Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Paternity Leave: The Ultimate Family Vacation

And here's the result of my second collaboration with DadLabs:

I like the way this one turned out. It makes a strong 5-minute case for paternity leave, and the DadLab guys' descriptions of bonding with their kids during leave are really moving. If you think more guys should take leave when it's available and if you think more paternity leave should be available, then spread this segment around. We might change some minds.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Not Dad?

Why Not Dad?, says the film's website, "is the result of 9 months of ethnographic collaboration between the filmmakers and a group of stay-at-home fathers in San Francisco. Weekly contact with the men and their children gave rise to an unprecedented filmmaking collaboration in which the fathers were able to help shape the direction and development of the film." Which sounds a trifle dry; the film is actually warmer than one would expect an "ethnographic collaboration" to be. You can can watch it here:

Monday, March 23, 2009

Notes on children and violence

I am guilty guilty GUILTY of neglecting my blogs, especially Daddy Dialectic. I've had a lot going on with my so-called career. But mainly, I blame Facebook, which has started to suck up a startling amount of online energy.

For years, I've been writing articles and blog entries on the science behind kids and violence, and recently I've felt like all those bits and pieces have started to come together into a coherent narrative. Last week I posted some notes on children and violence to my Facebook page, which drew some interesting comments from friends, including Dawn Friedman, who writes the blog This Woman's Work, and Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters and Men of Tomorrow. I am sharing my notes below along with reader comments--since I haven't asked anyone's permission, including Gerard's, the reader comments are anonymous. I invite your thoughts as well.

Evolutionary and psychological roots of violence:
1. Violent feelings are natural, and have an evolutionary basis

2. Measured in terms of the number of acts, childhood is the most violent period of human life; as they grow humans learn to avoid violence

3. It’s an empirical fact that the vast majority of mature humans avoid real-world violence at all costs

4. A minority of humans do act violently; thus sooner or later, we are all confronted with violence

5. Imaginary violence is not the same thing as real-world violence, but it is a form of preparation for the real thing

Violence in children:

6. All children, boys and girls alike, need physical play

7. For young children, violent play is a form of physical play

8. Violent play exists because it is a way of dramatizing conflict and learning to control violent feelings; this is how we prepare to confront real-world violence

9. Teaching children to repress violent feelings (and violent play) is not the same thing as teaching them to control those feelings

10. Violent and scary play is a way of confronting scary things and learning about conflict in a controlled, fantasy way

11. Adults often seek to repress violent childplay because they cannot control real-life violence; thus, adults teaching children to conceal violent feelings or play is itself a kind of escapist fantasy: If we don't see the expression of violence, we imagine that it does not exist. This is a comfort; it's also delusional.

Ways for adults to foster peacefulness in children:
12. If we behave violently, so will our children; thus we adults should never, ever be violent, except in the most extreme circumstances

13. Imposing rules and limitations on violent play without repressing it helps children learn to control the expression of real-world violence; it also helps demarcate imaginary and real-world violence

14. But the real key to reducing real-world, one-on-one violence is to foster empathy and self-control

15. The best way to foster empathy and self-control is to foster the imagination (i.e., conscience)

16. Fostering imagination allows children and young adults to conceptualize and pursue pathways away from violence

17. This is something they must learn to do on their own; it’s a long-term process accomplished over many years

18. The process consists of questions, conversations, modeling, and also stories…

19. Telling developmentally appropriate stories with violence in them is one way to help this process along. For example, The Iliad is mind numbingly violent and Achilles is the most violent character in The Iliad; and yet when Achilles and Priam weep together, the consequences of violence are revealed to Achilles as well as the reader; Achilles regains his humanity and his sense of restraint. This is what matters in a story with violence in it: it must show the consequences of violence and the humanity of victims.

20. Violent stories without consequences are amoral and help foster real-world violence; this is something we should explicitly explain to children when they are old enough.

21. People need heroism; there are more ways to be heroic than to fight; children, especially boys, also need stories in which heroism is expressed in caring, nonviolent ways

22. Participating in political action (e.g., taking children to anti-war demonstrations) is also a good way to foster nonviolent ethics, by making it public and heroic

Selected, edited reader comments to the original note:

1. Am particularly taken with #19 (hadn't thought of Achilles's "redemption" quite like that), #20 (YESYESYES. If only Hollywood could hear you!) and #21 Can't just say no to a naturally occurring, evolutionarily-based inclination, must alchemize/channel it toward positive release.)

2. This makes me think of Rudolph Steiner's ideas about how imagination is crucial to the development of empathy and how fairytales and myths play into that.

3. I was very influenced by reading Who's Calling the Shots when we were grappling with our then-4-year old's interest in having a toy gun. It allowed me to ease up on trying to control N---'s play while still keeping a discussion open about our values. (As an aside, it's influenced how I'm handling Barbie with my daughter, too.)

I'm conflicted on this. I don't really think violence is "natural" for little kids. I think some kids are more physical than others, that there's a range, but violence as we understand it includes the intention to do harm, knowing the consequences of our physical acts, and i'm not sure little kids have that. That said, i totally agree with your point about empathy, not necessarily because of violence but because empathy is the foundation for social justice.

