Sunday, December 29, 2013

A White Mom Talks to Her White Kid About Race

One month into starting full time preschool, my older daughter Lysi said to me, "Mommy, I want to have another mommy with dark skin." After a pause I asked, "Do you want another mommy with dark skin because your favorite teacher has dark skin?" She answered yes, and went on about the teacher-in-question's wonderful attributes: she gives hugs, compliments, and is funny. The conversation concluded with me saying, "That's nice. I'm glad you like your teacher so much."
Lysi had opened up Pandora's box. She had shattered any delusions I had that she was colorblind. After our short exchange, I wondered, should I be pleased that she's associating African American women with being warm, affectionate, and humorous, or should I be dismayed that she's associating race with any character traits? I knew that this was just the beginning of a much larger conversation about race and racism.
I wasn't ready, not yet. How do parents talk to very young kids about racial identity and discourage racism? It just seemed like something really important, and really easy to screw up.
The young age was only part of my hesitation to talk about race explicitly with my kid. Another part was because we're white. White is the majority. The race of privilege. The race that doesn't tend to make a big deal about our own racial identity because we're the default position (and we don't want to be associated with white supremacists.) Racial minority kids can be told to be proud of who they are despite adversity. But white kids won't face that kind of discrimination. On the contrary, we're the ones who will benefit from racism, and thus have an incentive to perpetuate it. There's guilt to deal with, and the huge blind spot of being unable to understand racism from the perspective of its targets. Perpetuating the myth that children are naturally colorblind is a huge temptation for parents like me. It gives us an excuse to stay silent.
I had reasons to suspect that the colorblindness of kids was a myth. Before my daughter was even three years old she pointed out an Orthodox Jewish man at the hospital and whispered in my ear, "It's Joseph." She was referring to the title character in the book Joseph Had A Little Overcoat by Jewish author/illustrator Simms Taback. That same year she pointed out a goth girl in a restaurant and whispered "It's the real Ruby Gloom" (a character from a cartoon). And again, hearing jazz music in a waiting room she commented, "This music is like Little Bill." (A children's cartoon with a jazzy opening theme song.) If my toddler could pick up on subtle similarities in clothing, hair, makeup, accessories, and even musical styles, how could she not be noticing race?
Research is increasingly confirming that the colorblindness of young children is indeed a myth. There are findings that children are able to categorize faces by race before they can even talk, and that even toddlers begin making predictions about peoples' behavior based on race. A lot of this research has been brought to public attention by journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their best selling book NurtureShock (Chapter Three: Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race.) Similar research is also summarized in the article Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race by Erin N. Winkler.
In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman report on research by Birgitte Vittrup at the University of Texas that reveals that unless parents speak explicitly about race and racism to their children, the children basically guess what their parents think and form their own views based on other environmental cues. In other words, vague platitudes such as saying "Everyone is equal" and watching tv shows with racially diverse characters does absolutely nothing to teach racial tolerance.
Reading Molly Bang's "Ten, Nine, Eight" to Lysi's little sister
Where did this leave me with Lysi? According to the latest research, I've already screwed up. Watching Sesame Street and reading books like The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats apparently wasn't enough. My eyes scan the shelf of board books that my four-year-old daughter has now grown beyond, and I'm kicking myself over the countless lost opportunities. I remember being pleased in my purchase of a copy of Molly Bang's Ten, Nine, Eight, a charming book which features a dark-skinned girl going through her bedtime routine with her daddy. I virtuously pointed out all the similarities between my white daughter and the book's black character: They both had loving daddies, black cats, similar cribs, toys, and pajamas. Countless times I had Lysi stick out her feet to count her toes alongside the coffee-colored feet of the girl. My daughter pointed out that the girl had short hair like a boy, and I pointed out that I, too, have short hair, and that many girls have short hair. Yet we never once discussed the most obvious difference: the colors of their skin. Here I thought I was doing my part to improve race relations for the next generation. But along came research to tell me that I was going about it all wrong.
As I sought more information on the topic of kids and their attitudes toward race, I came across the CNN study Kids On Race: The Hidden Picture. The results suggest that many children, especially white children, have racist attitudes without even realizing it. For one televised report on the study, CNN featured Mikayla's Story. Mikayla, a white girl, is shown two pictures of the same ambiguous scenario, but with the black/white races reversed. Mikayla interprets these two images differently, first assuming that a black character intends to steal from the white character, and then assuming that the white character intends to return lost money to the black character. In her explanations, Mikayla never mentions race and seems unaware that race is playing a role in how she interprets the images.
Such implicit racism was found in many kids who attend racially diverse schools and are being raised by parents who abhor racism. The CNN study reminded me of another, well-publicized study from over a decade ago called Are Emily and Brendan More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? in which fictitious applicants with white-sounding names were fifty percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names. It was assumed that the (mostly white) employers were not practicing explicit racism, but rather, as they sifted through countless applications, their subconscious preference for coworkers like themselves became a factor in their quick decision making. Subconscious racial bias is the racism of our time. I shudder, wondering how improvements in racial equality can be achieved for Lysi's generation.
One step in the right direct is parents and teachers discussing race and racism directly and specifically with kids, especially white kids. Researchers Rebecca Bigler and Julie Milligan Hughes from the University of Texas at Austin published a study that found that white children's attitudes toward blacks improved after they received history lessons about racial discrimination. In NurtureShock, doctoral student Birgitte Vittrup struggled to get reluctant white parents to "talk openly about interracial friendship" with their kids for five nights in a row. While Vittrup only managed to get six white families to do so, all six of the children from those families significantly improved their racial attitudes.
Now seeing that I should have been addressing race and racism with my daughter in the same way that I've always addressed gender and sexism, I'm scrambling to correct my error by turning to the most quick and obvious solution: books. Oh, glorious books! Reading to kids is the one thing kids enjoy and that everyone agrees is great for them. I simply had to track down age-appropriate books on the topic. As it turns out, there really aren't many books that directly address race and racism for preschoolers. But with persistence, I found a few good ones.
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz provided a vehicle for me to re-start the conversation about race. Katz is a white author/illustrator who adopted a Guatemalan daughter. In her book, she as an artist explains to her daughter that there are many shades of brown. She illustrates this point by observing all the different skin colors of people among their family, friends, and neighborhood. The various shades are all vividly described with phrases such as "chocolate brown, like the cupcakes..." and "the color of honey" alongside bright and cheery illustrations. In the end the daughter learns to mix her own shades of brown so that she can paint portraits of all the people in her life. Lysi adored this book and wanted to read it again and again. Without any prompting, she made connections between the people in the book and her friends at school.
Now that we'd broached the subject, I moved on to All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color by Katie Kissinger and Wernher Krutein. This book takes a scientific approach by explaining race in terms of melanin, the sun, and the geography of peoples' ancestry. It isn't the sort of book you read over and over since there's no plot and the illustrations are all documentary photographs. But it presented the scientific facts in a way that was simple enough for Lysi to comprehend, and so was sufficient for my purposes.

