Struck Out, Before Getting to the Plate

Africa’s first Little League baseball team to reach the Little League World Series – the Rev. John Foundation Little League team from Kampala, Uganda – has just found out that, sadly, they won’t be able to travel to the annual Williamsport, Pa., event at all. Their forced absence is the result of a lack of full documentation for the children, and complications with the United States’ visa and immigration policies.

A disappointment all around, but especially for the kids:

“It’s a shame,” [documentary filmmaker] Shapiro said. “Their country isn’t ready for this. The schools aren’t ready. The parents aren’t ready. The only thing that’s ready are the kids and their talent. They will make it one day, and if there is anything positive out of this, it’s for people to realize what wonderful things are happening with these kids. They’ve got their own little world growing here.”

You can read more from the kids themselves here, along with a bit about the history of the fledgling roots of Little League baseball in Africa.

'He's Not My Character to Write Anymore'

A dad writes (or tries to write) about his son on the eve of his 13th birthday. A beautiful piece. (Via John Gruber – who is, indeed, correct: this is the nicest thing you’ll read today.)

So turning 13 and beyond was both terrible and wonderful but the fact remains that all these ideas recoiled when I tried to address them in relation to my son’s 13th birthday. And it’s only here, in this 7th paragraph (again, fuck you writer’s block), where my block begins to find its logic. It is precisely this unsaying that defines my son’s movement into teen life. This inability to speak about him, his resistance to being said, the fact of his emerging own life apart from our relation creates the substance of the block.

He’s stepping into the light of being the main character in a story that evades the reach of my narrative. He’s not my character to write anymore.

Al Franken, Nuclear Families, and the Needs of Children

Several days ago, in a hearing about the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, Senator Al Franken disputed the testimony of a witness from the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the FamilyThinkProgress shares more about the encounter:

During this morning’s Senate DOMA hearings, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) destroyed Focus on the Family’s Tom Minnery’s argument that children are better off with opposite-sex parents by demonstrating how Minnery misrepresented an HHS study. The study — which Minnery cited to oppose marriage equality — actually found that children do best in two-parent households, regardless of the parents’ gender.

Here's video of Franken:

Normally I’d avoid linking to something so potentially partisan, but this incident – which has been well-popularized around the Internet since it happened – seems to be a prime opportunity to take a look at a very complicated issue: that of what families should look like, what children’s needs are, and what parenting really is all about.

First, it almost goes without saying that this is a fine example of how research findings can easily be abused and misused. But second, and arguably more interestingly, this incident also highlights how swiftly ‘parenting’ can be co-opted by cultural beliefs and dogma – and, getting to the heart of the matter, how far our society’s concepts and public discussions of ‘parenting’ and ‘families’ have been removed from where I believe they should really lie: with children themselves. Ideally, I believe we should view ‘Parenting’ as as a responsibility taken on by an adult, whether through the birth or adoption of a child, to meet and provide for that child’s needs; while ‘Families’ can be viewed simply as whoever comes together around children to help in that task of meeting their needs. Unfortunately, such a focus on children themselves and their needs is often far from the true center of public discussions about families – so if I may, I’d like to try to reframe things here, in these different terms.

Reconsidering Families and Parenting through the Lens of Children’s Needs

Parenting can be seen through several different frames of reference. First there is a societal perspective – where parenting can be seen as a way to either perpetuate current social traditions and ways of life, or to prepare ‘future members of society’ for continued adaptation and the ability to meet the challenges of the future. Parenting can also be seen from a parent’s perspective – where the act of parenting provides some sort of meaning, gratification or change in the life of the parent. Finally, we can view parenting from the child’s perspective – where a parent is typically the primary person in their lives through whom that child’s needs are met.

It’s likely fair to say that all these frames of reference are valid, and can potentially be complementary to each other. Yet often, Western cultures like ours get too wrapped up in the first two perspectives, at the neglect or even exploitation of the third.

