Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Bloody Hook and Halloween Candy Poisoners

When I was a teenager, we heard that two kids from a rival high school had been “parking” near the reservoir late one Saturday night. A news broadcast interrupted the music on the radio to warn that a dangerous serial killer with a hook for a hand had escaped from a hospital, and was being hunted by police in the area. The teens heard some scratching on the car, and without pausing to investigate, the boy put the pedal to the metal. That car spit gravel as they spun around and sped back out to Route 35. When they got back to the girl’s house, they were horrified to find a metal hook dangling from the rear bumper, still bloody from where it had been ripped out of a man’s arm. Swear to God, totally true. My cousin’s friend’s dentist’s baby-sitter knew them.

This spook story made the rounds when I was a teen in the 1970s, whispered in huddles of girls in the school halls and in the cafeteria. In fact, it had been steadily making the rounds since at least 1960, when this particular urban legend was first “reported.” We greeted the news as marginally credible, totally gross, and perfectly thrilling. Sociologists and folklorists have been collecting such urban legends for years, trying to tease out what these contemporary “myths” reveal about our culture, just as anthropologists search for cultural clues in ancient myths. In the case of the Bloody Hook, the consensus seems to be that it’s an effective warning not to go out necking with your boyfriend on Saturday night. Sex = mortal danger, in other words. We were happy to repeat the story, enjoying the thrill of grossing out friends who hadn’t heard this “totally true story,” yet, and speculating on how likely it was that it actually had happened.

And every Halloween, there were “reliable” reports and warnings about people who gave out poisoned candy and apples with razor blades in them. We didn’t really believe it then, but I’m sorry to say that the “reliable” reports have gained potency year after year until now there are communities where Trick-or-Treating is a relic of a “safer” past. Parents are too fearful to let their children go door to door and risk being given chocolate laced with strychnine or arsenic. However, if you go to (the premier hoax-busting website) you will discover that there never has been a case of a person maliciously poisoning candy to give to Trick-or-Treaters.

Why are we so ready to believe our neighbors are capable of such things? Why, when hearing patently dubious claims, are we so gullible? Why do we not ask to see the police reports or news stories? Why, when someone tells us that such-and-such causes cancer, do we not ask for the source of this “information,” but dutifully forward it to everyone in our address book? It’s tempting to surmise that people just like to believe they are beset by dangers on all sides (otherwise why would they so willingly believe it?). With the Internet handy it’s often the work of just minutes to bust a hoax, and yet hardly a week goes by when I don’t find some heartfelt warning in my inbox, urging me to share it with my loved ones.

I think back to my teen years and the thrilling sensations I experienced when hearing about The Bloody Hook; among the feelings I relished the most were the ones relating to how safe I felt that my friends had shared it with me! We had each other’s backs! No crazy Hook Man was going to get me because my girlfriends were looking out for me! That feels awesome, and it’s worth having a crazy Hook Man on the loose. Maybe nameless teen angst needs a scapegoat, a boogeyman we can circle the wagons against.

But seriously. If we actually want to be safe, instead of just feeling safe, it’s up to us to be critical consumers of information. A feeling of security is pointless without actual security, and a false sense of danger can distort a secure life in truly harmful ways, not the least by trampling joy and freedom. Intellectual courage can help us dig for verification of the alarms and warnings that come our way. It can help us teach our kids what healthy skepticism is, and teach us to be better at risk assessment (e.g. air travel not statistically dangerous, driving without a seat belt statistically really dangerous). Intellectual courage can save us from the bloody hook.

Don’t Be Scared!

I grew up in an old farmhouse that had two dim and musty attics, a dark, multi-chambered and cobwebby basement, a ramshackle garage and a variety of derelict outbuildings – corn crib, wood shed, henhouses, outhouse. The barn didn’t actually come to us when my parents bought the house, but there it was right next door: huge, weathered, and full of mysterious, rusted farm equipment. All of these shadowy spaces were populated by wasps and/or spiders and/or mice and/or bats, bristling with potential splinters, and cluttered with hard-to-identify objects the previous (original) family had left behind. You can either interpret this landscape as spooky and ominous or fun and exciting. At various times in my childhood they were all those things in turn; what I can assure you is that at no time was I indifferent to these places. I was always attracted to them, either with a creeping dread or with a spirit of discovery, and I spent a lot of time in them.

Other friends lived in similarly old, minimally electrified, cavernous houses on large properties with tumble-down barns, sheds, guest houses, gazebos, stables, etc. This was the 60s and 70s, in rural New York, and the gentrification push from New York City hadn’t yet begun. One of my friends actually lived on the grounds of a sprawling old mental hospital, and we wandered freely, poking our noses into rooms, or trying to wipe the grime off the windows of locked buildings so we could spy. We played in settings that have become horror movie standards, but back then it was just normal: usually fun, occasionally mysterious, with a once-in-a-while dip into real fright. But still normal. It was the brand-new homes with wall-to-wall carpeting, bright overhead lights, and shiny matching appliances that were truly foreign to me. Only one of my friends lived in such an outlandish house as that.

