smoke...

I don't write this as an invitation for you to feel sorry for me; it's an empirical fact that most parents of young children feel as I do: self-conscious, enfeebled, unchallenged, displaced. Precisely the opposite of the state Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. "Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives," writes psychologist Daniel Gilbert, "becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away."

Yet most of us, Gilbert notes, will say that our children make us happy--indeed, if you inquired as to my happiness, I would reply that I am, in fact, happy, and that Liko is the poopy, giggling fount of my happiness.

But it's a melancholy, distrait kind of happiness. Yesterday I took him to the merry-go-round. He rode around and around on his horse, up and down, flowing in every sense of the word. I watched his face and I was happy, but it was happiness tinged by a combination of fatigue (I'd been chasing him all day), anxiety (thinking about a looming deadline), and something else that's hard to describe--a feeling of fragility, like this moment couldn't last? More to the point, I was preoccupied with making sure that he didn't fall off the damn horse and break his arm. A moment's inattention, and Liko could be hurt, or worse. It's normal: people who care for little kids are often wracked with moment-to-moment nervousness, and every day we find another gray hair on our heads.

I can feel the reader, especially older parents, rushing to reassure me: it's OK, relax, don't take everything so seriously, get over yourself. It's our American impulse: we don't like to see anyone unhappy, we can't let them just be sad or angry. I share the hypothetical reader's impulse. As we were riding the bus home, Liko asleep in my lap, I looked at the people around me and most of them wore woebegone looks. I wanted them to be happy, for my sake as well as Liko's; who doesn't like to see people smile? It's a noble impulse, but there's also something stupid about it.

Gilbert sets forth three reasons why we insist, against all evidence, that our kids make us happy: 1) kids are, like fine wine or expensive cars, so costly that we actually rationalize their costs and conclude that something so demanding must make us happy; 2) "Memories are dominated by their most powerful--and not their most typical--instances," so that a single "I love you" can wipe out years of sleep deprivation; and 3) "When you have one joy, it's bound to be the greatest"--meaning, because children occlude other sources of pre-child pleasure, such as movies and sex, we demand that our kids give us some degree of happiness, dammit.

This list will doubtless horrify childfree people, and serve as a form of birth control. I think, however, that Gilbert's misses one big one reason why we have children: kids are, to borrow from Chris Hedges, a force that gives us meaning. They structure our lives, create comradeship and community with other parents, and drive us out of bed and into an world of responsibility and interdependence, where, in many ways, our will is not our own. We lose agency and freedom. We gain purpose and wherewithal. The meaning might be illusory, but the brute biology of the situation, and the intrinsic vulnerability of young kids, gives the illusion a massiveness that pushes smaller, weaker illusions aside.

"Our children give us many things," Gilbert writes, "but an increase in our average daily happiness is probably not among them. Rather than deny that fact, we should celebrate it. Our ability to love beyond all measure those who try our patience and weary our bones is at once our most noble and most human quality."

Just so. Here's my point: for adults, happiness is overrated. I'm aware that this opinion puts me in the company of Calvinists and drill sergeants, but I'd pick them over the happiness enforcers any day of the week. Happiness, in my view, is something that happens on the way to something else: not "a skill we can learn," as a colleague once put it, but an evolutionary accident whose pursuit can corrupt us, if we mistake it for an end in itself. "Flow"--that state when "living becomes its own justification"--may well be a kind of happiness unique to childhood, which we shed as we age. Perhaps I am not as able to "go with the flow" as I was when I was younger, but perhaps that is a necessary step towards a deeper kind of happiness.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

system error

This is an essay from the latest issue of boxcutter:

Going through her eleven year old's new Christmas purse, Andee exclaims that the entire thing is filled with nothing but technological devices: two tamagotchis, one ipod nano, one nintendo ds, one digital camera, one piggy flashlight, and a game holder with three different games. All of us sitting with her kinda laughed and snickered about `these kids these days,' shaking our heads. `Why do they want all this stuff,' we wondered, but soon we fell eerily silent: three sets of parents, three minds realizing how our kids' worlds are just so different than ours was. For example, my kids all wanted technology for christmas, and my partner and I at first balked, thinking we were gonna give them only books and do-it-yourself science toys; you know Good Toys, but soon we gave way to pleas about what all the other kids were gonna get, and we found ourselves saying, `we might as well just buy them what they want, if we're gonna get them anything at all.' Right? What would you do?

