Another Summer Ends

Summer is over and I feel a bit lost and overwhelmed. I tried a new experiment this summer. I didn’t work on any projects. I didn’t write. I didn’t create digital stories. I didn’t research. Instead I swam, biked and ran. And I read a lot of library books. I’m ready to get back into writing, storytelling and researching. But, having dropped the kids off for the first day of school yesterday morning, I’m not sure what to do with myself.

Where do I begin?

After sitting and staring at this computer screen for awhile, I’ve decided to revisit a project that has inspired my troublemaking work from the beginning: kids, troublemaking and moral education. I’ve been thinking and writing about kids and troublemaking since this blog was created. As my kids have grown older (they are now 11 and 8), my thoughts about troublemaking, both how kids practice it and how I model/teach it, has been evolving.

I’d like to turn my work into a bigger, more substantial project. What would that project entail? I’m still not sure. For now, I want to slowly get back into the habit of writing and thinking about kids and moral education. I’ll start by archiving some links about kids and moral education that I’d like to put into conversation with each other:

I want to put these above sources beside:

On Bad Babies, Moral Education and Care-as-Generosity

Note: I originally started this blog post in mid April. I decided to finish it up today. Originally, this post was intended to be far more ambitious…maybe that’s why I never finished it. In completing it today, I’ve decide to focus less on offering up every insight that I can think of, and more on just getting it done. 

I miss writing in this blog. Why did I stop? I think it’s because I’ve been too busy working on other projects: writing/editing two ebooks, researching and developing an interactive documentary about my family’s farm, experimenting with digital storytelling, and learning how to collaborate with my son on an epic video game project. It’s also because I was burned out on critical thinking and making trouble. I wanted to create, not just critique. And finally, it’s because I’m still working on figuring out how to maintain a healthy distance from the academy. I’m trying hard to not get sucked back into it and its highly toxic values.

But this spring, I find myself wanting to return here. To write. To critique. To ruminate on theories/articles/podcasts/media that connect to my primary areas of research interest: moral education, caring, curiosity, troublemaking, virtue and ethics. Today’s post is inspired by an article I found on Facebook about kids and moral education: Raising a Moral Child by super/over-achieving Academic Adam Grant.

Instead of writing a straight-forward review of the article (which I may do in the future), I’d like to let my mind wander and wonder at how the topics raised in this brief opinion piece for the The New York Times connect to other things I’ve recently (and not so recently) read. I also want to use this post as a space for both talking back to the article and being curious about the implications of some of its claims.

First, a brief summary: In “Raising a Moral Child,” Adam Grant poses the question, “What does it mean to raise a good child?” and ponders whether focusing on good practices or good character is more important for helping children to become “kind, compassionate and helpful.” Drawing upon several psychological experiments involving kids, Grant makes the following conclusions:

  1. Praising character (you are a generous person) is ultimately more important than praising a kid’s actions (you did a generous thing).
  2. In terms of negative responses to their failure to be kind, kids should feel guilt not shame. Parents can encourage this by expressing disappointment in the action instead of in the kid.
  3. Modeling generous/caring actions as parent is more important than lecturing to kids or telling them to be generous or caring. Character is shaped by actions: kids see how to be by what we do.

I appreciate Grant’s focus on character and the relationship he sees between character and action. I also appreciate his focus on caring, generosity and moral education. But, as I was reading this article, I found myself repeatedly asking: What does he mean by caring? Being kind? Being generous? Is generosity, in the form of kids giving their extra marbles to “poor children” (the primary example Grant offers), the most effective basis for determining what is/isn’t moral/good/caring? (My implied answer: No, it isn’t). These questions reminded me of a variety of things I’ve read or written about in the last few years.

What is care?

How do define care? While Grant assumes that we all (who is the “we” here?) share an understanding of care, I’m not so sure. Especially when that agreed upon definition seems to be reduced to generosity in the form of giving to the poor. I appreciate how Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher offer a more expansive definition:

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (103).

Care and generosity come in many forms, some of which aren’t always as caring and generous as we assume them to be. The paternalistic care that giving to the poor (marbles or money) often engenders may feel caring to the one giving it, but what does it do to the object of that giving—the “poor”? Here I’m referencing Adam Grant’s discussion of this study in which 7-8 year olds could give some of their marble winnings to “poor children.” Sadly, since I’m no longer an academic, I don’t have access to the whole study. I’d really like to know how the researchers describe “the poor children.” Part of the focus on raising caring children should be on discussions/working through of what caring can/does/should mean. And on resisting the impulse to see “the poor” merely as objects (and not subjects) of your giving generosity.

Way back in 2010, I wrote about kids and learning to care in Linking care with Troublemaking.

what does it mean to be kind?

