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Thursday, October 27, 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 Snopes.com (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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them."



~ Walt Disney

Monday, October 24, 2011

About Stories

"We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that's the thread that we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread."

~ Paul Auster

Thursday, October 20, 2011

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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death."


~ Omar Bradley


 

Monday, October 17, 2011

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!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

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! 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.

~ David Ben-Gurion
 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

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?


Monday, October 10, 2011

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."







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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hard-wired to Care: You Matter in the Moral Life of your Child!

Current moral psychology research indicates that as parents we are our child’s first and most important teacher of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong.  The good  news is that from birth, humans (and other primates for that matter) are hard-wired to care.  According to psychologist and primatologist Franz De Waal (2010), empathy, or being able to feel/care/think on another’s behalf, is an instinctual, adaptive capacity that helps us all survive. 

Empathy is at the root of being a good person, or ape, whatever the case may be.  Infants as young as six months old can differentiate kindness from meanness.  By 12 months, infants begin to express care for others in distress. And by 14-18 months, these children show signs of altruistic (unrewarded) helping behaviors towards others (Decety, Michalska, and Kinzler, 2011).  Moral reasoning develops as children learn to integrate their inborn empathy with more complex social-reasoning abilities.  As parents, we have the responsibility to help our children learn how to connect and activate, through practice, that wiring through our care for them.

Developing a moral conscience is no longer understood to be a logical or even stage-by-stage process as proposed by the grandfather of moral development theory, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984).  Social Intuitionist theorists like Jonathan Haidt (2001) conclude that human beings are much less logical and much more intuitive, emotional, and automatic in their moral decision-making and responsiveness.  Moral psychologists like Darcia Narvaez, have developed several integrative theories, weaving together current neurobiology with more traditional cognitive and developmental psychology theories concerning the nature of moral development.  Her research explores questions of moral cognition, moral development and moral character education.  She is, in essence, trying to show that moral behavior in humans is driven  by both bottom-up (reptilian brain instincts and limbic system responses) and top-down processes (higher brain metacognition and executive function linked with the development of our prefrontal cortex).

What does all this have to do with parenting and moral courage?

Narvaez’s Triune Ethics Theory (TET) (2007), concludes that a “fully functional moral brain” is an evolutionary adaptation dependent upon modern childrearing practices that support healthy attachment.  Such secure parent/caregiver-child attachment leads to the kind of neurobiological development necessary for moral behavior.  Which in normal speak means, with regards to the moral development of your child, YOU MATTER BIG TIME in helping to wire your child’s brain in ways that are both adaptive and moral!  Read my post from last week, for an example of how much parents do matter!

Moral conscience, therefore, is now understood to be an instinctual and learned skill best passed on from parent to child through loving communication, care, and consistency.  It all starts in the chemical soup called LOVE and with the way we hold our babes!

It is the heart with which you bring to parenting that will help define your child’s orientation towards prosocial behavior (which is loosely defined as: empathic caring about the welfare and rights of others and acting in ways that benefit humanity).

However, Narvaez and Vaydich (2008) caution that modern parenting practices, particularly in America, either do not afford or underestimate the importance of spending the kind of time ensuring secure parent-child attachment.  They and others, like De Waal, voice concerns that we must not drop the ball on being the kind of attentive mentors our kids need to develop a healthy moral conscience.  It can be hard these days with so many different technologies, extracurricular activities, and financial realities competing for our attention.  Especially as our children enter adolescence, when their moral compass increasingly shifts towards the magnetic appeal of peer and mainstream media influence.  It takes moral courage to be the parent who shuts down the party where alcohol is served to minors.  To demand better workplace hours, benefits, or childcare policies so your children are made a priority.  Or to advocate for your child in a school where bullying may be the elephant in the lunchroom cafeteria.

When we are engaged in consistent, loving parenting—which is at the basis of secure parent-child bonds—everyday teachable moments with our children abound.  Teachable moments that can facilitate the transmission of moral values through moral instruction, modeling, supervision, and even the kind of story-telling associated with helping children to become good people. 