Yes, parenting is largely a cultural and philosophical act: how you interact with your children, and the environments and experiences you establish for them, is I think a profound statement on the way you see the world and how you want it to be. And Mr. Minnery and the Focus on the Family organization have every right to work toward a family subculture of their own, that matches their vision of the world. But, first, it is a problem when you try to press this subculture on others; second, and more disturbing, it is malicious and exploitative to intentionally misuse the researched evidence around children’s lives – to in essence use children themselves – to justify your own way of life, while persecuting others for theirs.

In this particular case, the research around children and their well-being proves that children are undeniably resilient and accommodating of many different family structures – and contrary to Mr. Minnery’s fervent belief, can absolutely still thrive while having two parents of the same sex, so long as their needs are still being met.

The Real Needs of Children

Since we raise the topic of children’s needs – and since we bandy about the term so freely in our discussions, often using it to justify our own prejudices and beliefs – it stands to question: what are these actual needs of children? Interestingly, they appear to be fewer and far more basic than one might imagine, according to eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan. After conducting decades of longitudinal studies globally, Kagan established that children, across all cultures, have only four essential, universal needs that have to be met in order for them to grow up emotionally and physically strong and socially well-adapted. They are:

  1. Environmental variability;
  2. Predictability;
  3. Caretaking by adult(s) (as opposed to other children);
  4. Opportunity to practice their motor skills.1

Both history and cultural anthropology bear out that children can and have had these needs met in an infinitely rich and diverse number of ways. And everything else surrounding children and childrearing, everything outside of these needs, is either ultimately unnecessary or some culturally defined variant of these needs.

What the study by the Health and Human Services department (link goes to full PDF of the study), which Minnery unsuccessfully tried to use, clearly shows – and any number of other recent studies can corroborate – is that children need to grow up in a predictable family structure, where they are reassured that their needs will be met… but how and by whom those needs are met simply just doesn’t matter that much, provided that predictability is there.

To quote another important study which examined the significance of gender in parenting: “The family type that is best for children is one that has responsible, committed, stable parenting… The gender of parents only matters in ways that don’t matter.”

What about Single Parent Families?

An inevitable question soon arises about whether two-parent (or ‘nuclear’) households are better for children than single-parent households, and can offer more stability, commitment, and so on. To continue to quote the same study from earlier, though: “One really good parent is better than two not-so-good ones.” Predictability also comes in an emotional form, and one committed parent can provide this relationally to children just as well as two might.

One area where single parents do have the deck stacked against them, though, is the simple matter of practicalities. With single parents raising children on their own, you can statistically expect for their household’s family income (in a North American context) to be half, or often less than half, that of a typical two-parent (usually dual-earning) household’s family income. You can also generally expect for a single parent to have far fewer available hours in the week to devote to childcare and to attending to children’s needs, compared to two parents in a household who together can have more hours to devote to the children. So the question isn’t whether single parents are inherently worse parents, or whether children inherently need two parents, but whether a single parent has as equal an ability as a two-parent household practically and financially to meet the children’s needs. This is not to say that single parents can’t make it all work out, just that statistically it is simply harder for them, at least without an established social network of help.

But I don’t see this as an argument against single-parent family arrangements – or any type of other family arrangement. I simply see this as a sign that we as a society should increase the support we offer to all parents and families – politically, with better family leave policies, universal healthcare, and more accommodating employers and work schedules; and culturally, with supportive neighborhoods and community programs, a positive and caring collective attitude toward children, and a better understanding and openness in our culture of the struggles parents face every day.

Nuclear families, mothers and fathers, homosexual parents… It’s too easy to fall into the trap of blindly upholding and believing in particular family and social structures around children. What we need to realize are that these structures are cultural and, ultimately, don’t matter as much as we think they do. Meanwhile, the one thing that is truly important – making sure children’s needs are met – can be realized in any number of infinitely rich and diverse ways.