So there we were christmas morning, and under the tree appeared so barren, looked so empty because all the presents were in these little boxes; it looked like they barely got any presents. It seemed so pathetic. By the time we got up, got coffee, got to the sofa, they made these tiny piles in front of them. I suddenly got all worried that they didn't get enough. Perhaps though we were the pathetic ones, so caught up in wanting our kids to be happy, to feel loved, to be satisfied. Because presents do that, right? Why on earth do we bother to give presents at all? I hate it. Not just with kids. I was stressing out trying to find things for the adults in my life. How did I get like this: I, who make things. I, who think of myself as so creative, so anti-corporate -- rushing around the day before christmas, so worried that my lover would not like her jacket or if I spent enough on my partner for fear she spent more. And there sat my kids' little frilly boxes underneath the tree. The only thing that saved the apparent lack of presents was the two gifts I bought basically for myself but wrapped anyway -- a basketball and a board game.

This is a panic created by consumerism and technology, but what should we have done? What would you have done? How to fight it when everyone around you especially your kids is so in to it, is so content to participate in our crazy, self destructive culture? It's easy to blame the youth of today but that is wrong. As for technology, this is what they know; it's not the way we grew up, wanting all these little devices. Were there any devices when we were kids? Yes, walkmans, and soon pagers, but did kids want them like they want a cell phone? So do we just say no to anything because it wasn't the way we experienced childhood (I mean who back then could walk around with an Atari and play it on the bart). We live in a different world. Take myspace which seems the utmost in prefabricated realities where you get a list of a hundred or so friends most of whom you don't know; I immediately want to hate on it, but I also realize that in this world of constant surveillance and monitoring, with a lack of public space to hang out in, without getting hassled, watched, where can kids turn to to reclaim there own autonomy: yep, cyberspace. It may be owned by Rupert Murdoch but it is something that they can create, control, invent, talk smack in, try to foster an identity.

So I try to relax while they rip open their presents; as they each squeal and laugh and scream and shout thank yous, I inwardly smile. A few hours later after the techno stuff is pushed to the side, after the cyber pets are sleeping in their little cyber houses, and the music is turned off because the battery needs to be charged, my daughter asks, `what's this game like?' Soon we are all sitting around playing and laughing together.

And then I opened my other present: the basketball and at the end of the day we all stepped out into the street and played with a ball, a real ball, and with our real dog, and we laughed and got angry and teased each other and had a great old time as the sun set on our real lives. Next year though I promise to do something different.

If you need some game suggestions these games have all been played and enjoyed for hours with our neighbors and friends -- get them because they don’t need batteries:

Dominos -- I got my ass spanked by a student in my english class a few semesters ago and have been wanting a rematch ever since, so when my son and I traveled into the jungle of mexico all we brought were books and a set of dominos -- we had monster games, created new slang for ridiculous decisions we made while we both learned to play. It has been a continued source of pleasure to set up and play in our house. It lasts for about 30 - 45 mins...it's cheep to buy, easy to bring along, and perfect for talkin all kinda smack. Oh and I still lost the rematch...

Gobblet – This is an awesome looking game as well – made of wood and really easily set up and stored. It is like a crazy tic-tac-toe and connect four love child. The object is to get four in a row and you can gobble your opponent in the process. Hella fun and good for all ages and easy to learn.

Blokus – It’s a perfect way to kill an extra 20 minutes between cooking dinner and eating or after bath and before bed. Four people can play and as you get to know it more, you can get more strategic, but it is easy to learn and doesn’t take too long to finish. The main idea of Blokus is to get more of your pieces into play than anyone else. It is kinda like tetrus. Since the rules can be explained and learned in less than two minutes anyone can join in the fun with ease.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kids vs. religion

By Chip -- Do kids need religion?


It really isn't necessary or possible to force children to believe in "god," in either a general or particular way. Moreover, morality, ethics, and being a good person don't depend on religion or belief in god.

I myself was raised in a religious family. I went to church every Sunday from birth until I left home to go to college. I went to a religious elementary school, and went to religious education classes when I was in public middle and high school. I took courses in theology as an undergraduate at a religiously-based university.

But I never felt like I actually believed that any of the stories I was told were literally true. I could see that they were parables and lessons, that they were stories that made philosophical, ethical, and moral points -- not all of which were very moral or ethical (for example the numerous genocides commanded by the Yahweh).

