Monday, October 29, 2007

No hitting: The play

Scene: Dinner at Savor in Noe Valley. I'm eating humus; Liko is eating pasta.

Me: Liko, do you want to go to the antiwar protest tomorrow?

Liko (mouth full): What's an antiwar?

Me: In an antiwar protest, people get together and they ask war to stop.

(Liko swallows.)

Liko: Why?

Me: Remember what we talked about yesterday? War is really terrible. Mommies and daddies and little kids like you get hurt really bad, sometimes they get killed.

Liko: Where is war?

Me: Tomorrow we are going to protest the war in Iraq.

Liko: Where is Iraq?

Me: I showed you yesterday on the globe. It's very far from here. The people there don't speak our language or dress like us, but they're people just like us and they don't like to get hurt.

Liko: Are we going to get dessert?

Me: I don't think so.

Liko: Why?

Me: Because you already had ice cream today. Do you want to go to the antiwar protest?

Liko: I want to be a war-guy and hurt people!

Me (flustered): What? We don't want to hurt people, Liko. We want to help them.

Liko (bashes table with his hand): I want a war-stick! [Meaning, a gun.]

Me: Liko, please don't hit the table.

Liko: Why?

Me: Because we're in a restaurant and we don't hit tables.

Liko: Why?

Me: Because it bothers the people around us.

Liko (looking around): Are those people going to antiwar protest?

Me (glancing around and feeling slightly defeated): Some of them might, sure.

Liko: What do people do at antiwar protest?

Me: We march and sing songs and hold signs.

Liko: What do signs say?

Me: They say things like "Stop the war" or "War is bad for children."

Liko: I want to make a sign.

Me: OK. What should it say?

Liko: No hitting!

Photos courtesy of our neighbor Woody Hastings.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Rug Rat Race

A few days before my high school reunion, I was down on the rug, face to face with Spot, watching him execute his favorite pilates routine while I sang the following lines from a Police tune:

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Is all I want to say to you
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
repeat, etc., etc.

I'm not a big fan of The Police, though I do like a few of their tunes. My dentist loves them, and if I were more of a fan, and more inclined to hang out with my dentist, I would have jumped on his offer to see them in concert last fall. But these lyrics were not idle. They were sung with a purpose. Spot had to learn his consonants.

This was my first conscious intervention in the spontaneous flow of Spot's development. It was prompted by a certain concerned look on the pediatrician's face the week before, when she had asked us if Spot was making consonant noises. "Like what?" I asked. "Like da-da," she replied. I said no, and could see that her roving intelligence immediately halted and fixed on this point. We scheduled a follow-up visit in a month's time.

So there I was on the rug, worrying about Spot's developmental progress, when a classic marker of dad's developmental progress, his high school reunion, was a few days away. Spot was a little late with his consonants and, so it seemed, I was a little off with my career. Spot made plenty of noises; quite often he whistled and sang like a deep-space radio transmitter from a 50s sci-fi movie. As for myself, I had plenty to do, and had done a lot. But neither of us, from a certain perspective, was where we "should" be.

This set of bench-mark pressures had already set in on the young Spot; it was entering its fourth decade with his father. Was I ready to face the crowds and tell anyone who asked, "I'm an at-home dad. It's my wife who makes all the money"?

I was vaguely aware that there are developmental milestones that pop up at certain intervals -- the classic Hallmark moments -- but hadn't worried too much about their sequence or rate of succession. Spot, I assured myself, was a non-conformist: he had been a breach baby, and came out four weeks early -- clearly an individual with his own agenda. Now he was lingering on his vowels before moving on to the harsher elements of language. So be it.

But despite my own and Spot's insouciance, the world keeps wanting to know how things are going, and how he ranks. "Can Spot sit up yet?" asked a neighborhood grandma after greeting us in the restaurant one afternoon. "Alvin can, and he's two months younger." I'm not usually at a loss for words, but this comment silenced me. Now it was abdominal coordination; soon it would be reading ability, and then SAT scores, colleges, and salary figures. Was there any way to not go down that road?