I don’t know how many kids today get to roam around by themselves in such liminal spaces. As you may recall from my post about bedtime stories, liminal refers to thresholds. These places are neither here nor there, inside nor outside, inhabited nor empty. They are all between. They are openings, waiting in suspended time. It is here that the hero can experience the call to adventure, the invitation to step into the unknown and begin the quest. Yes, there is fear in the unknown, and fear in shadowy spaces. But I think that I, for one, spent much of this time unconsciously testing myself, measuring my courage against the courage I discovered in stories. If I had discovered a wardrobe that led into another world, I would have been ready.

Courage Book Review – Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the BraveImagine putting Cinderella in a blender with Hansel and Gretel, and then adding some voodoo.  You will end up with something approaching Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, a retelling by Marianna Mayer of one of Russia’s most beloved folktales.  There have been many retellings of this tale over the years, most often called Vasilisa the Beautiful; sadly, not many are in print at the moment.  Fortunately, this one is beautifully done, with magnificent artwork by K. Y. Craft.
First, a word about Baba Yaga, who appears in many many Russian tales.  Much has been written over the years about witches and wicked stepmothers and fairy godmothers in folklore.  Metaphorically splitting the “great mother” into a good/benevolent character and an evil/malevolent character simplifies things in tales and may help kids manage their conflicting feelings.   Ambiguity and ambivalence tend to muddy the waters.   That’s why Baba Yaga is a fascinating figure.  She is almost always represented as a horrible, cannibalistic witch living in a house of human bones – but she still does good deeds from time to time, or takes righteous vengeance on behalf of the protagonist.  In this book you will find all the duality of the “great mother” inhabiting Baba Yaga – a powerful, dangerous figure who commands powerful natural forces and sends Vasilisa home to her wicked stepmother and stepsisters with a reward.  For this reason, this story (fairly lengthy and complex, and hard to summarize) is best suited to independent reading by older children who can manage the ambiguity.  My 12-year-old daughter was fascinated by it.
What may be most memorable about Vasilisa is her little doll, given to her by her dying mother.  The (secret) doll goes everywhere with Vasilisa, hidden in her apron.  When given food and drink, it comes to life to give comfort, advice and aid to the sad and lonesome girl.  This source of spiritual courage is easily recognized as Vasilisa’s dead mother, referred to obliquely as “my mother’s blessing” or “my mother’s love,” the source of her fortitude.  Vasilisa does much more than Cinderella ever had to do to earn her triumph at the end, and keeping her composure around Baba Yaga, as well as performing the difficult chores set to test her, are part of that.
For kids looking for a good creepy scare this Halloween season, the artwork in this book will not disappoint.  Full of Russian costumes, folkmotifs and intricate detail, the pictures offer much to examine – even if some inspire a hasty page-turn!

Raising a Good Citizen of the World

“I’ve learned that courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin, and that every warrior, every humanitarian, every citizen is built to live with both.  In fact, to win a war, to create peace, to save a life, or just to live a good life requires of usevery one of usthat we be both good and strong.” 

Eric Greitens, Author of The Heart and The Fist:  The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Navy Seal (2011)

So, what’s a parent to do to help raise a good citizen in this world? 
Let’s face it our kids need to be equipped to be able handle increasingly complex moral issues involving a multitude of cultures participating together in a global economy (stacked precariously on  questionable foundations), with exponential population growth, and environmental concerns that don’t leave any corner of our globe unaffected.  The ripple effect of our daily decisions from how treat our neighbor, to whether to vote or not, to where we spend our money, to how we deal with our garbage now send ripples farther and wider than ever before in history.  Learning to solve our planet’s problems in sustainable, cooperative ways is more important than ever!

Here are Dr. Lisa’s suggestions to consider:
  • Nurture a strong, secure, and loving bond with your child from infancy through adolescence.  Through this bond, you can become a powerful mentor for your child—especially during tough times. 
  • Show empathy and compassion for others.  Share out loud your curiosity about how others feel, think, believe, and live.  Make it okay to discuss differences and notice all the similarities the human family shares.
  • Offer lots of opportunities through family time and socialization opportunities for your child to develop care and concern for others, their community, and the environment.
  • Model the values you wish your child to embrace: honesty, kindness, etc.
  • Define the values that matter to you as a family, notice them in your everyday life,  discuss why they are important to you?  Pick a value a week, like those Lion’s Whiskers  associates most with moral courage

    ·         Loyalty
    ·         Trust
    ·         Honesty
    ·         Integrity
    ·         Accountability
    ·         Responsibility
    ·         Fairness
    ·         Impartiality
    ·         Justice.
  • Show self-discipline in creating the kind of life you wish them to emulate.
  • Teach goal-setting and decision-making skills.
  • Discuss and weigh the pros and cons associated with simple and complex moral dilemmas involving not only “right vs. wrong,” but also even more complicated “right vs. right” or “wrong vs. wrong” scenarios. 
  • Show respect for yourself and others, especially your children.
  • Put the Six Types of Courage into action—let your child witness you walking your talk, taking personal responsibility, and having the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
  • Embrace a multicultural perspective for what is good and right in this world—you don’t have to eat, marry, or pray like others, but you can still model respect and tolerance for differences.  You can venture to be curious about, seek to understand, and even embrace different cultural beliefs as appropriate.
  • Model what a good citizen is for your child, and work together to make your family, community, and the world-at-large a better place to live.  Seek out lots of opportunities to do good and be charitable in the world together.
  • Pick a cause you believe in to contribute your time, money, signatures, and care to as a family.
  • Praise your child when they act in ways that are moral, good, and in sync with your family values.
  • Provide a community of like-minded friends, family members, teachers, religious and/or civic leaders for your child to learn from.
  • Read traditional moral tales (this is a link to Jennifer’s bookshelf) and discuss the life lessons they understand imbedded within the story.  Jennifer regularly provides tales to choose from in her previous posts, too!  Just click on this link to find a treasure trove of moral courage stories to share.  Help them put into their own words the moral of the story, see if they can offer an example from their own life when they’ve had to “never give up,” “do the right thing,” “tell the truth,” or “be loyal to a friend”.  Highlight future opportunities for them to put into practice the particular value you wish them to emulate.  Narvaez, Gleason, Mitchell, and Bentley (1999) caution parents and teachers that simply reading moral stories to children does not guarantee their understanding of the core moral message.  In the imagination of a five year-old, a story like The Little Engine That Could (1930), the “Little Engine” could be faced with the nonmoral theme (one highly related to courage) of simply never giving up.   A nine year-old reader, on the other hand, may relate to the underlying moral lesson pertaining to importance of perseverance in order to help others. As children mature, and their prefrontal cortex continues to develop into young adulthood, they are capable of increasingly complex interpretations and better able to identify complex moral dilemmas and a story’s underlying moral message. 

For more guidance about how to help your child become a responsible citizen, Navaraez (2005) helped develop this downloadable book, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. 

How are you raising your child to be a good citizen?  We’d love to hear your ideas, too! 

The Sea of Stories

Haroun and the Sea of Stories“Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.” Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

I confess to being a huge Rushdie fan, not so much because of his work (although Midnight’s Children is arguably one of the greatest novels of world literature), but because I have heard him speak – about stories, and about the experience of being in fear for his life because of storytelling. For those of you too young to recall, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, brought down the wrath of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran with a fatwa, a sentence of death, in 1989. In short, the Ayatollah said that his followers had an obligation to execute Rushdie. There was a huge international outcry that continued for years; nevertheless, Rushdie was forced into hiding for several years, truly in mortal danger while violence and book burnings erupted around the world. It was appalling.

WWII poster protesting Nazi book burnings

His first book after this experience was Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a fantastical riff on the 1,001 Arabian Nights which he wrote, he said, partly to explain to his son what had happened to him. The control of stories and storytelling is one of the first things on every dictator’s to-do list; can there be any better evidence about the power that stories have? As the tyrant in Haroun complains, inside every story is a world that he can’t control.

Authoritarian regimes fear the independence of thought and action that stories encourage. In my role as the Lovely K.’s personal bard, I must always be on the lookout for my own motives in choosing or not choosing a story for her. If I pass over a story because I’m afraid it will “give her ideas,” then I probably should go back and tell that story without delay! As a parent I am a one-person authoritarian regime, but if I must be a dictator then I can at least strive to be an enlightened and benevolent one. After all, independence of thought and action is what I’m trying to teach my daughter. Isn’t that what we mean by courage?

Courage Book Review – Why Courage Matters, by John McCain

In Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life  we have a small, accessible book for adult readers (or teen readers, of course) by Senator John McCain with Mark Salter. McCain has been rightly honored for the courage he demonstrated as a POW, and regardless of your political opinions of his public service in the U.S. Congress, his is a voice of experience on this issue. He brings to this exploration of courage a not suprising inclination to praise military heroism, but there’s much more than that. One thing that I like about this book is that he does discuss courage as something for parents to heed, and to strive to develop in their children. He offers many examples from history of tremendous courage, from soldiers on the front lines to civil rights activists using nonviolent disobedience to further their cause. I have three takeaways from the book:

1. Courage must be voluntary. We must make a choice to overcome the challenge before us, and move through and beyond the fear that faces us. Even when we are faced with a challenge we can’t escape, such as an illness, the choice of how we face it is ours to make.
2. Courage is contagious. When we have the example of a courageous person before us, it inspires us to greater courage ourselves. (His description of how POWs encouraged and inspired each other to continue resistance is very moving.) Offer your kids models of courage from traditional tales and true stories. They can strive to deserve the courage of those heroes who went before them.
3. The people whom McCain portrays as examples of courage have only one thing in common: fear. As we have said all along, courage is not the absence of fear, it is going forward despite fear.

In summing up, McCain corroborates what we have said on Lion’s Whiskers many times. When you give your kids opportunities to practice courage, whether with courage challenges, courage workouts, or by setting an example that your kids can see every day, you help them build their courage for the challenges on the path ahead.

“If you do the things you think you cannot do, you’ll feel your resistance, your hope, your dignity and your courage grow stronger every time you prove it. You will some day face harder choices that very well might require more courage. You’re getting ready for them. You’re getting ready to have courage.”