5. Part of the problem here is that we all use "violence" freely but rarely talk about what we mean by it. By this definition, no, violence isn't natural. But it's become common to refer to kids' make-believe shoot 'em ups and swordfighting as "violent play" and superhero cartoons as "violent entertainment." The "V word" has become a common way to politicize and dominate discussions.

6. Funny you should bring this up; just today I was watching a group of four-year-old boys engage in a series of imaginary superhero playfights that three times out of five turned into real fights, in the sense that excitement escalated and one of them ended up really hitting and one of them got really upset about it. Was it violence? I say yes, definitely, and I know that most researchers who study violence in children would consider it to be violence as well, albeit of the impulsive childlike variety. Context is everything: I don't think these little kids were being violent in the same sense that, say, a drug dealer is violent, or, for that matter, a policeman making an arrest or a soldier on a battlefield--in fact, each of those contexts--the motivation, the intention, the situation--are different, and produce different types of violence with different levels of potential for harm.

7. This is one reason some over-controlling (frightened) adults want to eliminate kids' rough play. Pretty common for some kid to go too far and some other kid to get hurt or mad. But that's one of the ways we learn boundaries and self-control. You hit your friend for real and the play date ends. It's a great way to learn where fantasy stops and reality starts. Too bad adults sometimes have such a hard time distinguishing between their own fear-based fantasies and their kids' realities...

Monday, March 09, 2009

President's Obama's family policy agenda

It's ambitious. Highlights:

* Strengthen Fatherhood and Families: Barack Obama has re-introduced the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act to remove some of the government penalties on married families, crack down on men avoiding child support payments, ensure that support payments go to families instead of state bureaucracies, fund support services for fathers and their families, and support domestic violence prevention efforts. President Obama will sign this bill into law and continue to implement innovative measures to strengthen families.

* Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit:
In both the Illinois State Senate and the U.S. Senate, Obama championed efforts to expand the EITC, which is one of the most successful anti-poverty programs to date. President Obama will reward work by increasing the number of working parents eligible for EITC benefits, increasing the benefit available to parents who support their children through child support payments, and reducing the EITC marriage penalty which hurts low-income families. Under the Obama-Biden plan, full-time workers making minimum wage will get an EITC benefit up to $555, more than three times greater than the $175 benefit they get today. If the workers are responsibly supporting their children on child support, the Obama-Biden plan will give those workers a benefit of $1,110.

* Extend Paid Sick Days to All Workers: Half of all private sector workers have no paid sick days and the problem is worse for employees in low-paying jobs, where less than a quarter receive any paid sick days. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will require that employers provide seven paid sick days per year.

* Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): The FMLA covers only certain people who work for employers with 50 or more employees. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will expand the FMLA to cover businesses with 25 or more employees, and to cover more purposes including allowing: leave for workers who provide elder care; 24 hours of leave each year for parents to participate in their children's academic activities at school; leave for workers who care for individuals who reside in their home for 6 months or more; and leave for employees to address domestic violence and sexual assault.

* Encourage States to Adopt Paid Leave: President Barack Obama will initiate a 50 state strategy to encourage all of the states to adopt paid-leave systems. Obama and Biden will provide a $1.5 billion fund to assist states with start-up costs and to help states offset the costs for employees and employers.

* Expand the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit: The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit provides too little relief to families that struggle to afford child care expenses. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will reform the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit by making it refundable and allowing low-income families to receive up to a 50 percent credit for their child care expenses.

* Protect Against Caregiver Discrimination:
Workers with family obligations often are discriminated against in the workplace. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will commit the government to enforcing recently-enacted Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines on caregiver discrimination.

* Expand Flexible Work Arrangements: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will address this concern by creating a program to inform businesses about the benefits of flexible work schedules for productivity and establishing positive workplaces; helping businesses create flexible work opportunities; and increasing federal incentives for telecommuting. Obama and Biden will also make the federal government a model employer in terms of adopting flexible work schedules and permitting employees to petition to request flexible arrangements.

* Support Parents with Young Children: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will expand programs like the successful Nurse-Family Partnership to all low-income, first-time mothers. The Nurse-Family Partnership provides home visits by trained registered nurses to low-income expectant mothers and their families. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis concluded that these programs produced an average of five dollars in savings for every dollar invested and produced more than $28,000 in net savings for every high-risk family enrolled in the program. The Obama-Biden plan will assist approximately 570,000 first-time mothers each year.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The sad inevitability of Kelsey Grammer

Get ready, here it comes:

Will Americans be able to laugh about the scariest recession in recent memory? Will brands be willing to take part in such potentially perilous merriment?

ABC hopes the answer to both is yes, as the Walt Disney TV network readies two comedy pilots about the recent Wall Street carnage and the sad toll it's taken on that once-mighty warrior, the investment banker.

One is an untitled project starring Kelsey Grammer, who plays a Wall Street millionaire unhorsed by the collapsing economy and forced into a "Mr. Mom"-like role at home with the family he hardly ever saw. The other is "Canned," a pilot about several younger Gen X friends fired from their lofty perch at an investment bank.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

"This is America"

Nothing to do with parenthood...not directly. But still, every American should see this segment.