As for the theology, I never actually believed that there is a "god" somewhere out there micromanaging or even watching over humanity, much less having "personal relationships" with individual humans.

But then came kids. My wife was raised in a different Christian faith tradition, but she feels much the same way as I do about religion. We talked a lot about what to do. We ended up having both kids baptized at the church I was raised in -- largely for the sake of my parents and grandparents. And it gave us an excuse to have the extended family get together.

When my daughter reached kindergarten age, we began going to church, and she went to Sunday school, as did my son when he reached that age. My daughter made her first penance and first communion. I think that we both felt it would be good to do this, despite our own non-belief.

But I found this position increasingly untenable. I didn't believe, I had never believed, yet I was asking my kids to go through the motions.

We tried other churches, but we didn't feel comfortable in them either, mainly because they were so religious and were talking about god all the time (of course, what did we expect?).

So we decided that it was best to be honest with ourselves and with our kids. We stopped going to church, and stopped trying to get our kids to go through the motions.

They had early on proclaimed their atheism -- I'd had to ask them not to argue with the Sunday school teachers about this -- which was one of the issues that led us to this decision.

Unfortunately, in this society, I need to add this: My kids are moral and ethical, they have very strong senses of right and wrong, and though they are not perfect, they are great kids and will be wonderful adults.

(Of course, the very fact that I feel like I have to say this indicates how our society views nonbelievers. If I was religious and a believer, I wouldn't even have to tell you about my kids' morality and ethics...)

Morality and ethics do not come out of religion. We all know people who are immoral and unethical who were also believers. And there are plenty of nonbelievers who are moral and ethical.

The sense of ethics, the belief that there are right and wrong ways to treat other people, comes, I believe, from how we see our parents and significant others act as we are growing up. Adults model behavior to kids, regardless of religious belief. As they grow up, children absorb the values of the people raising them. Kids learn by being told, and talked to, and having things explained to them: Why some things are right, and why some things are wrong; why some people do bad things; why others are selfless.

Kids also learn by watching what their parents and care givers do, how they act, how they live their lives, apart from the words.

But I also believe that there is an innate sense of morality and ethics. I know plenty of people whose parents were awful, yet who themselves turned out to be great people.

To me that indicates that there is some level of morality that is part of the package of being human. Perhaps these people also were lucky enough to have other adults in their lives who reinforced their inner moral senses.

Given this, I believe that morality and ethics don't come from believing in god, or from being attached to a particular religious community. Those values come from within, and they are reinforced by the way adults explain what's right and wrong, and how those adults themselves behave.

When I was talking to my 15-year old daughter CB about this, she said she thinks that nonbelievers are actually more moral: they do the right thing not because of a fear of punishment in the afterlife, but just because it's the right thing to do. I wouldn't say that all believers do the right thing only out of fear; but for those who do, I think CB's reasoning is right on target.

That said, I do believe it is important for my kids to be familiar with the various religious mythologies that are part of our cultural heritage. My kids know the Bible stories, are familiar with the Jesus stories, the saints and other aspects of Christian religious belief. They are also familiar with other religious traditions, as well as the basics of the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome.

I see this knowledge as important for purely cultural reasons. You cannot understand a large part of European literature and art if you don't know the background stories coming out of Christianity and Judaism. You cannot understand the politics of large parts of the US if you don't have some basic knowledge of Christianity.

But kids don't have to believe that the stories of Christianity are actually true, any more than they need to believe the ancient Roman or Greek myths.

Of course we're lucky to live in a community that is pretty progressive, which is not dominated by Christian fundamentalism, and in which my kids know other kids who are also not believers. But given the outright hostility to atheists in US society, I have also had to warn my kids to be careful, to not discuss their beliefs with people unless they know them.

While I have no problem with other people believing whatever they want to believe -- as long as they don't try to force it on me -- I also think it's important to recognize that kids don't need to have a belief in god, anymore than they need to believe in santa claus or the easter bunny. They need to have parents who instill in them their values, a sense of responsibility and empathy towards other human beings, and who walk the walk as well as they talk the talk.

So if you're feeling uncomfortable raising your kids in an atmosphere of religious belief, act on your own beliefs and instincts. Kids are just fine without god or religion.

Crossposted at daddychip2