Narvaez and Vaydich (2008) urge educators, too, to become the kind of safe, caring mentors children need.  They believe school teachers are placed with an increasingly heavy burden of responsibility in helping to shape the future leaders of our world, in lieu of parental involvement and supervision.   In fact, these researchers encourage teachers to establish the same kind of secure attachments with their students, through attention and emotional awareness, in order to help ensure children will learn and follow the moral guidelines with which classrooms best function.  Moral guidelines like: be kind, wait your turn, share, pick up your garbage, tell the truth, and don't poke your classmate!



For a list of ways to help support your child's moral development, be sure to read my post next Sunday!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air."



~ John Quincy Adams

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Good News and Bad News

The good news: here is a delightful story I was reminded of recently, the story of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, a tale of moral courage, physical courage, emotional courage, the story that gives us the popular image of beating back disaster by the narrowest margin: the finger in the dike. I loved this story when I was young. It was so inspiring!

In the old city of Haarlem, the sea was held back by strong dikes, great walls of earth which protected the low-lying coastal lands. From atop the dykes one had beautiful views of the sea on one side, and the rich green farms on the other. For a little boy named Hendrik, walking along the tops of the dikes was a great pleasure, and one evening, coming home from his grandmother's house, he was enjoying the view of the wintry sea when he heard a small, watery trickle. The light was fading, but he peered around, wondering where the sound was coming from. He cocked an ear, and following the noise he made his way down the back side of the dike, where shadows were already gathering. To his dismay, he saw water spurting through a tiny hole. Now, Hendrik was very young, but even young children in that country knew that the dikes were what protected their farms and homes and livestock. A small leak could quickly become a larger leak, and when the tide turned and pressed with all its might the dike could give way completely, flooding the entire city! In growing alarm, Hendrik looked around for something to plug the hole with. Nothing. Without giving it further thought, Hendrik stuck his finger into the dike. "Help!" he cried, looking out across the twilit fields. "Help!" Night fell, and the cold, damp air wrapped around the shivering, frightened boy. Visions of his warm supper and fireside filled his imagination, only to be chased away by visions of raging floodwaters. He dared not leave, for he knew it could spell disaster. "Help!" he called again, his voice hoarse. "Someone help me!" At last, he saw a lantern bobbing in the darkness, coming closer and closer. A search party had been sent to find him, his father in the lead. "My brave boy!" Hendrik's father cried. While the strong men of Haarlem set to work repairing the dike, the young hero was carried home, given his supper, and tucked into bed.

Delightful story! Beloved by millions! But here's the bad news. I'm sorry to say that this story is not a traditional Dutch story at all, but 19th Century American product of "Holland-Mania." Careful consideration of the story along with even the slightest experience with wet soil will make it clear that the story cannot represent any sort of real scenario. The Dutch, with centuries of experience of using dikes to keep the sea out of their low-lying country, would never have invented such an improbable tale. If an earthen dike is saturated enough with water to start leaking, one finger will never hold back the tide.  I reckon the inventor of the tale was picturing something more like a brick wall with a bit of loose mortar, not a real levee or dike.

And yet, what is interesting (to me) is how popular the story became, and how enduring the image of the boy with his finger in the dike is. We like to imagine the lone, small, heroic figure struggling against a mighty force to do the right thing. Perhaps what comforts us is thinking that we can be saved by the efforts of a few individuals while we are comfortably eating our dinners, and that our courage can be kept warm and dry while someone else braves the rising tide. Sorry to say, I don't think that's true. Neither do the Dutch, by the way. In 2007 that country prepared a 200-year plan to deal with the effects of global climate change and rising sea levels on their low-lying nation. Talk about the intellectual courage to tackle uncomfortable facts!