In What does Mean Mean, Kate Bornstein writes:

And why didn’t I simply write, be kind. I almost did.

But people have ruined that word by calling for a kinder, gentler nation and then effecting a nation that’s very close to the opposite. Another example: someone could consider truthfully that they’re being kind to you when they stop you from being a homosexual… because then you won’t go to hell. It’s become too easy for people to convince themselves that they’re not being mean when they simply call themselves kind. Nope, the word kind can be stretched way out of shape. So, be kind couldn’t be the rule.

I think that treating others with respect in ways that doesn’t do violence to them or deny them of their dignity is very important. Perhaps that’s part of the kindness that Grant is calling for. But, instead of only training kids to be kind, we should also focus on helping them to develop ways for not being mean and for standing up to others who are mean. This can provide kids with some valuable tools for resisting/fighting back against people who try to treat them, and those around them, like shit (or, as I’ve started telling my 8 year old daughter, people who “try to dim your light”). And, it doesn’t restrict the “good” behavior that we promote to some narrow form of kindness.

I was reminded about “not being mean” this morning (May 27th), after clicking on and reading through the link that STA sent me about kids (especially girls) and relational aggression as a form of meanness that is affecting younger and younger kids: Little children acting mean


Right around the time I started writing this post, back in April, I listened to an episode of This American Life called Bad Baby. Here’s the episode description:

They’re small. And they’re cuddly. But sometimes it feels as though our babies were replaced with demon replicas — controlling, demanding, or just downright awful. This week, stories of infants and children who dominate the adults around them with their baditude, or whom adults have painted with the “bad” brush from early on. We also ask the question: at what age does badness begin?

7 Traits Kids Need to Succeed?

I’m really interested in thinking through and writing about character traits and virtue. It was a big part of my dissertation and has continued to guide much of my research and writing. Partly motivated by my two kids and an interest in reclaiming and reconnecting with my kid-self, I’m particularly interested in kids and character development. I’ve even thought about writing a troublemaking book of virtues for kids (or editing one, at least).

Because of this ongoing interest, I was excited about Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed–Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. But, since first hearing about it while listening to an NPR segment back in September, I’ve become a little dubious, especially after reading this article (and tweeting about it):

Today, I came across yet another tweet about it:

As I looked over the seven character traits—Grit, Curiosity, Self-control, Social intelligence, Zest, Optimism and Gratitude—I was inspired to create a new problematizer, combining these traits with a photo from my recent Thanksgiving trip to Northern Minnesota and Lake Superior.

I want to reserve my comments about the book until I’ve read it (I’m buying it for Kindle today). One quick question: How does self-control fit into all of this? Since I’m not a big fan of (over) valuing self-control, I’m wary of it being included as one of the traits.

And, here’s one more question, based on this passage from this article:

character is “not about morality,” says Tough, a Canadian-born journalist. “It’s more about learning a set of skills to help kids achieve their goals.”

What’s the difference between character traits, virtues and skills? I’m fascinated by how we understand these terms differently and what those understandings mean for how we practice (or don’t practice) ethics and/or morality.

A Few of My Posts on Virtue and Kids

On Self-Control and the Trouble with Discipline, part 1 and part 2
What are some “tools for living” and where should they be taught?
What are family values?
Playgrounds, kids and making trouble

Oh bother! The Today Show Takes on Gender-Neutral Parenting

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

For maybe the first time ever STA, RJP, FWA and I happened to be watching the Today Show yesterday morning and saw their segment on the parents who are raising their third child as genderless. I’m not sure what the segment was called, but the article on Today’s website was entitled, “He, She or It? Family Keeps Gender a Secret”. I must admit that while I have seen various links to the story circulating on the interwebz (several of which were posted by students from this semester), I haven’t really followed it. Therefore this “oh bother” speaks specifically to the coverage of this story on the Today Show this morning. There are so many ways that Today’s framing of this issue with this title (and the article/segment) bothers me. Here are just three:

ONE: Does violence through pronoun usage
He, She or It? Really? Using “it” to refer to someone who does not identify/is not identified as either male or female is not okay. This baby is not an it, they are a person. And contrary to what one “expert” on the segment suggests (1 min 50 secs in),  one’s humanity should not be predicated on a clear and rigid gender presentation (see J Butler’s Undoing Gender for more on gender and the “human”). By the way, this “family researcher” just happens to be the director of Focus on the Family, a “global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive” and encouraging “parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles.” Why isn’t this important fact, a fact that certainly influences his interpretation of the “scientific Truths” he purports, mentioned in the segment? And, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a trained scientist discussing the science behind sex and gender differences? Just sayin’.