One of my many former therapists once told me, "Only people who consider themselves successful go to their class reunions." People, in other words, who can sit up, hold their bottle, and make consonant sounds. Strangely, I've found myself among them on several occasions, though this reunion -- number twenty -- seemed more symbolic than those previous. By now, I ought to have amounted to something. I should be holding my bottle. The difference between my situation and Spot's was that he wasn't worrying about it, and I was.

As it turned out, the reunion went well. No one -- as far as I know -- questioned what still sometimes feels like the eccentricity of my situation. I found myself in league with my former, now-lesbian high school girlfriend, revved up for a gender-bending confrontation with the world of sexual-social expectations in Middle America. It failed to materialize. Instead, I approached my own situation the same way I tried to approach Spot's -- with the exception of his consonants: we're both of us, like my lesbian ex, doing our own thing.

Friday, October 19, 2007

More kids vs. religion

Former Daddy Dialectic blogger Chip (who is now retired from blogging, alas) wrote a number of posts on raising kids without religion--posts that, not surprisingly, provoked quite a lot of discussion.

Though I am every bit as atheistic and philosophically materialist as Chip, I often disagreed with him about the need for secular social structures that can connect people to something larger than themselves and reinforce moral behavior.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science finds that thoughts about God do indeed encourage people to share what they have. But researchers also discovered that secular concepts of civic responsibility and social justice do just about as much to promote altruism.

In two related experiments, University of British Columbia Associate Professor Ara Norenzayan and Ph.D. graduate student Azim Shariff divided 125 participants into three groups.

In the first group, researchers asked participants to unscramble sentences that contained words like spirit, God, and sacred. The second group played the same word game, but with non-religious content. The third played the game with words like court, civic, jury, and police—thereby priming them with thoughts of secular moral authority.

Then each participant was given 10 one-dollar coins and asked to make a decision about how much keep for herself and how much to share with another person--this is a standard laboratory test for altruism called the Dictator's Game.

The results: The religious group offered to share an average of $4.56 with another person, the secular group shared $4.44—and people who were not primed with any moral thoughts at all shared only $2.56.

Researcher Azim Shariff told me that their experiment shows how important it is for people to be reminded of their social responsibilities, but stresses that faith in God is optional. “We added the secular institutions as an afterthought in the second study, mostly because we wanted to demonstrate that religion wasn’t the only thing that could do this," Shariff said. "In our history, we’ve developed a lot of cultural institutions designed to reign in our selfish behavior. One of the earliest and most effective ones, we believe, was religion. But that’s certainly at this point not the only thing that does it.”

Not only did secular thoughts do almost as good a job at priming altruistic behavior as God thoughts, but people who described themselves as religious did not behave more altruistically than godless counterparts--a finding that a lot of other studies have echoed. (In one study that had different groups of Princeton seminary students walk by a man slumped and groaning on the sidewalk, researchers discovered that their willingness to help depended on one variable: how late they were for their next appointment.)

“Our study adds to a growing body of evidence to suggest that there has been all these cultural institutions that have evolved either purposely or through some blind process of cultural selection that serve to reign in our selfishness so that we can live in larger social groups harmoniously," said Shariff. "We evolved to live in much smaller groups, with more limited range of prosocial behavior, but we’ve developed rituals, beliefs, practices that allow us to overcome our more base natures and cooperate more, which has allowed us to build civilization.”

So can we raise moral children outside of structures of supernatural belief? I believe the answer is yes, and there is evidence to support my belief. But I don't think individual parents can do it alone--and there's evidence to support that contention as well. To curb selfish behavior and cultivate meaning in our lives, we need to be constantly reminded of our interdependence with other people and the natural world. So do atheists need a church? I'd say they do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Power Peas and Colassal Corn

When I read the article on picky eaters in NY Times earlier this week, I was especially intrigued by this line in the sidebar:

"Giving food cool names can help. In one experiment, Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, found that when peas were renamed ''power peas,'' consumption doubled."