The Skin I'm In: A First Look At Racism by Pat Thomas isn't great children's literature, but it was one of the very few I could find for young kids that directly addresses racism. I can understand why there are so few books such as this. At first I felt uncomfortable about reading it to my daughter. The first page opens with, "Imagine a world where only people with blue eyes could go to school. Or a world where only people with brown eyes could get a job." As far as I know, my daughter has not yet witnessed racism, and so by reading this book to her, I'd be breaking down part of her innocence. But I realized that the time to address racism is before Lysi sees it in action. If we talk about it in plain terms beforehand, she'll recognize racism in real life and understand that it is wrong. Unfortunately, while I agreed with the message, this book was dry and a bit dull in how it presented it. That said, there were a few good parts, such as an illustration of subtle racism where a white ice-cream vendor has given a large scoop of ice-cream to a white boy, but a small scoop to an Asian girl. On the following page, a white woman points out the discrepancy to the vendor, who wears a contrite expression. Unfairly-sized servings of ice cream is something my four-year-old cares about.
Let's Talk About Race by Julius Lester personalized racial identity, racism and acceptance. Throughout the book the award-winning Lester engaged Lysi. He offered her a lengthy list of information about himself (he was born in 1939, he's Jewish, black, does crossword puzzles and takes photographs, and so on.) This was intermixed with invitations for Lysi to talk about herself. By giving so many often mundane details about himself, Julius Lester became a real person, and one with whom she could relate. Lysi's eyes lit up as I read the line, "I like pancakes and macaroni and cheese..." and she blurted out, "I like pancakes and macaroni and cheese, too!" The book called attention to racism, saying plainly that some people tell the "story" that "My race is better than your race." which is not a true story. Lester went on to say that he wants to tell a true story. He asked her to press the skin and feel the bones beneath, and to also do this to someone else. All people have the same hard bones. Turning to playful hyperbole to drive his point home, Lester wrote, "I'll take off my skin. Will you take off yours?" The colorful, dramatic illustrations of Karen Barbour brought Lester's message to life with dramatically stylized portraits, colorful surrealism, and after the skins were shed, what looked like a Day of the Dead celebration.
Lysi is now three months into the school year. She speaks freely about race. One day she offered a rundown of all her classmates' races. So-and-so "is called black." And this other friend "is called white." And another "is called black, even though her mommy is white." I no longer feel uncomfortable with these discussions. It helps to know that race is addressed directly in school, too. Recently the class read and discussed the book black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff, a story about an interracial family told through poetry and lovely watercolor illustrations.
As it so happens, my daughter's best school friend is both black and a boy. She talks about him all the time, and his mother says he talks about her all the time too. They sit together at lunch and circle time. One of their teachers told me about how they patrol the playground together making sure other kids "play nice."
I'd like to think that the books I read and conversations I've had the last couple months with Lysi about race have made a big difference. But I suspect that at best it has merely re-enforced what she really learned from living in a neighborhood and attending a school which are both not only diverse, but truly integrated and full of people who explicitly express positive attitudes about race and race relations. I might not have been talking to Lysi about race until she turned four, but she was apparently getting the right messages from somewhere. After all, she started the conversation, and her first statement about race was to wish for another mommy with dark skin.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reverend Billy, Festivus, and Bringing Whoville Home

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of the most beloved holiday stories. And though it's about "Christmas", it's a story that transcends sectarian divisions and speaks to a broader audience.