For kids, at least, there is no one right way to have a ‘family’.

  1. Kagan, J. (1978). The Growth of the Child: Reflections on Human Development. W. W. Norton & Company Limited.

A Profile of Maurice Sendak

Written by Dave Eggers and photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair has a new,‘can’t miss’ portrait of the famed children's author:

Maurice Sendak’s sense of humor is pitch-black and ribald, though this fact, and the baroque essence of his work, is often lost on readers now that his books have become canonical. “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.” He hates to be thought of as safe or his work as classic, and he won’t tolerate overpraise. “My work is not great, but it’s respectable. I have no false illusions.”

He’s wrong, of course. Sendak is the best-known, and by most measures simply the best, living creator of picture books, and in the stretch of years since his most prolific period—when he made In the Night KitchenWhere the Wild Things AreKenny’s WindowThe Sign on Rosie’s Door, and the “Nutshell Library”—his work has only grown in stature. No one has been more uncompromising, more idiosyncratic, and more in touch with the unhinged and chiaroscuro subconscious of a child.

Sendak’s upcoming picture book, Bumble-Ardy – the first he’s done solely on his own since 1981’s Outside Over There – looks great, and I can’t wait for it. Anymore, though, I find myself more excited by Maurice Sendak himself. He’s a fascinating man, both as an artist and an individual, and he holds what I think is a wonderful attitude and philosophy about children and childhood. If you ever wanted a glimpse into his life and thoughts, I can’t recommend enough that you go out and watch the 2010 documentary Tell Them Anything You Want, by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs: it’s an uncompromisingly honest portrait of him, one that touches on the many wonderfully rich, philosophical themes that have emerged throughout his life.

Though he is now 83 years old, it strikes me that, just in these past few years, ol’ Maurice has perhaps become more alive and honest and connected to life than ever before.

Children's Playhouses, Grown-Up Cash

A New York Times feature looks at the booming ‘playhouse’ construction business that’s taken off, despite the recession:

Mr. Dwyer has installed playhouses that look like pirate ships, windmills and castles at the homes of several film and sports stars who asked not to be named to protect their children’s privacy.
“Only a certain kind of clientele can afford what we offer,” he said. And few have backyards big enough to hold it. Red Beard’s Revenge, for example, is a $52,000 playhouse in the shape of a 12-foot-tall, 18-foot-long pirate ship, complete with a crow’s nest, upper and lower decks made of mahogany and leather benches in the captain’s quarters that double as beds. […]
Barbara Butler, an artist and playhouse builder in San Francisco, said her sales are up 40 percent this year, and she has twice as many future commissions lined up as she did this time last year. Not only that, but the average price of the structures she is being hired to build has more than doubled, from $26,000 to $54,000.

It’s probably easy to see the ludicrousness in all of this – but let’s take a stab at it, shall we? Real imaginative play is almost directly antithetical to predesigned, adult-built structures, which lack all of the opportunities for a child’s agency and control over the environment that, say, a plain stack of scavenged wood, a bucket of nails, and a little paint might offer that child. In fact, while the obligatorily-quoted psychologist in the article, Dr. Steven Tuber of City University of New York, notes that “over-the-top playhouses may do something for the parent’s sense of grandeur, [but] certainly are irrelevant to the child’s needs and desires for a play space,” I’d go further and say they’re not just irrelevant but are directly obstructive to children’s play – adulterating it with preconceived expectations about what that play should be, to say nothing of shifting the control and maintenance of the environment over to adults.

What strikes me as more ludicrous, though, are the dominant reasons people seem to be buying – and builders seem to capitalize on while selling – these expensive playhouses:

“Childhood is a precious and finite thing,” Ms. Butler said. “And a special playhouse is not the sort of thing you can put off until the economy gets better.”

Not to go on an Old Sociologist Guy rant here, but – well, yes, to go on a rant… Let’s just be clear on something. “Childhood” = not about how fancy of stuff you had growing up, while “being a good parent” = not about simply outspending your neighbors on fancy playhouses and Baby Einstein DVDs. And there’s nothing “precious” about childhood; that’s just you being stupidly drunk with nostalgia. To the point: while some of these playhouses might look cute, and even be fun for children (for a while), they ultimately only undercut children’s independence, creativity, and control over their play – whereas these kids might just be better served with a bike and a summer of free afternoons where they can do whatever they like, and scavenge for spare materials and loose parts to build their own playhouses.

If there’s one silver lining to all of this, it’s that I think kids see through all this BS quite clearly. The kids from the families featured in the article might be too young now, but it won’t be long before they’re 10 or 11 years old and taking a hammer and saw to the playhouse because they know that can build something that’s better.

Can a Playground Be Too Safe?

John Tierney, in the New York Times, reports on a new Norwegian research study about playground safety:

Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.
“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”

Continuing:

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.
“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive — why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? — the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.
“Paradoxically,” the psychologists write, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

Certainly, Sandseter and Kennair’s new study is just one more to go onto a heap of past studies – heralding from all disciplines and dating back over the past several decades – that reinforce children’s need for risk-taking, and that acknowledge the paradoxical dangers of a too-safe childhood environment. It’s still good to see the issue once again pushed to the fore, though.

What’s perhaps more interesting, to me at least, is to see how popular Tierney’s article actually is right now; despite only being published yesterday, it currently ranks #3 in the Most Emailed articles on the NYTimes.com’s website – and just speaking personally, I’ve been forwarded a link to it from no less than a dozen different people, from varying and in many cases unexpected backgrounds. (Even for me that rate and the diversity of sources is unusual.) Likewise, I’ve noticed that Lori Gottlieb’s essay in the Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”, has experienced a similar effect: it is still #2 in Most Popular articles there – despite being published nearly a month ago – and it has continued to maintain a similar ranking every time I check it every few days or so.

I’m not sure what this says about us adults, but it certainly appears that children’s lives and play are the vogue topics to discuss right now.

'Our Broken Escalator'

One of my favorite columnists, Nick Kristof, recently shared some thoughts on the slow decline of our American education system:

My beloved old high school in Yamhill, Ore. — a plain brick building that was my rocket ship — is emblematic of that trend. There were only 167 school days in the last school year here (180 was typical until the recession hit), and the staff has been reduced by 9 percent over five years.
This school was where I embraced sports, became a journalist, encountered intellectual worlds, and got in trouble. These days, the 430 students still have opportunities to get into trouble, but the rest is harder.
For the next school year, freshman and junior varsity sports teams are at risk, and all students will have to pay $125 to participate on a team. The school newspaper, which once doubled as a biweekly newspaper for the entire town, has been terminated.
Business classes are gone. A music teacher has been eliminated. Class size is growing, with more than 40 students in freshman Spanish. “It’s like a long, slow bleed, watching things disappear,” says the school district’s business manager, Michelle Morrison.

Coming from Kristof, who’s spent much of his career reporting on developing countries around the world, it’s truly poignant and disappointing to see how far we’ve strayed from the values that once made us strong as a country. Certainly, the nature of ‘education’ has changed – the needs of our society have moved on from the turn-of-the-twentieth-century industrial demands which once pushed the American education system forward. We no longer need (if we ever did) schools to function as factories, to educate and deploy a stable and homogenous workforce. The nature of schools and the function of education is – and should be – undergoing a more fundamental, if conflicted, paradigmal shift.

But this is different. What Kristof speaks of here is about how we simply, plainly no longer value education in general, regardless of form.

We treat teachers abysmally, pay them poorly, disparage their unions and blame them for the problems of a system which, at its root, is currently fundamentally flawed and problematic. We bind the hands of school principals and district administrators to bring about larger change, burying them with reports and regulations – done out of the call for “accountability”, a word for which we have neither a clear definition nor proper understanding – and we force schools into operating within whatever is the cheapest and most barebones model of education that will still deliver adequate results on fanciful, made-up tests which have little to do with real education. And the children themselves, those we uphold as “our future”, we’ve disregarded with a whiff of disdain – if we render them any attention at all. Schools have been shaped into concrete prisons, far removed from the centers of our community life; where once schools were integral places in our communities and neighborhoods, as Kristof for instance recalls about how his old school newspaper doubled as the town’s biweekly newspaper, their societal role now has been marginalized and relegated to simply “educating” (or more often just “protecting”, or worse, “containing”) “the children.” We’ve devalued children’s roles in society, no longer recognizing or welcoming what good they can bring as members to community life – and by extension, we’ve done the same to schools and education; we’ve turned the one last place left where children can interact with and contribute to the surrounding community into a static prison, lifeless and bound by burdensome worries and demands, a place where children’s own voices and contributions don’t matter.

Think about it: when was the last time you actually entered and spent a meaningful amount of time in a local school (one your own children didn’t attend)? How often today do you see a local school’s sport team treated like royalty, with the entire population showing to support them at games and players being known and congratulated outside of school? How often are you encouraged in your local community to actually know the children who live in your neighborhood, who aren’t yours or friends of yours? What level of expectations, if any, do you see your local community setting and holding of its schools – and of the children in those schools? What does your community ask of them, and in what ways are children really actually encouraged to contribute and participate? Have you ever read, or had a chance to read, an essay or opinion of a student in the community whom you didn’t know personally? When was the last time you saw a school or group of children really valued by the community, upheld as a prized part of its local community life, and supported with the necessary resources and attention?

We can ask if our schools and education system are in decline, but I think these are some of the more relevant and insightful questions for the moment. I think what matters now isn’t so much the quality of schools themselves, but their decreasing place and importance in our communities. What matters now is something far larger and more central to the whole of society.

I’ve strayed from Kristof’s column and his central point, but I will end with this: I think he’s right. We don’t value education and we don’t support our schools; if we did, our financial budgets and legislative priorities would look different. But I will go further and say that our schools crumble not only because they lack our financial support, and not only because we no longer value education – but because we no longer value children themselves.

We’ve become a society which has no place for children. We’ve slowly but steadily distanced them from our public life and discourse. We’ve removed them, psychologically and physically, from much of our society. And we stand by and let the schools we keep them in rot and fall away, with them inside.

That’s the larger tragedy.

Sex, Violence, and the Supreme Court

Writing in an op-ed for the New York Times, Timothy Egan takes on a little sex and violence – with some mild dismemberment and naked boobs thrown in for good measure – as he considers one of the more peculiar double-standards held by American culture, one which only continued to be upheld by last month’s Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. EMA:

Ultimately, the back-and-forth by the high court reinforced the notion of a nation that will always be a little skittish about sex, while viewing violence as American as apple pie. If this ruling is indeed a triumph for the First Amendment, it continues a strange double standard. […]
Settling the law of the land on this latest iteration of age-old question, the court’s decision makes it clear that children are free to slice a clothed Godiva to bits — on screen — but should be shielded from seeing her as she was when she rode through the streets of Coventry.

I think Egan’s perspective falls apart a bit when he tries to poke holes in Scalia’s opinion on the effects of video game violence (the whole of the research clearly backs up Scalia on this, I believe), but Egan’s central premise is great: Why does America feel so uncomfortable with nudity, and yet not violence?

On ‘The End of Zero Risk in Childhood’

Tim Gill, writing in an op-ed in the Guardian:

The time is right to move beyond unproductive debates about the “blame culture” and instead to build momentum behind the idea of expanding children’s horizons. What is needed is nothing less than the wholesale rejection of the philosophy of protection. In its place, what we need to adopt is a philosophy of resilience that truly embraces risk, uncertainty and real challenge – even real danger – as essential ingredients of a rounded childhood.