I thought this was a simple and intriguing idea, so I decided to try it with Cole, my 5-year-old, last night. I told him we were going to have some "Colossal Corn" and "Super Sweet Potatoes" along with soup for dinner, and his eyes decidedly widened. And when the food arrived on the table, he did indeed eat significantly more than usual.

He hesitated about eating the carrots and onions in his bowl of No-Chicken Noodle, but I told him they were actually flavor packets that exploded to release delicious tastes when they entered someone's mouth. After hearing that, he enthusiastically slurped them up. (I guess that last one was a bit of a fib, but then again, isn't the main reason we add onions to soup to make it more flavorful?) Overall, I'd rate this experiment a resounding success, and I expect I'll be rebranding a lot of foods over the next few weeks. Awesome apples, anyone?

Be there or be square

A final reminder for Bay Area residents: Today, Greater Good is hosting a panel on "The 21st Century Family," featuring Stephanie Coontz, psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, and psychotherapist Joshua Coleman. I'll be moderating. The panel will start at 3 pm at the Lipman Room on the 8th floor of Barrows Hall, located off of Bancroft Way at Barrow Lane and Eshleman Road, on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus. Click here for a map, parking information, and directions to the Lipman Room.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Alone Together

Is marriage dying, or is it just evolving?

Four Pennsylvania State University sociologists used two national surveys, one conducted in 1980 and the other in 2000, to quantitatively track how the experience of marriage has changed over a 20-year period. In both surveys, 2,000 randomly selected couples were asked an identical set of questions about their happiness, household division of labor, social lives, gender roles and attitudes, values, and more.

The results, just published in Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing, are fascinating. This is an academic book with lots of graphs and numbers, but it's well worth a read for anyone who really wants to understand the meaning and status of marriage these days--and, actually, as academic books go, it's fairly readable.

On the negative side, couples are spending less time together eating meals, visiting friends, and working around the home. Plus, today’s husbands and wives were far more likely to report that their jobs interfered with family life. This confirms the impression, voiced by many social critics and researchers and bloggers, that today’s families are more harried and isolated than those in the past.

Meanwhile, however, marital problems and conflict steeply declined—-reports of domestic violence for both sexes tumbled from around 21 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2000, which is consistent with crime data during the same period. (The authors attribute this good news to public education campaigns against domestic violence, as well as increased likelihood that abusers will be arrested and punished.) Overall, husbands and wives in 2000 reported less anger, hurt feelings, jealousy, and domineering behavior in their marriages than did their counterparts in 1980.

But surprisingly, none of these improvements seemed to increase the happiness of the couples. According to the surveys, both husbands and wives are just as happy with their marriages today as they were in 1980.

I asked lead author Paul R. Amato why this should be the case. "We know that people's expectations for marriage have been increasing for many years," he told me. "So the fact that there is less violence and fewer relationship problems is what people expect. If there had not been a decline in violence or other relationship problems, then marital happiness probably would have declined rather than stayed the same."

Twenty-first-century married couples are “older, better educated, and more diverse than at any previous time in U.S. history,” write the authors. Because so many women are working, egalitarian attitudes and a fair division of labor are critical to today’s happiest marriages. “The most successful marriages,” they conclude, “combine gender equality, two incomes, shared social ties, and a strong commitment to marital permanence.”

But what about families that don’t fit that mold?

"We can speak only in averages," Amato said. "Many couples who don't fit the above description still have successful marriages. One of the implications of the 'deinstitutionalizaiton of marriage,' which we discuss in the book, is that couples are free to design their own relationships in a way that wasn't possible in the past, when social norms, laws, and religion had more influence on marriage."

Conservatives argue that marriage is dying, threatened by a nefarious combination of feminism, gay rights, and secular humanism. But I think research like this confirms that it's traditional gender attitudes, not marriages, that are dying.

To me, that's something to celebrate.

[This is based on a shorter piece I wrote for Greater Good magazine.]