Most everyone knows the tale: the cranky "Grinch", annoyed by the Christmas celebrations in "Whoville", plots to destroy the Whos' good cheer by stealing all their gifts, decorations, and food in the middle of the night. The next morning, instead of wails of anger and sorrow, the Grinch hears joyful singing. So moved by the discovery that Christmas "means a little bit more", the Grinch returns everything and joins in the festivities.

As I read this book to Lysi this week, I asked her, "Why do you think the Whos were so happy even though they didn't have all their stuff?" She looked down at the open book depicting a line of beaming Whos, hand-in-hand, their mouths open in song, and answered, "Because they're with each other."

Woo hoo, my daughter gets it! As much as she likes getting more toys (and she does), she likes visiting with her grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles more. When she's tired and sad, she looks up at the pictures of her extended family members on her dresser; her eyes tear up and she cries that she misses them.

Because love is better than stuff.

To non-religious folks, the point of the holiday season can be to spend time with friends and family and act in a way that strengthens those relationships. It can also be a time to consider those less fortunate and if possible take action to aid our fellow human beings. 

There are movements to combat the materialistic greed and cynicism taking over the spirit of the holiday season. Charitable giving, while overshadowed by retail purchases, is still a major part of holiday celebrations. In contrast to Black Friday, there is Buy Nothing Day, an international protest against excessive consumerism. There are the pushes to buy local and buy handmade to cut down on damage to environment, communities, and so that we have a more humanized relationship with the people who make our stuff. An old college friend of mine and his wife just started Gift Instead, a purchase-free gift registry to encourage people to buy less and express their love in more meaningful ways. 

Then there is my personal favorite, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. The good Rev and his gospel choir are a performance art and activist group. They have appropriated the form (but not the divisive theology) of Christian revivalism as way to raise public awareness about the harm that rampant consumerism has ravaged on the health of our communities, our personal relationships, and our very planet. In his latest podcast, Reverend Billy gives a stirring sermon about climate change from the water's edge as the tide comes in: 

Celebrating Festivus (an alternative to Christmas, first introduced to the public by the sitcom Seinfeld) is another reaction to the pressures to buy buy buy during the holiday season. Festivus has become especially popular among freethinkers, with college organizations and local clubs holding annual Festivus parties. 

Festivus is pretty much an anti-Christmas holiday. Instead of exchanging gifts, those celebrating Festivus air grievances and do feats of strength. Instead of a tree, the symbol of Festivus is an unadorned, aluminum pole which means nothing. 

This year many in the media made a big deal over a beer can Festivus pole which was erected alongside the nativity scene in Florida's capital building. While I do think it makes the point about religious freedom and pluralism, I don't really want the secular alternative to Christmas to be meaningless symbols and ritualized complaining about each other. 

A few years ago a bunch of us local freethought groups got together and put up our own holiday display beside the the nativity and menorah at the National Constitution Center. We chose a globe of the earth and the message: "Peace on Earth from your friendly neighborhood atheists, freethinkers, and humanists." Of course news outlets didn't cover that. In order to get media attention, we have to be cynical jerks. 

If Reverend Billy, with his earnest and passionate cry for better behavior is my favorite form of holiday protest, Festivus is my least favorite. 

Festivus as it first appeared on Seinfeld was a rather mean-spirited affair celebrated by rather horrible people. George wanted to use it to get out of holiday obligations, while Cramer wanted to use it to gain the benefits of having a holiday to celebrate. Both were acting on selfish impulses. 

One year my mom actually received a card that read "Happy Festivus!" and which informed her that a donation had been made in her name to "The Human Fund." Since she hadn't seen that episode of Seinfeld, I had to explain to her that the card was an exact imitation of a card the character George had given to co-workers in order to avoid spending money (George just made up "The Human Fund"). That way he could still enjoy the social benefits of participating in holiday gift exchanges and being perceived as a generous person.  

Shouldn't Festivus inspire us to give to charities, buy less stupid crap as gifts, and try to celebrate the holiday season in a way which is meaningful and compassionate? When Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, he aimed to inspire compassion and real aid for the poor, not get people to write their own versions of his essay over and over again and then revel in their own cleverness. 

There have been times when I've read the Grinch and thought it was a nice tale about how things should be, but aren't. For so many people in the real world, it seems it's the stuff that matters most. But now I think Seuss was speaking the truth.