Just because this story isn't a traditional folk tale doesn't mean I won't tell it to my daughter.  Helping her develop courage is part of my plan for preparing for the future.  It's not a 200-year plan, more of a 20-year plan.  We all need the courage of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, even if he was fabricated as an unrealistic, romantic fantasy.  So really, this is more a Bad News/Good News essay than a Good News/Bad News one.  The bad news is we are all going to need a lot of courage; the good news is, we all have that potential, especially our kids. 




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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"The heroic personality is human, not perfect, but human. Perfectionism, like consumerism, is one of the great cripplers. If I have to do something perfectly I'll probably not do it at all, in case I fail. Maybe it's a good thing I was such a failure as a schoolchild, because accepting failure has freed me to take risks."

~ Madeleine L'Engle

Monday, October 3, 2011

About Stories

"To be human is to be a storyteller. A computer can tell us how many words are in a story, correct some spelling errors, and execute other mechanical tasks -- but it doesn't have a clue to what the story is about. Conversely, although children will miscount the words and miss many spelling errors, they can easily tell us the gist of the story - and even imaginatively recount the story in their own words."

~ Barbara K. Walker, The Art of the Turkish Tale

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Using Moral Courage to Navigate Facebook and other Social Jungles!

On the eve of my son’s adolescence, he begged me to let him have a facebook account. At the time, there was a loosely followed guideline that only those 13 years and older could log on and join.  Since I didn’t really understand yet how best to navigate my first born’s adolescence anymore than facebook’s social jungle, I was stalling for time. 

I was also, it turns out, arbitrarily setting his adolescence entrance at age 13 and at facebook’s front door.   I could have opted for the more traditional Native American vision quest to mark his transition from childhood to adulthood.  But with no Native American ancestry whatsoever, such a quest would not only be totally out of integrity, but likely to involve a lot more preparation and trouble.  What wilderness could he wander alone in anyway to complete the sometimes weeks long journey from boy-to-manhood?  A place devoid of traffic, people, and other modern day distractions where he could survive with little water or food, where I wouldn't go nuts with worry? How long could I put off his school’s attendance officer calling every morning wondering whether or not he had yet achieved the necessary spiritual insight and maturity sufficient to return a more mature young man to middle school?  The East African male circumcision was out of the question, too, for obvious reasons.  So, facebook became intertwined with my son’s quest for more independence and offered a secret passageway to a parallel universe far, far away from anything mom or dad could even remotely understand. 

Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of facebook.  I am, however, shamelessly using it to help promote Lion's WhiskersI also didn’t know yet the kind of evils we would encounter together in this particular social networking jungle. 

The arbitrary age limit thing didn’t stop him from pestering me a lot.  I half-listened to his complaints about how EVERYONE else and their mother has a facebook page.  Even when he said “Mom, someone at school has made a facebook account with my name.” I absentmindedly responded, “Well, just tell them to delete it!” 

A few months passed.  Little did I know the scope of my son’s classmate’s moral indiscretion.  Or the impact that someone hacking into our family’s life could have!  Because I did not take the time to understand my son’s pleas, or facebook for that matter,  I was ill-equipped and too distracted to help him navigate this moral morass.  Big mistake!  He eventually took matters into his own hands, with the help of an older friend, and created his own facebook account with a pseudonym. Since  his classmate wouldn’t stop impersonating him, he reasoned he should alert his friends that though they thought they were “friending” him on facebook, they were actually communicating with an imposter.

We are pretty connected, my son and I.  He also breaks pretty easily when I kick my training in therapy/interrogation techniques into high gear.  I could tell he was hiding something.  Something was heavy on his heart.  It took about a day for me to discover that he had just joined the facebook generation, albeit as a dude by the name of  “Ferbmeister.” He faced the consequences from us.  He was lectured pretty heavily about the ills associated with lying, unsupervised computer access, and the fact that two wrongs don't make a right. 