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Supernanny (and my dog)

Spot's mother does something that I call "the stare." It's a technique of intimidation, overlooked by the Pentagon, but legal and quite effective in civilian life, that she whips out in public places like restaurants or at the mall. The first few times I saw her use it, long before we got married, it scared me. So you can imagine the effect it has on kids whose parents are too busy with their cell phones to keep them from pulling all the shoes off the table at Macy's.

Our discussions about "the stare" were our first real discussions about parenting, over the course of which I learned that we came at the issue from the same angle. Children should be expected to behave in public, and if this was impossible, then children should be removed from public. From these two axioms an entire ethical system was evolved, in which the fundamentals of raising a small child turned out to be not that different from the fundamentals of training a dog -- something we happen to have some experience doing. Reward positive behavior, withhold rewards for undesirable behavior, and provide a firm framework of consistent rules. I can't tell you how many times I've caught myself asking my wife, "Honey, should I put Spot in the crate?"

It turns out that this micro-philosophy of parenting, like most things involving the details of how we live our daily lives, is not quite common sense. If it were, then reality TV shows like ABC's Supernanny wouldn't have become so popular. I tuned in to Supernanny a few months ago on the advice of fellow blogger Jeremy Smith, and subsequently had the strange experience of spending an hour every week with what seemed like most of my friend's children.

I exaggerate, of course. The kids on Supernanny are awful, but the family resemblances were striking. In my own anecdotal way, I had seen the same scenes from Portland to New York, from Paris to Taiwan, across cultures and continents. Children that simply would not behave like anything less than the rescue dog you just brought home from the pound, who peed in the middle of the rug, ate your cell phone, and would not stop counter-surfing. Yet people have been training dogs for thousands of years and seem to have gotten the hang of it. What happened to raising children?

That's the great unanswered question posed by the Supernanny shows. Jo Frost, the down-to-earth and supremely confident "parenting consultant" on the show, typically swoops down upon the doorstep of families at wit's end: almost always with 3 kids or more, very often with one parent who is for some reason gone most of the time, and usually living in a low-density, suburban area where there don't seem to be too many people around to help out. The parents readily confess that they are overwhelmed and don't know what to do. Unlike the Rebel Without a Cause teenager of the 50s, the kids aren't out of control; they have taken control.

How did we get here? The most obvious explanation, and the one that jumps off the screen in each of the Supernanny episodes, is that it's not the kids who are the problem, it's their parents. Like dogs, the kids want to know what the rules are. But the parents have forgotten how to be the Alphas. That's the message, in a nutshell, and there's no escaping its conservatism. Or at least, the message is conservative from the perspective of the trend of ever-greater unraveling of social hierarchies in American culture since World War II -- which is not to say it's bad. In fact, as I see it, it represents a swing of the pendulum back to the middle, someplace between the unstructured "free to be me" philosophy of baby-boomer child-rearing, and the iron discipline of their predecessors.

The picture I get from Supernanny is that, yes, a lot of parents have forgotten how to train, nurture, husband, and shape something over the long haul. Partly it's a breakdown of consensus in the larger society as to what the best practices are. Where ethnic or religious traditions have weakened, the empire of TV and paperback self-help techniques grows up to fill the void, by first pointing it out.

As the anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued in her 1934 book, Patterns of Culture, the only way for any patterns to emerge in human behavior is for some combinations to be neglected or ruled out. This requires the existential iron stomach needed to say, "We're going this way, not that." Where the parents on Supernanny might think discipline equals damage, from the perspective of cultural anthropology, discipline equals possibility.

In a parent's terms, that's the possibility of getting a good night's sleep, of not having to wrestle your child to the floor to enforce the smallest request, of a family meal without voluntary regurgitation, of eliminating back-talk, and public wildness. Helping to restore this depleted repertoire of social wisdom is indeed one contribution, as I see it, of the Supernanny phenomenon. Not as good, of course, as having grandma or grandpa around, or the full participation of two parents, but certainly better than nothing, and more than a lot of people have.

Where we are writing from

I've refrained from writing posts in this blog about this blog, because I can't imagine anyone would be interested in how I view it--I mean, what you see is what you get, yes?