It's not that there's anything wrong with expressing our feelings of gratitude, admiration, or love with purchased gifts. Note that in the end, the Grinch gave everything back. The problem comes when we feel we must do it that way. When we lose sight of what really gives our lives meaning.

It truly doesn't matter to me if I get presents from the people I love. I just want to hear from and visit them. I want to know they're okay, and help if they're not. I don't need to give presents to anyone either. Nobody who truly knows and cares about me would think less of me if I gave up gift exchanges altogether. The gifts are merely an expression of what's already there.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Just Shut Up and Hand Over Your Credit Card

Art by Banksy
The "War on Christmas" is a media fiction. Most people don't care whether cards or store greeters say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". It doesn't make a difference to most people if the statehouse holiday display includes a nativity, or if it does that it also include a menorah and whatever else religious minorities and secular folks want to throw in there.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these issues are totally insignificant. If we minorities are being marginalized, if the Establishment Clause is being violated, that's a problem. But a lot gets overblown and misrepresented in the TV shouting matches.

What does have a major impact on peoples' lives is money. Making it. Spending it. We're especially focused on it this time of year, as it flies out of our bank accounts and into the hands of retailers for products mostly produced by large companies with overpaid CEOs, and manufactured by underpaid workers in factories overseas. 

'Tis the season to be jolly! And broke. 

Shoppers' passion over Black Friday (a "holiday" that now overshadows the sedate, food-and-family-oriented Thanksgiving) has come to be associated with violence as much as sales.

Finding the perfect gifts is widely regarded as stressful. The stress caused by feeling obligated to buy good gifts for everyone perhaps explains why shoppers feel entitled to buy so much for themselves, too.

A recent survey by Lexington Law found that 57% of parents were willing to go into debt to buy presents for their kids. Even worse, the families with lower incomes were willing to go into deeper debt: 

Those with a household income (HHI) of less than $35,000 are willing to accrue an average of $700 worth of debt in order to make their children happy for the holidays. Interestingly, that number is significantly higher than the average amount of debt those with a HHI of $75,000 or more are willing to accrue ($300) in order to make their children happy for the holidays.
Actually, I get that. If a parent or parents only have $35,000 a year to pay for food, housing, utilities, health care, clothing, and anything else that comes along, they're already underwater. So what's another $700 of debt if for at least one happy day you get to see your kids squeal with joy over getting an xbox.

Of course charitable giving goes up around the holidays, but it pales in comparison to spending on stuff-we-don't-really-need. Food banks are still stretched too thin, especially since the federal government cut SNAP benefits (food stamps). And a third of Americans' charitable donations go to religious organizations, which means it could pay for proselytizing as much as it goes to feeding the needy.

Screw Jingle Bells or Deck the Halls. Here's a song that really gets to the heart of the holiday season:

What's way worse than an atheist kid being compelled to sing "Silent Night" at the school holiday concert? A kid living in poverty. Unlike the atheist kid, the poor kid can't just shrug it off, saying, "It's just meaningless tradition." The poor kids' problem isn't one of legal and philosophical debates. It's that his stomach is empty, he's surrounded by stressed out adults, and he's hoping nobody on his block gets shot this year.

In the United States, one in every five kids lives in poverty. How big of an injustice is that? This year the results of a 25-year-long study that followed 224 children revealed that being a "crack baby" is less harmful than growing up poor.

The children were examined every six months to every year, testing everything from intelligence to emotional development, achievement, and brain scans. When searching for effects of crack smoking mothers, what they really discovered was the impact of being born into poverty. Both groups — the control and those children who were born to crack smokers — scored lower than average on IQ and other tests.

In the light of such rampant materialism alongside such horrendous poverty, I marvel in wonder at the enduring popularity of Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol and the film It's A Wonderful Life. Both are clear indictments of capitalism run amok, a call for the rich to share their wealth with those just barely getting by, but in the year 2013 does American society abide by these messages?

I mentioned the cuts to SNAP, which will impact one in seven (over 47 million) Americans. We now have the Affordable Care Act, which is a pathetic compromise, a failed attempt at universal healthcare, that will help many, but is a far cry from a real solution to America's soaring health care costs and unequal access to quality health care.

So I'm sitting here at my computer typing this, and once again thinking, I should do more to help my fellow humans! But when I think of donating more than a token amount to worthy causes, I remember that I have a ton of student loan debt and that we don't even make enough to save for the kids' college, much less our own retirement. When I think of volunteering my time, I remember when I volunteered with a group at a local food pantry, and we were told by the staff that what they really need is more donations. When I think about how we could cut back, I realize we already live rather frugally, and even cutting back where we could wouldn't free up that much money, but it would considerably reduce our quality of life.

The six minute film Wealth Inequality uses stirring narration and simple charts to reveal the shocking differences between what a survey of 5,000 Americans thought wealth distribution should be, what they thought it is, and what it actually is.

The narrator points out, "the middle class is barely distinguishable from the poor." We can't act like reformed Scrooges if we're really Bob Cratchits in denial of just how close we are to the edge of poverty ourselves.

If middle class Americans are truly just getting by, then those of us who attempt to live the example of George Bailey in Its a Wonderful Life are likely to end up like George, but without Clarence's intervention. After all, angels don't exist. 

What we need is change.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Can We Celebrate Christmas Without Christ?

My girls and I lighting candles at our local Humanist group's
annual HumanLight and Winter Solstice Party
This past week Lysi, my four-year-old, said to me, "For Christmas I want a car seat for my dolls." 

Foolishly focusing on the wrong part of her statement, I said, "Well we don't really celebrate Christmas because we're not Christian."

To which she responded, "I want to be Christian so I can get presents."

What went through my head: No, no, no, you do not want to be an adherent to a religion with a history which includes holy wars, crusades, witch burnings, and clinic bombings, based on a scripture that instructs on how to treat one's slaves, decrees that homosexuals be put to death, and that women submit to the dominance of men,  that threatens heretics with eternal damnation, and whose main symbol is a half naked guy being slowly tortured to death, all just because you want some more accessories for your dolls! 

What came out of my mouth: "Christians are Christians because they worship Jesus, not because they get presents. We're Humanists and we give and get presents, too." 

She responded,"Okay. Yay!" 

Yay indeed. 

I hate dealing with the flood of Christmas songs and imagery that are found everywhere in December (and November, really) and how to explain the meaning of it all to my kids. I'm just trying to stay honest while not being a total bummer around the holidays, is that too much to ask? 

In my frustration and fatigue over the holiday season, I found this year's Time Square billboard campaign from American Atheists rather comforting. 

The title of the press release declares, "Nobody Needs Christ at Christmas." A description of the billboard follows:  
Using motion graphics, the billboard proclaims, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” A hand crosses out the word “Christ” and the word “NOBODY” appears. The display then says “Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas” and offers a series of cheery words: family, friends, charity, food, snow, and more. The commercial ends with a jovial “Happy Holidays!” from American Atheists and displays the organization’s website,
I thought, yes, damnit! Everybody celebrates this stinkin' time of year. Almost every atheist I know, certainly all the ones with kids, give gifts and put up trees. Hell, we put up a tree! And even though we top it with a finger puppet of Isaac Newton and I insist we call it a Cricky Tree, my kids still call it a Christmas tree. 

Last year I even received a card from an atheist couple I know wishing me a "Merry Christmas!" Wait a minute, the weirdness and hypocrisy of that kind of annoyed me. Where do we draw the line? Certainly we must draw it somewhere, right? 

Look closely at the above  image of the American Atheists' billboard. The true meaning of Christmas includes "Rockettes", "ice skating", and "Chinese food?"

The meaning of Independence Day is the birth of a nation. We happen to celebrate it with barbecue and fireworks. The meaning of Martin Luther King Day is the ongoing struggles of the civil rights movement. We happen to celebrate it by taking the day off work and school, and doing community service.

Christmas is celebrated with gifts, charitable giving, parties, films, Santa, cookies, light displays and other decorations. But what does Christmas mean? If the meaning of Christmas isn't the birth of Christ (and that's a big if), then what is it? 

The Sean Hannitys of this world would like to frame this ad campaign as an attack on Christians. It's not. Plenty of people (mostly merchants and marketers, but also some proselytizing Christians) have done their part to force the holiday season on all of us. American Atheists are just pointing out that a bunch of us who are putting up trees, exchanging gifts, singing carols, and sending cards don't believe Jesus is God or care about his birthday. Many of we atheists want to enjoy the holiday season, too, but we don't like being automatically grouped with Christians just because we put lights on our porches.

Some complain that the billboard is offensive to some Christians. Yes, it is. Of course it is. So what? I'm reminded of something Ricky Gervais said in an interview with New Humanist:

"I always expect some people to be offended. I know I ruffle feathers but some people’s feathers need a little ruffling. And remember: just because someone is offended doesn’t mean they’re in the right. Some people are offended by multiculturalism, homosexuality, abortion, atheism – what should we do? Ban all those things? You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended.
I get a bit pissed off when I see shitty Christian billboards, or when I hear assholes say ignorant crap such as, "Jesus is the reason for the season." So I can't blame Christians for getting upset when an atheist billboard crosses out the term for their savior and then insists that the "true meaning of Christmas" is takeout and dance numbers.

But it's a small price to pay for free speech, so deal with it.

The question remains, are American Atheists pointing out the truth, that today's Christmas is a secular holiday for everyone? Or are they just being dicks?

Let us pause and seek clarity from Fraggles. Specifically, Fraggle Rock episode 301: The Bells of Fraggle Rock (1984.) 

The show opens with Doc explaining the variety of celebrations which take place worldwide during the winter solstice. (Okay, nevermind that the solstices are a consequence of axial tilt and thus people in the earth's southern hemisphere are having their summer solstice in December, and people close to the equator could probably give a shit.) So at least for Jim Henson and his crew, "Christmas" is regarded as one holiday among a whole December lineup. This would seem to suggest that Christmas retains its religious meaning and is exclusively a Christian holiday. 

Not being Christians, the Fraggles have their own December holiday: The Festival of the Bells. The point of their celebration is to keep the Great Bell moving. According to myth, the Great Bell is located at the heart of Fraggle Rock, though no one has ever seen it. 

Gobo Fraggle, being a skeptic, goes in search of the Great Bell, and on discovering its non-existence, reports back to the rest of the Fraggles that their bell-ringing ritual is pointless. However, without the ritual, all of Fraggle Rock begins to freeze over. Gobo realizes his error - that while the literal meaning of the myth was false, the celebration was still necessary. Bell ringing resumes and nobody freezes to death. 

How should we interpret this tale? I like to think that the Great Bell represents Christ. Regardless of whether the divinity of Jesus is truth or not, it's getting cold and all this Christmas crap is a nice way to face the darkest, coldest time of the year. 

So jingle bells and pass that figgy pudding! 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Another Jolly, White-Bearded Old Man

I am one of those people who flew into a rage after seeing this holiday season's controversial Toys R Us commercial. The one where a busload of  kids are tricked into thinking they are going on a wilderness field trip to learn about trees (which they apparently find boring), and are then told that really they get to run around a toy store and take home free stuff (this revelation causes them to explode in a fervor of maniacal joy.) If you haven't seen it, you can watch it now.

For those who just watched it for the first time, if your mouth is hanging open with shock and disgust, then you have responded the same way I did. The horribleness of this ad is so painfully obvious, I'm not going to get into it. Suffice to say, it reflects badly on our society that commercials such as this get made.
Work by one of my Wagner students, a sculpture of an Aardvark placed in a diorama
As a secular humanist mom, nature and science education are hugely important to me. My daughter Lysi knows the names of all the captive animals at two nature centers. We have pet millipedes because after holding a giant, African millipede at a bug show last summer, she wanted to have some of her own. We're members of the Academy of Natural Sciences and attend all the preview parties and special events.
This year I'm an artist-in-residence at the Wagner Free Institute for Science. I work with science teachers to design and teach curriculum that integrates our two disciplines. During the Wagner's summer camp, I had inner city middle schoolers draw butterflies, cicadas, and other wildlife in nature journals and create mini-dioramas of animals in their natural habitats.
Hands-on experience of nature in parks and with rescued wildlife engages all our senses and makes it real.
Dude, that's an owl! 
Drawing from life is an exercise in really looking, rather than skimming over what is in front of our eyes.
Now that I get a really good, long look, geez, those talons are seriously scary looking! 
Well-presented information in a good book takes us deeper into understanding.
Owls are predators, descended from dinosaurs. They need those talons to swoop down on their prey.
Finally, creative illustrations transcend what can be seen by the naked eye or camera lens in any single moment. They have the potential to evoke an emotional response, which impresses on us the mystery and profundity of the natural world.
In the library last year, Lysi and I came across Every Autumn Comes the Bear by Jim Arnosky. It's a quiet sort of book. When you really get down to it, all that happens is that a bear appears, hangs out for a bit, then goes to sleep in a cave. And yet Lysi and I both fell in love. What got me was the subtle beauty of the watercolor illustrations. They were detailed, yet loose and painterly. Naturalistic, yet full of unexpected color choices.
In the months that followed, I kept coming across Jim Arnosky's name again and again.  Lysi expressed interest in turtles, and we found All About Turtles. I pulled a book off the shelf because of its striking cover image of an osprey, and it turned out to be Arnosky's Thunder Birds. Lysi got really into bugs, and we found Arnosky's Creep and Flutter. Talk about prolific!
Jim Arnosky popped up once again while I was looking for books for a workshop I teach. In the adult section of the library, among the field guides on trees, I came across Crinkleroot's Guide to Knowing the Trees. An adorable, gnome-like man on the cover charmed me instantly. Inside he introduced himself to me as "Crinkleroot", and said he was "born in a tree and raised by bees." I took the book home and immediately read it to Lysi, who loved it. Not only that, now she knew the difference between coniferous and deciduous trees.
To our joy, we discovered a whole series of Crinkleroot books: guides to butterflies and mothsanimal trackingknowing the birdsgiving back to nature, and more. We checked out as many as our public library kept in stock (which was most of the series).
Even though the books were basically doling out textbook information about their subjects, because Crinkleroot addresses his readers directly and is full of personality, Lysi responded to him the same as she responds to Angelina Ballerina, or any of her favorite characters in literature. The first time we went to the Morris Arboretum and saw a real log cabin, she exclaimed with delight, "It's Crinkleroot's house!"
The only Crinkleroot books Lysi found disappointing were the ones titled Crinkleroot's 25 (fill in the blank with "animals", "more animals", "mammals", "fish", and "birds") Every Child Should Know. In each of these books, Crinkleroot only appears at the beginning, and the rest of the pages are filled with profiles of animals listed. The reason Lysi didn't like these books was, as she put it, "I want Crinkleroot to come with us."
Even though Crinkleroot is a delightful character in a series of informative and playfully illustrated books for children, you will not find Crinkleroot dolls, t-shirts, backpacks, or other hokey merchandise. He does not star in a cartoon on Nick Jr., the Disney Channel, or even PBS Kids. You will, however, find Crinkleroot books in most public libraries and many schools. On Crinkleroot's website you can purchase teaching leaves with art and science lessons, download free coloring pages of animals, and even listen to the Crinkleroot song.
I wish Crinkleroot were as familiar a literary character as Fancy Nancy and Arthur. He is a full fleshed-out personality who presents children with facts about the natural world in a way that is engaging and beautiful. And yet, when I have brought him up to educators at nature centers and the Wagner Institute, they have never heard of him. Just like that horrible Toys R Us ad, Crinkleroot's anonymity is perhaps indicative of our society's disconnect and disinterest in the natural world.
A side by side comparison of Crinkleroot and Santa Claus
Crinkleroot looks quite a bit like Santa Claus. White beard. Rosy cheeks. Friendly expression. They're both chubby and wear a lot of red. Crinkleroot might be shorter, but then in many historical incarnations, Santa is an elf or elf-like man of short stature. (Snopes has a good article on the history and myth surrounding Santa's appearance.)
Then there are the significant differences. Crinkleroot merely lives in a cabin in the woods with his pet snake Sassafrass, consorts with nature, and tells tall tales about being raised by bees. Santa on the other hand, lives in the far-off North Pole (a place covered with shifting ice water) and has magical powers: he can fly in a sled, visit all children in a single night, and spies on all children throughout the year.
A late autumn walk in the woods
If we must associate a jolly, white-bearded fictional character with gift-giving in December, how about purchasing some Crinkleroot books to add to the home libraries of the children in our lives? Instead of putting cookies out for a mythical elf, we can take a walk in the woods and note that the nakedness of the deciduous trees signifies winter and the time when bears sleep.