As his parents, we spent an entire weekend trying to understand who and how this other child had managed to “friend” people we knew all over North America.  Not one parent of any of the other children alerted us to the fact that this impersonator was “friending” them on behalf of our son, despite having their suspicions and knowing that our kids weren't allowed on facebook.  Thankfully, one was willing to share who the impersonating child was.  If we don't stick together as parents, with a common vision to help guide our children towards moral, right, or otherwise kind behavior, our children are at risk for not developing the kind of moral courage we are proposing through Lion's Whiskers.

Next, I mustered the moral and social courage to confront, albeit diplomatically and without accusation, the parents of the child who we knew was impersonating our son.  Their response was defensive and they minimized the impact of their child's actions.  “It’s just kids being kids.  Besides, our child isn't really ever on the computer and wouldn't know how to do such a thing even if they were.” WHAT?!  I mean I’ve heard of putting your head in the sand, but this parent had theirs deep in the Sahara!

ostrich head in sand

Whether out of embarrassment, denial, or a lack of comfort with the kind of authority we have the privilege to hold as parents, it is, in my opinion, unacceptable to shelter our children from the consequences of their actions. 

We never received an apology from the child or the family, nor were any of our friends notified that who they thought they were communicating with for all those months was not, in fact, our child.  It took weeks for us to undo the child's handiwork and for the child to finally delete the account, after we alerted the powers that be at facebook.  It saddened my heart that this child would not receive the benefit of a consequence to help them correct their moral compass in the direction of ethical, kind behavior.  And it really angered my kids. 

Kids, for the most part, have a pretty good sense of the difference between right and wrong on the playground, so this wasn’t much different.  Research now shows that from birth, humans are hard-wired to care.  As parents, we have the responsibility to help them learn how to connect and activate, through practice, that wiring through our care for them.  Developing a moral conscience is no longer understood to be a logical or even stage-by-stage process.  Rather, it is a learned skill best passed from parent to child through loving communication, care, and in my case, finally listening to my child’s pleas for help  and asking others to be accountable for their actions—even if they aren’t willing to be.

My kids demanded justice.  “Mom, how come you give us consequences and so-and-so has none?  That just doesn't seem fair!

I, in turn, asked them, “How do you think we would have handled this situation if you had been the one impersonating a classmate?” 

Their answer: “You would make us apologize, delete the account, and probably even make some other kind of amends to make things right again.”  “You bet I would,”  was my emphatic response. 

Unfortunately, morality is sometimes a double-edged sword.  Even when we show care for others, they may not care about us.   Even when we do the right thing, it can often be hard.  We may risk our own safety, welfare, social acceptance, or even imprisonment for the causes we believe in.   How then do we teach our children to do the right thing?  Especially when life doesn't seem fair.  Well, we can be the kind of people we hope they will someday become.  We can model for our children how to react in ways that are life-affirming and not to be victims of our circumstances.  We can advocate for them when they need help.  We can dig our heads out of the sand!

Gratefully, many months after the facebook fiasco, my son's teacher not only arranged a ritual in the woods whereby each child had the opportunity to cross over a metaphorical threshold into adolescence.  She also tried to intervene with my son and his imposter.  She could see the distrust and distance the incident had created between them.  She asked the offending child to apologize.  My son was forgiving, but remained unimpressed.  Kids are like that.  They remember who pushed them off the swing, bit them in playgroup, or stole their identity. 

A few months later I ran into the child on the playground.  The child clearly wanted to avoid me, looking embarrassed and ashamed.  I said, with kindness and compassion in my heart, “You never need to avoid or be ashamed around me.  I care about you and I care about my son.  We all make mistakes.  I just wanted you to know the impact of your actions.  I wish you well.”  I turned the other cheek, so to speak. 

Never underestimate the impact of your real or virtual moral footprint, especially in the lives of your children!


For more on the moral development of children, and how important YOU are as your child's first and most important teacher...be sure to read my post "Hard-wired to Care: You Matter in the Moral Life of Your Child!"