But lately I've been thinking about what I like and don't like about other blogs, especially blogs about gender, feminism, sexism, politics, and parenting--and especially blogs on those topics written by guys.

Some of these blogs are quite popular, which Daddy Dialectic isn't. We get about 200 unique visitors on a good day, 100 on an average day when no one has posted for a while, maybe 3,500 in a month. In contrast, the bigger parenting blogs--some of which are great--will get 30,000 visitors in a single day.

Since I have a background in magazine publishing, I think of our readership as being akin to that of a literary magazine and I'm pretty happy with it. The only promotion I've ever done is to tell friends, family, and bloggers whom I genuinely admire and who feel kindred in some way--you'll see some of them listed in the blogroll.

No one who writes for Daddy Dialectic writes a post because he thinks it will be a hit in the blogosphere and get lots of links. Instead, we write about changing diapers, Proust, imaginary friends, loneliness, feelings of empathy and compassion--that sort of thing. I also blog quite a bit about recent research into families. Nothing that will get us mentioned in DailyKos.

We avoid writing about Bush, abortion, the war, and so on. Those things are important, but our culture and the blogosphere is filled with angry arguments on political issues of every kind. We're writing from a quieter place.

As a corollary, we tend to avoid rhetorical posturing; it creeps in sometimes, of course, but in general, I think it's fair to say that Daddy Dialectic posts are rooted in either quotidian life or empirical evidence. I read a lot of "pro-feminist" guy-blogs that are deeply theoretical: there's a lot of arid talk about "privilege" and "oppression" and so forth that really doesn't speak to my actual life as a dad who is committed to equality and justice.

Part of that pro-feminist guy mindset involves a self-hating denial of the validity of their own experience, that oftentimes seems to lead to ideological passive-aggressiveness, where anything an opponent says is framed as a product of privilege or identity. This is the enemy of understanding ourselves and the world.

The entire basis of Daddy Dialectic is that the daily experience of caregiving dads is valid and even important, even--no, especially--with the contradictions that are embedded in our experience.

Men still have more social power than women. A great deal of that social power is derived from a gendered division of family labor. Therefore, part of the solution is to erase the division of labor. This entails men entering traditionally female realms, even as women have entered male realms. This brings about a conflict between protected female spaces and men who are actually quite vulnerable, though they might loathe to admit to being vulnerable. I'm talking about literal spaces--for example, moms' groups--but I'm also talking about psychic and cultural spaces.

In 100 years, scholars will use current-events-oriented blogs as mere footnotes, even if today they are getting half a million visitors a day. I strongly believe that blogs like Daddy Dialectic--or Doodaddy or Lesbian Dad--will be ones that future historians read closely. Their value lies in that they are documenting the individual, subjective experience of world-historical change, in the same way that letters and diaries did for earlier generations.

Perhaps that seems a trifle lofty and even self-important, but I don't care. It's not a statement of personal importance; it's a statement of how urgent it is that we speak honestly about our experiences, even when they seem to conflict with what we believe. We live our daily lives in the unhappy gap between real and ideal, experience and imagination. At Daddy Dialectic, that's where we're writing from.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The 21st Century Family

The Fall 2007 issue of Greater Good magazine is out, featuring essays by historian Stephanie Coontz on the rise of the new family, sociologists Ross Parke and Scott Coltrane on lessons from Latino families, psychotherapist Ruth Bettelheim on binuclear families, sociologist Constance Ahrons on tips for a better divorce, writer Amie K. Miller on recent research into the well-being of children in same-sex families, and me, writing about how today's diverse families overcome social isolation.

And a reminder for Bay Area residents: On Wednesday, October 17, we're holding an event to celebrate our new issue, featuring Stephanie Coontz, psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, and psychotherapist Joshua Coleman. I'll be moderating. The panel will start at 3 pm at the Lipman Room on the 8th floor of Barrows Hall, located off of Bancroft Way at Barrow Lane and Eshleman Road, on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus. Click here for a map, parking information, and directions to the Lipman Room.