* The image was Owl In Flight, an oil painting by Jane Gough.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kris Kringle, Kids, and Kandy

Miracle on 34th Street is the most anti-secular-humanist holiday film ever made.
Just stick with me on this for a bit.
The skepticism of Doris Walker, a bright, capable, divorced mother, should be viewed as a strength. Instead, it becomes apparent that this trait, along with her drive to instill a skeptical outlook in her daughter, comes from a place of personal pain and fear. The message is clear; skeptics, especially women skeptics, are callous people with trust issues, and in need of saving.
Fred Gailey, a handsome attorney, comes to Doris's and her daughter Susan's rescue. He's concerned about mom's refusal to teach Susan fairy tales. Fred wins Doris over with an incredible display of faith and friendship; he takes in Kris Kringle, the Macy's Santa who Doris has hired, and who claims to be the real Santa Claus. When Kris is threatened with being locked up in a mental institution, Fred successfully defends him in court, arguing that Kris is indeed the one and only Santa Claus.
Lip service is paid to deeper values, mostly by Fred (he is an attorney, after all):
It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.

But if you really listen to what Fred says, it's vague enough to be open to interpretation. Worse yet is the implication that belief in supernatural forces is required to experience awe, joy, or love.
Look Doris, someday you're going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.
A holiday story with Santa that I like much better: Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

The fuzzy meaning of all Fred's flowery talk is, in the end, overshadowed by another message, one of self-absorbed materialism. Even after Doris is converted to a happier woman and in love with good ol' Fred, and Kris Kringle wins his freedom, Susan remains doubtful and depressed all the way up until when Kris Kringle gives her a house. (Technically Doris and Fred have to buy it. But Kris magically made Susan's dream house appear for sale at just the right time and place.) Not only is faith necessary to experience love, but to keep children happy, we must buy the stuff on their wish lists.
If all that wasn't enough, the film even justifies violence. Kris Kringle is on trial because he believes he's Santa Claus, right? Well, that and the fact that he thumped a psychologist, Granville Sawyer, on the head with his cane. Thumped him so hard that Sawyer is left with a goose egg so large he can't wear his hat. What did Sawyer do to deserve it? Kick a puppy? Smack a baby? No. He mis-diagnosed and mis-advised another character who had come to him for help. Apparently if you're righteous enough, you can skip diplomacy and appeals to proper authorities, and go right to smacking naughty people around.
Miracle on 34th Street is a product of a culture that champions faith, and regards doubt with contempt. A world where discreet forces of good and evil exist, and where virtue will be cosmically rewarded, while sin is punished. It achieves this by pulling on our heartstrings, and getting us to turn our brains off. The good guys Fred and Kris are respectively handsome and adorable, and both tremendously charming. The villain Mr. Sawyer is weaselly and ugly.
Santa Claus is one of modern, American society's sacred cows. To be more specific, convincing children that Santa Claus is real is thought to be virtuous. Just as Fred expresses dismay toward Doris for denying Susan fairy tales, real people express dismay when other adults refuse to play along with the Santa myth. As a school teacher, I knew to keep my mouth shut around the kids, and say, "Ask your parents."
Some people in my life have expressed concern that being denied Santa realness, my kids are missing out on an important part of their development. I'd love to know what we're preparing kids for when we knowingly blur the lines between reality and fantasy. To pray, instead of going out and doing something? To be complacent in the face of injustice in hopes of pie in the sky when we die?
It's offensive to accuse adults of lying to children about Santa. But what else do you call it when one person tells another person something they know to be false? A common defense is to insist that Santa is something figurative (read Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus), and then ignore that the kids are taking us literally.
And kids are taking us literally. Five year olds aren't musing over the warm, fuzzy feelings they associate with the jolly fiction of Santa Claus. They imagine a chuckling fat man in a factory full of elves.
Another argument is that it's not lying because young kids don't distinguish between fantasy and reality. Based on current understanding of children's cognitive development, that's wrong. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik said in an interview for Seed magazine:
Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn't tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.

Oh no, it's a monster!
In episode 188: Kid Logic of This American Life,  Gopnik mentions a specific experiment done by colleague Paul Harris. Harris had children imagine either puppies or monsters inside a box, and then observed the children's reactions to the box when left alone. Even though the children all agreed the box was really empty, up until the age of 6 or 7, the children who imagined a puppy tended to peek inside the box, while the ones who imagined a monster tended to move away from it. In his article Monsters, ghosts and witches: Testing the limits of the fantasy/reality distinction in young children, Harris concluded that,
Although young children are able to distinguish fantasy from reality, they do not necessarily understand that a fantastic entity cannot transform into a real one.

I suspect Lysi (my older daughter) sometimes wonders if Santa is real. She's still the age where, according to Harris's experiment, she doesn't understand that the fantastic cannot become real. When we talk about Santa, I don't lie. I tell her he's a lovable character like Dora.
Kids make their own magic. They don't need our help indulging in fantasy. They do need to know that they can trust us.
Santa is a regular character on one of Lysi's favorite shows, "Pucca". Here he is performing the dreidel song for an audition. Seriously.
Anyway, why this need to believe fictional characters are real to be enthralled and in awe by them? My kids enjoy Santa in the same way they enjoy Elmo. Lysi knows Elmo is a puppet.  In an interview with Rove McManus, Kevin Clash (the puppeteer of Elmo) said that children who come on the Sesame Street set,
...normally don't look at me. They just look at me like someone whose carrying around their favorite friend. Especially with kids, they keep their imaginations.

The magic isn't that the kids believe the puppets are alive. They know it's a show, but it's such a high caliber performance that suspension of disbelief is easy and natural.
We don't need to have faith to experience love and awe. We simply need to be human.
In the final scene of Miracle on 34th Street, we discover that Fred and Doris didn't have full faith in Kris after all. Upon seeing Kris's cane in the corner of the house, Fred and Doris fall silent, their expressions deadly serious. In a sober tone of voice, Fred remarks (referring to his victory at trial), "Maybe I didn't do such a great thing after all." The implication is that Kris never needed saving because he truly is a supernatural being.
"Lovely intangibles" aside, in the end, what is most titillating about the film is the idea that Kris Kringle, a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood person, is the real Santa Claus, imbued with real magical powers. Fred's virtue by itself isn't enough. Virtue is instead a means of getting mystical forces on our side so they'll step in and help us. To put it another way, be good and you'll get to heaven (or at least fall in love and get a pretty, little house in the burbs.) Ah, yes, viewers' escape from reality is complete.
CAUTION: Trivial entertainment, like candy, should be consumed in moderation and not confused with stuff that's actually good for us.
My dirty little secret is that I love the film Miracle On 34th Street. I get a jolt of satisfaction when Kris Kringle thumps that weasel Sawyer. I'm swept away by Fred's good looks and charm, impressed by Doris's poise, and amused by Susan's deadpan delivery set against Kris Kringle's boyish charm. I feel a little thrill every time those giant sacks of letters to Santa from the USPS are poured over the cranky judge's bench. As I write this, exhausted after a long day of work and watching after the kids, all I want to do is put on a Snuggie and curl up on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa and watch this film. Cinematic candy, yum!
But hey, at least I don't fool myself into thinking the message of Miracle on 34th Street is anything other than feel-good bullshit.
And I don't tell my kids that Santa is real.
(If you'd like to read even more of my rantings about Santa Claus, last year I wrote, Dumping the Santa Myth.)