Prolegomena to a Theory of Mom Behavior

Half the time I don’t feel too weird about being the only dad in my son’s parent-tot nursery school class. The other half of the time I freak out.

The half of the time I’m not freaking out, I’m thinking Hey, you’re a person with a kid, I’m a person with a kid, you’ve got a back story, I’ve got a back story, we’re here for an hour-and-a-half and we’re both human beings so let’s share some tips and then get down on the floor and insert ourselves into the storyline playing out on the plastic Fisher Price parking garage.

The half of the time I’m freaking out, on the other hand, I’m feeling like I’ve accepted the invitation to someone’s church or temple or otherwise non-specific place of worship, which is fine, but when people start standing and sitting and shouting and chanting when you’re not expecting it then it starts to make you nervous because you don’t know what the hell’s going on and you wind up leaving with a headache and perhaps even cursing whatever the religion was that you were aping unsuccessfully.

Shortly after Spot was born I bought a t-shirt that read I Love Hot Moms, construing it primarily as a statement of affection for my post-partum wife, but also in some subconscious way as an assertion of my mojo and its continued existence: that things were still cooking under the lid, that even as an at home dad in a sea of moms, utterly subordinated to the starving animal that I had sired, even far beneath the weighty surface layers of parental rationality and obligations, the fires of Eros still crackled.

I’ve never worn that t-shirt. The t-shirt I should have bought, which I now know would have much greater social utility, is one that would read I Have a Penis: Will You Be My Friend? At the playground and at parent-tot class, this t-shirt would just put it out there, the existential structure of the I-Thou interface would be delineated in almost contractural fashion, and then people/moms, and maybe even people/dads too, could make up their minds to sign-on or not, and then we could all get on with our vicarious toddling without having to worry about all the implications that go along with one adult in the room having a penis when the others don’t.

Because there are implications, aren’t there? My wife thinks I’m making this all too complicated, and perhaps she’s right. Having gone to an all girl’s high-school, and been active in a sorority in college, she’s certain she has it figured out: women socialize in packs. The group is instrumental, and being left out of it is like being cast away on an iceberg when the tribe paddles to a new fishing ground. When the stakes are this high, once they’ve made it in then the next batch of newcomers is mercilessly policed. This is why the moms tend to supervise their toddlers, rather than play with them, standing back (rather than down on the floor) to deliberately empathize and sympathize among themselves about all the life-issues that I generally also empathize and sympathize about, without necessarily being inclined to schmoose about them.

A vignette from my field notes illustrates the point: Mom X is part of a couple that we socialize with, who had her boy about 6 months after we did. Mom X is very laid back, supportive, and warm, and we all get along. In the months before Mom X was due she began to strategize about socially surviving motherhood and with steely-eyed deliberation declared that she Needed to Get a Group of Mom-Friends, she Wanted to Make Sure They Weren’t Weirdos, and that she has Figured Out Where to Get Them.

By and large she has succeeded. And by and large this is the polar opposite of how I operate. I don’t have a strong desire to seek out other dads who are also primary care givers, the same way my gay friends don’t necessarily want to date or even hang out with everyone they know who is gay. If I manage to extract one true friend a year out of the voluminous slurry and dross of social life, I’m happy. If they happen to know what it’s like to be the point-man for potty training, well, that’s a plus, but not a prerequisite. But I find that most of the time what I want to talk about is the stuff I don’t get to talk about with Spot, like collateralized debt obligations, James Bond, the paleontological significance of Tiktaalik roseae, or Gertrude Stein. And when that isn’t working, I change into my fantasy partner costume and start naming all the stuffed animals.

[This post also appears on Dad's Book of Days]

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Fatherhood and economic realities

I turned my recent blog entry on how our economic catastrophe might affect fathers and fatherhood into an op-ed for the British Guardian newspaper.

Many of the comments are interestingly hostile, resisting the idea (often in highly coded ways) that fathers can or should be anything but breadwinners. A friend of mine observed "that the negative commenters' real problem is with the economic realities that make a single-income household economically precarious, rather than with a dad staying home after, say, being laid off. But somehow it's easier to object to a social more than an economic one, i.e. easier to attack the stay-at-home dad than the economic absurdities that forced him to be home (as opposed to a system that would allow him to choose to stay home)."

Which is exactly right on, in my view.

Some news for those living in the Bay Area: I'll be running a workshop for expectant and new parents on father involvement at UC Berkeley: "Come explore how new fathers and mothers can equally share in the joys and burdens of parenthood. Emphasis will be placed on successful co-parenting relationships and in understanding and overcoming obstacles to father involvement. Enroll at the UCB Learning Center by calling 510-642-7883 or emailing careserv@uhs.berkeley.edu."

Spread the word to those who might benefit!

I'm working with the Bay Area Homebirth Collective to organize a second one at Natural Resources in San Francisco. Stay tuned, and feel free to send me an info if you or a friend might be interested in attending.