TWO: Implies that regardless of how the parents choose to raise this child (or even how the child chooses to identify/present themselves) the “truth” of sex/gender* still exists–it’s just hidden.
To suggest that the family is keeping a secret about the child’s sex/gender is to indicate that some essential truth about that sex exists but isn’t being told. And, what is that truth of sex/gender, exactly? Is it boy = penis and girl = vagina (or, no penis)? And what are the implications of this equation for gender, if sex = biology and gender = social rules/roles? Could it be this?

We discussed these issues of sex/gender a lot in my politics of sex class this past spring. See my notes for more on this discussion.

*note: I’m writing sex/gender because they are used interchangeably in the article/segment. In the interest of making this entry accessible to a wide range of readers, I decided not to discuss the problematic ways in which the Today Show conflates and confuses sex and gender and how different feminist and queer theorists theorize the relationship between sex and gender. For one discussion of the differences between sex and gender, see my notes on sex/gender/desire for my politics of sex class.

THREE: Encourages us to morally judge (and condemn) parents by describing their actions as “keeping a secret”
The focus of the TV segment is on the question of whether or not these parents are doing the right thing and not about what gender-neutral parenting (or even negotiating gender in child-rearing practices) means for the child. As viewers we are being invited to morally judge them (literally: there was a poll with 11% saying what these parents did was “great” and 89% saying that it was terrible). I think that there are many other, potentially more productive ways, in which to approach this issue and to think through the problems and possibilities of negotiating gender rules/norms with our kids. In my queer/ing ethics class this past spring, we spent a lot of time thinking through what it might mean to engage in ethical practices that don’t involve judgment. What questions aren’t asked when we devote so much of our energy asking, Are these parents morally right or wrong?, and then answering by condemning them as terrible parents? Why aren’t we asking: What societal forces/structures have made gender such a problem that these parents don’t want to impose gender on their child? How does gender work? Could it work differently? Are our only options rigid gender roles or no gender? Why does assigning gender matter so much to us and why do we become so enraged/uncomfortable/anxious when someone’s gender isn’t obvious?

The Today Show article/segment speaks to a lot of different topics I discussed in my three classes this semester. In addition to the class notes links I offer above, check out my entry on gender-netural parenting for my feminist debates class.

Now, since this is an “Oh Bother!” post, I want to hear from you. What do you think about this segment? About gender-neutral parenting? About the parent’s promotion of a “free to and me” mentality? About the primary expert not being a scientist but a “family values” researcher?

If you aren’t a regular reader of this blog, here’s my explanation of the “oh bother!” category:

OH BOTHER!: I am starting a new category this morning called “oh bother.” This category will include anything that I find particularly reprehensible, repulsive, or just plain annoying. The term, bother, has been one that I have adopted as of late in order to stop saying f**k (which is a favorite word of mine) in front of my highly impressionable kids (who are 3 and 6). Any resemblance to Winnie the Pooh’s catch-phrase is purely coincidental. (Don’t get me wrong, I really like classic Winnie the Pooh. But, somehow, I don’t think Pooh meant “oh bother” in the same spirit that I do.) Like I said, I started uttering “oh bother” about a year ago when my kids got old enough to understand and repeat inappropriate words. It seems rather fitting to use this phrase in relation to making/staying in trouble. After all, to be bothered by something is another way of being troubled by it, right? To bother someone is to trouble them, right? To be in a state of botherment (is this a word?) is to be in a state of trouble. This category is different from my other categories. The “oh bother” examples are meant to be analyzed by you, dear reader, and not me. I want to know what you think about these examples. Perhaps the “oh bother” is a request or a command–as in, (won’t you please) bother these examples for me because I can’t or don’t want to.

Can asking “why?” lead to resistance and social transformation?

For some time now, I have been interested in thinking through the potential ethical and political value of asking “why.” Cultivating selves/communities who persistently ask “why” (along with “at whose expense”) is a central part of my own feminist ethico-political project. Recently I came across a children’s story, “Why?” from Fairy Tales for Workers’ Children (1925). I found the story in the recent (and totally awesome) edited collection of Radical Children’s Literature from Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel: tales for little rebels. When I first wrote this paragraph, I incorrectly identified the book as tales from little rebels. Wouldn’t that be a cool book? Tales of resistance from little kids? Hmm…what would that look like? I’m sure that kids could have a lot to say about rebellion and resistance…and a lot that they could teach us (well, at least me).

Since the inception of this research/writing/thinking/engaging blog back in May 2009, I have positioned my vision/version of troublemaking beside (in relation to) kids; much of my work is inspired by my desire to make sense of my own experiences as a troublemaking kid (and the experiences of my daughter whose image serves as the mascot for this blog). It is also inspired by a desire to develop methods for promoting feminst curiosity and wonder in children. I think that this edited collection for little rebels might be an excellent resource as I continue to think through my project/s.

Before moving into a discussion of the story, “Why?,” here are a few passages from the introduction of the collection that I would like to spend more time reflecting on in some future post:

On the difference between politics and morality: Children’s literature is necessarily involved in both morality (making distinctions between right and wrong) and politics (which are about the power to effect change). Teaching children to obey a higher authority may be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson (1).

On the presence of politics in children’s literature: For those who would argue that politics have no place in children’s literature, we maintain that there is no way to keep politics out. Stories that uphold the status quo (arguably the majority of works published for children) may not seem political, but they represent efforts to teach children that the current social, political, economic, and environmental orders are as they should be (2).

What sort of literature is appropriate for children? What responsibility do adults have to children to keep them informed about critical issues of the day, such as global warming, terrorism, political corruption, and corporate greed? At what point must an ideal of “protection” end and one of preparation necessarily begin (5)?

So much that I want to discuss here in terms of how to distinguish between ethics and politics (and whether or not we even should); how to create/bear witness to stories for kids that don’t perpetuate the status quo; and how to think about the roles of protection and preparation in children’s literature (are these the only roles)?

Now, onto the story: “Why” from Fairy Tales for Worker’s Children (1925). This story is the first one in Mickenberg and Nel’s section on Imagination.

Once upon a time there lived a little boy named Paul who had no mother or father. He was very curious and liked to ask “why” all of the time. He was also very poor and never had enough food to eat. All of the people in the town were very old and very unhappy; they really didn’t like Paul always asking “why” and trying to figure out the cause of everything. The Matron would say: “You mustn’t always ask why. Everything is as it is, and therefore is right” (141).

Here’s a passage that I particularly liked: “Keep quiet, you good-for-nothing! Leave me alone with your eternal questions.” The fat woman was quite red with anger, because she knew no answer to Paul’s questions, and nothing angers ignorant persons more than to be forced to say, “I don’t know” (141).

…back to the story. One day, after asking too many questions and being slapped for it, Paul runs away.

First he runs to the chicken yard and happens upon the chickens just as they were laying eggs. Paul asks a hen, “where do all of your eggs go to?” After being told that all of the eggs go to the rich people in the city, Paul asks: “Why don’t I ever have an egg?” When the hen replies that he is a “poor Have-nothing” Paul asks, “Why am I a poor Have-nothing?” Angered by his bothersome questions, the hen shoos him away.

Second he runs to a cowshed where he happens upon the cows. He asks one of the cows for some milk. When the cow declines, explaining that the milk belongs to the farmer and that it will be sent to the city for rich people to drink, Paul ask, “Do the poor children there get any of the milk?” The cow chastises him, describing how the milk will be used for making delicious whipped cream for cakes and puddings for the rich. When Paul wonders if the poor children will get these treats too, the cow tells him to stop asking so many questions and to go away before the farmer comes and beats him.

Third he runs to a wheat field. Paul pesters the wheat about who will get to eat the bread that is made from them. When he is again told that the food is for rich people he exclaims, “Ah, again the rich people! Does everything in this world belong to the rich people?” When the ears of wheat softly buzz, “everything, everything,” Paul cries, “WHY?” They laugh at him for asking such a stupid question.

By this time Paul, who is near tears, angrily demands an answer to his questions. He is told to seek out the Owl for answers. The Owl happens to be a mean and imperious She–are Owls usually gendered as “she”? This Owl seems to represent tradition and knowledge here. Reminds me of an earlier entry I wrote about the Sour Kangaroo in Horton Hears a Who as the bearer of tradition and that which gets in the way of innovation, change and critical thinking. The only other wise Owls I can think of are the male Owls in Winnie the Pooh and the “how many licks?” commercial.

Anyway, the Owl, who doesn’t want to “waste her precious time on such a stupid child as Paul,” is too busy focusing all of her attention on a more important question, “Why are people so stupid?” She is particularly interested in examining why poor people, who work very hard, yet never seem to get anywhere, are so stupid. She is not interested in talking with Paul about his questions, and sends him away.

Totally depressed, Paul sinks down in the ground. Suddenly a fairy asks him, “why are you crying my child?” When Paul laments how lonely and sad he is because he seems to be the only person who ever wonders why, the fairy comforts him and tells him that if he listens really closely, he will hear poor people all over the world repeatedly asking why. Here are a few of her comments from page 145:

With her final statements I think the fairy is offering one answer to the question I pose in the title of this entry: Can asking “why?” lead to resistance and social transformation? Yes, potentially, with the help of consciousness-raising and collective awareness. I have a few issues with this story (singular focus on class, reliance on older woman as perpetuators of status quo–the old lady who laughs at Paul, the hen, the wise Owl), but I do appreciate the connections that it draws between curiosity, education and justice. I think I want to read this story to my kids to see what they think. Hmmm….

More links to check out: