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 (and writing about it on another blog), 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

BONUS

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

Thanks Mom! Banksy Beside JennyHolzerMom

epic win photos - WIN!: Hacked IRL: Thanks Mom
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Thanks to Susannah for this image and her question about the link between troublemaking and care. I really like the idea of envisioning encouraging kids to make trouble (well, maybe not always or often in the forms represented in this image) as part of a parent’s caregiving practices. I’d like to read/reflect on this beside JennyHolzerMom’s tweets about the tension between rebelling and following rules:

Word Count: 71 words

An undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling

Almost 10 years ago, STA and I did two digital videos about the Puotinen family farm. While the films that we made in 2002/2003 weren’t technically sophisticated (we used iMovie, a built-in microphone and some low quality/old photos), I am very proud of them. Through these films, I was able to document two extremely important parts of me (both of which are now gone): our family farm, sold in 2004, and my mom, who died in 2009.

Since the time of making those films, the technology has improved a lot and it’s even easier to create your own digital stories, using photos, voice-over, and video. iMovie is easy to use and there are lots of different apps for creating stories on your smarthphone or iPad. Additionally, communities of scholars, artists, activists and educators have cultivated and are promoting the value of creating and sharing stories digitally. There are classes on digital storytelling (like the awesome class at the University of Minnesota, taught by Rachel Raimist and Walt Jacobs) and a Center for Digital Storytelling (started in the mid-1900s).

While I’ve been aware of digital storytelling for several years now, I haven’t read that much about it or tried it out myself. Until now.

A few weeks ago, I started writing and thinking a lot about discipline and my own lack of it. The general topic of discipline and being a disciplinary problem aren’t really new for me; they are a focus of this blog. But, something about my current in-between state (in-between teaching gigs, in-between academic and non-academic spaces, in-between a love of learning and being burned out from the academy and formal education), has made the topic of my own un/discipline particularly personal and compelling. After writing a few blog posts about it, I remembered the one and only report card that I still have from my elementary school years: my first grade report card. Since this report card has a lot to stay about my lack of self-discipline, it seemed a perfect object/subject for an undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling.

I loved experimenting with images of the report card, old photos, and voice-over in order to be curious about and reflect on who I was in first grade and why I struggled so much with self-discipline (whatever that means). I also liked trying out iMovie (I chose it over final cut pro), pixelmator (instead of photoshop) and a Yeti microphone. Pretty cool. I’m looking forward to experimenting even more with it in future projects; I’m already hoping to do a different version about my report card in which I put my struggle with self-discipline in the larger context of race, class and gender in 1980s North Carolina. For now, here’s my first experiment: School Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account

Student Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account from Undisciplined on Vimeo.

on self-control and the trouble with discipline, pt 2: troubling images

Yesterday, I listed off 4 reasons (among many others) for why I refuse/reject/resist using or claiming the terms, “self-control” or “discipline”:

one: They conjure up damaging images and reinforce problematic understandings of who is/isn’t able to have control and be disciplined.
two: They are frequently linked to a particular set of conservative values (a la Bill Bennett).
three: They are shaped by a very narrow vision of success/happiness that is unwanted and/or unachievable by many.
four: They are privileged at the expense of a number of other, equally (or more) important values, like respect, responsibility, attentiveness, vulnerability.

In part 2 of this series, I want to focus on reason #1: Troubling images and understandings. Much of how we understand “self-control” and “discipline” is constructed through the repeated citing of its failures, represented by various non-normative bodies in a variety of oppressive images which, when repeated enough, become ingrained understandings (stereotypes) of entire groups. These images of failure function as threatening reminders of what we will become if we don’t act properly and with self-control and discipline; they haunt our actions and keep us in line. They also reduce the people who are recognized as failing to oppressive stereotypes. I come to the idea of the haunting/threatening image through J Butler and her understandings of the abject in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. For more on understanding of abject, see this class summary). 

Here are (just a few) examples of these images:

There are many problems with reinforcing these images. For example, if failure’s image of a lack of willpower is “the Fat Slob,” fat becomes equated with failure and the inability to have control. This leads to understandings of all fat people as lacking willpower and being weak slobs, which leads to the stigmatization of people who fall outside of our accepted weight ideals (either determined by pounds and the medical profession’s ever-changing obesity charts or by appearance and pop culture’s regulations of who/what is beautiful), which leads to the dehumanizing of those non-normative bodies. Here’s just one example of the reinforcing of fat = lack of willpower = stupid slob (so disturbing). And here’s a list of blogs by fat studies scholars/activists/bloggers that challenge this dehumanizing equation of fat = failure.

In another example, if failure’s image of the lazy (non) worker is the Welfare Queen, most frequently represented by the single Black mother, receiving Welfare becomes equated with failure and a refusal to be disciplined and work hard. This leads to understandings of all welfare recipients as lazy and undeserving of a “free” handout from others who actually are disciplined and work hard, which leads to the stigmatization of Welfare, and particularly those who are assumed to receive it the most, Black single mothers. This in turn leads to the dehumanizing of those who are unable to get jobs or who must, for a variety of reasons, many of which are out of their control, depend on Welfare. Here’s one critical tracing of the welfare queen stereotype. You should also check out Patricia Hill Collins’ classic Black Feminist Thought, particularly her chapter: Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images. 

I could go on and on about how these threatening images of failure are damaging to all sorts of folks who fall outside of the mythical norm, like how young black men are frequently read as disciplinary problems and written off as future criminals or how any expression of emotion by women of color, in particular, black women, is understood to signal a failure to control one’s anger and show restraint, or how HIlary Clinton was dismissed as a viable presidential candidate because her PMS would cause her to be too emotional and unstable at certain times of the month. But in the interest of making this post less than 1000 words, I’ll stop…for now.

My point in briefly discussing these damaging images of self-control’s failure is not that every time someone uses the terms “self-control” or “discipline” they are deliberately trying to dehumanize fat people as weak slobs or stigmatize welfare recipients as “Welfare queens.” Instead, the point is that these terms are inextricably tied, in the public imagination, to threatening images of what happens when you fail to have control or be disciplined. When these words are used, they invoke a whole history of meanings that, in my undisciplined opinion, are too invested in regulating and reproducing the mythical norm.

We need new terms and understandings for the values that “self-control” and “discipline” claim to represent. Maybe we also need some new values that contribute to our surviving and thriving that don’t emphasize staying in line and unquestioningly follow orders? More on those thoughts in a future post…

As a final thought: I struggled in writing this post. Having spent so much time over the past decade thinking about the problems with controlling people’s “excessive” behavior through threats and calls for “self-control” and “discipline,” I wonder if I was able to effectively introduce this critique to a reader who is not familiar with it. Any feedback is greatly appreciated. 

on self-control and the trouble with discipline, pt 1

As someone who often struggled with self-control as a child and who is strongly resistant to being disciplined (even now; my twitter handle is undisciplined, after all), I bristled when I first saw the title of a recent op-ed from the New York Times: Teaching Self-Control the American Way. After reading the op-ed, which is about encouraging kids to regulate themselves and develop discipline through playing and engaging repeatedly in activities that they are passionate about, I found that I appreciate much of the authors’ ideas.

Primarily a reaction against disciplinary models that demand close supervision of kids and strict regulation of their behaviors and physical/mental practices (models that are exemplified and promoted by books like, Bringing Up Bébé), this brief article encourages parents to leave their kids alone, letting them play, pursue their own passions, and work their bodies so they can develop “cognitive flexibility” instead of the ability to rigidly follow rules and memorize facts. Sounds good to me! I’m a big proponent of play and letting kids follow their own passions. And I strongly believe that kids need to have space and time to exercise and be physically active. As a side note, I was struck by a line from the article: “Though parents often worry that physical education takes time away from the classroom…” Really? I find this sad to read that some parents want kids to have even less time for P.E. Furthermore, I love the idea of empowering kids to develop their own practices and tools for learning how to manage themselves.

But, while I appreciate the authors’ critique of rigid disciplinary methods and their emphasis on play, passion, exercise and harnessing kids’ own “internal motivations,” I still don’t like their repeated use of language like “self-control” and “discipline.” Why? This is a question that I’ve struggled with the past few years as I’ve developed and practiced my own vision of making and staying in trouble. Even as I promote trouble and embrace being undisciplined, I recognize the value and necessity of training, control and being able (and willing) to follow rules. With two children, I really recognize the value of following certain rules and being able to manage our bodies and emotions…like when we’re all in the grocery store and they’re just about to lose their shit because I won’t buy them [insert super-processed, fructose-corn syruped “fruit” snack here].

I’ve always deeply enjoyed engaging in repeated practices and building up skills. And I like rituals and habits, all of which seem to be important qualities of a person who can effectively manage/direct themselves responsibly and who is considered to have “self-control” and “discipline.” Throughout my childhood, I was actively involved in organized physical activities—5 years of ballet, a year of gymnastics, a year of basketball, 6 years of soccer, 5 years of swimming—and music—I played the clarinet and was in band for 12 years. I was also a diligent student with 26 (yes, 26: K-12, undergrad, masters, PhD) years of schooling. All of these activities have contributed to my vision of troublemaking as rooted in repeated practices and the building up of habits and skills. But, I would never claim to be disciplined and to have self-control.

Like I mentioned in the opening lines of this post, I bristle at these terms. Why is that? When I started writing this post yesterday, I don’t think I could have quite articulated why but now, having used the process of writing this post as a way to think, reflect and trouble “self-control” and “discipline,” I’ve developed a few reasons.

I refuse/reject/resist “self-control” and “discipline” because these terms, which are supposedly universal and objective, have become common-sense assumptions/Norms that we are encouraged to uncritically accept as givens without analyzing how they came to be accepted and at whose expense. This is evident in the New York Times op-ed. Throughout it, they argue for the value of self-control without ever clearly defining it; it is just assumed that we know what they mean. Sure, I agree with the idea that we need to encourage kids (and adults too!) to learn how to handle their emotions/reactions, to pay attention to rules/others/the world, and to develop strategies for surviving and thriving in the world (which all seem to be implied goals for acquiring self-control and discipline). However, when “self-control” and “discipline” are invoked, they frequently cite and reinforce particular images and understandings that are extremely damaging to a wide range of folks that fail to embody, in a wide range of ways, what Audre Lorde describes as the mythical norm or the assumed/implied Subject/Self (mythical norm = white, male, heterosexual, Christian, middle-classed, educated, thin, able-bodied, etc). I’ll go into more detail about what I mean here in a future post.

In addition to conjuring up damaging images and reinforcing problematic understandings of who is/isn’t able to have control and be disciplined, these terms are frequently linked to a particular set of conservative values (e.g. the first virtue in Bill Bennet’s The Book of Virtues is self-discipline) that are shaped by a very narrow vision of success/happiness that is unwanted and/or unachievable by many and that is privileged at the expense of a number of other, equally (or more) important values (like respect, attentiveness, vulnerability).

I want to spend time discussing all four of these (and probably more too) reasons why I refuse/resist/reject “self-control” and “discipline.” And I plan to in future posts. But, since I don’t have much more time today, I want to end with a screen shot of my report card (the only report card I still have) from 1st grade at Clyde Campbell Elementary in Hickory, North Carolina (in 1980-1981). The screen shot focuses on my “social and work habits,” which are all pretty decent. Notice that some of my lowest marks are for “practices self-discipline” (ha!) and my highest are for “accepts responsibility” and “respect.” Responsibility and respect are core values for me as an adult.

what are some key “tools for living” and where should they be taught?

This morning, while scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across the following tweet:


Of course I was immediately struck by the title of Simmon’s series of seminars: Leadership Rebels. Pretty sweet. After I briefly skimmed the NY Times article about the leadership series and the larger program at Smith for teaching students practical skills, Passport to Life at Smith and Passport to Life After Smith, I was intrigued, but not compelled to tweet or post anything about the academy (I thought about archiving their use of “rebels” and its dis/connection to troublemaking, but wasn’t sure how I fit the practical skills of “self-awareness, clear communication and conflict negotiation” in relation to troublemaking and troublestaying). Then I came across another article about teaching students life skills over on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tools for Living: The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands. All of this discussion reminded me of a few other articles that I had read last week on students and their lack of “life” skills: What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind and What’s Wrong with Teenagers? (They Don’t Have Any Moral Virtue). In contrast to the NY Times article on Smith College and the Chronicle article on various institutions teaching tools for living, What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind?” and “What’s Wrong with Teenagers?” focused not on how higher education could help students to develop more skills, but how higher education and “book learning” were the problem and the reason why students aren’t able to cook or run a household or manage a career. Suddenly I realized that the universe must be trying to tell me something; I need to write about (or at least archive in a “beside/s” post) these various articles on education/training and life skills. And who am I to argue with the Universe? Umm…perhaps that question should be taken up in a different post.

Again, here are the articles that I want to put BESIDE/S each other:
Teaching Smith Students About Life Beyond the Course Book
Tools for Living: The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands
What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind
What’s Wrong with Teenagers? (They Don’t Have Any Moral Virtue)

I want to put these articles beside each other because I am struck by the different approaches that they take to the issue of practical education and “life” skills. I don’t necessarily see their different visions of what skills should be taught as in complete conflict, but I do see them, when taken together, as opening up critical and creative discussions about what  counts as skills and how and where those skills should be taught. On another note, this issue of skills/tools makes me very curious. For a long time now, I’ve been wondering about whether or not to describe troublemaking as a skill or a virtue (maybe it’s both). 

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

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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 be..you 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:

Linking care with troublemaking, part 2: What does it mean to care?

This entry is part of my series on care and its connections with troublemaking. As I mentioned previously (here and here), I am interested in thinking through what care is and how it does/doesn’t connect with troublemaking. So, what does it mean to care? Having just written a brain-melting chewy bagel about Foucault, Butler and virtue ethics, I want to keep this entry a little lighter–maybe light like a double-glazed donut…umm, double-glazed.

Anyway, this morning my son FWA, who is 2 weeks away from turning 7, read his weekly “watch me read” book to me (thanks, FWA for waiting until this morning to remind me about this assignment–just 30 minutes before you had to leave for school!). This week’s book, which is part of Houghton Mifflin’s Invitations to Literacy Series, was “We Care.” As you might imagine–that is, if you are a regular reader here–the title made me curious. What do they mean by care? And, who is the we that cares?

So, the story is about a little girl who passes by a local homeless shelter called Main Street on the way to school everyday. One day she decides to ask her teacher about the shelter and whether or not the people who go there have beds and enough food. In other words, she is curious and cares about these people and their needs. The teacher doesn’t know but decides that being curious about Main Street might be a good project for the whole class so she encourages them to  curious about the residents of Main Street. But, the teacher doesn’t just want her students to be curious, she wants them to do something with that curiosity. She organizes the students and their parents into a plan of action: they will give care to the residents of Main Street by bringing food and other things the residents might need and by performing a play. A big chunk of the story (which is 16 pages total) is devoted to describing how the students, their parents, and the teacher all get involved in preparing the gift boxes and the play. Towards the end of the story, the class goes to the shelter and delivers their boxes to the head of Main Street and performs the play for the residents. The experience gives the students such a “warm feeling” that they decide they want to do more. The teacher suggests that they tell other classes about the shelter project so that those classes can care about and care for too. Here is how the story ends:

Now our school often brings food and other things to Main Street House. We don’t put on a show every time we go, though. But that’s all right. Our class trips show we care (16).

So, “we care” means:

  • to be curious about others
  • to care about those others and their needs
  • to do something for those one cares about by giving care to them
  • to spread the word to others
  • to engage collectively in caring about and caring for

There are many things that I like about this story. I like that kids are being encouraged to care. I like that caring about isn’t enough and that action, in the form of giving care, is also required. I like that that care is imagined as collective and involving more than an individual; it includes the class, the entire school, and even the larger community (including parents). I like that continued and repeated caring is necessary–students shouldn’t just care once, they need to care again and again by visiting Main Street House repeatedly.

But (you knew it was coming, right?), I was also troubled by this story because it left out some crucial steps and some very important actors in the process. First, the students are never encouraged to collectively develop or critically reflect on how or why they should care about these residents. The process of figuring out what form of care might be most effective for the residents is never discussed. Moreover, the reasons why the residents are homeless are never addressed (or even asked). The student, Jynelle, doesn’t ask why some people are living at Main Street instead of in their own homes; she merely asks if they have enough beds there. I don’t know how much time you have spent around little kids, but the first question that they are often compelled (and it does almost seem like a compulsion) to ask is: Why? Athough maybe by the time students are in 3rd grade, they have already been conditioned out of asking why–scary thought. In the context of this story, not asking why is significant. Asking why indicates that the way something appears to be should not just be assumed to be the way it should be or the way that it always has been (In another entry, I discuss the importance of why for critical thinking and troublemaking). When the student doesn’t ask why, it is implied that why doesn’t matter because homeless shelters are just the way the world works: some people are homeless, some aren’t. It’s a fact of life. Don’t try to change it, because you can’t. For me, the failure to ask why is a major problem. Asking why isn’t just about trying to make trouble by creating extra work for the teacher or by distracting us from the real work of developing solutions or plans of action for caring about those people. To ask why is to claim that the situation of being homeless is not to be assumed and that it is something that could and should be different. It is the first step in challenging and resisting injustice. And it is the first step in transforming yourself into a person-who-doesn’t-merely-accept. Uh-oh, didn’t I just talk about this in my last entry? This entry is in danger of becoming another chewy bagel. Let’s just say, asking why is important.

A second problem: Something big is missing in this story: the actual people who are receiving the care, the residents of Main Street Shelter. We never get to read about the actual stories of these people. And they aren’t visually represented in the text. When the story describes the students’ play at Main Street, the illustrations are of the children performing. We also never get to read about their reactions to the care that they are given. When the story describes the effects of the Main Street project, there is no discussion of how it benefits the residents or how the care makes a difference in their lives. Instead, the story focuses on how giving care to the residents gave the students warm feelings.  This is a problem because giving effective care necessarily requires that we ask about how we should give care. We shouldn’t assume (or presume) to know what needs should be addressed. We need to ask those to whom we are giving care,  How can we help you? Or, even better, how can we make it possible for you to help yourselves? This is also a problem because, by leaving the actual voices and experiences of those who need care out of the story, those who receive care are reduced to objects (as opposed to subjects) of care.

Since this entry is getting too long (I didn’t realize that I would have so much to write about this book), I need to stop. But, before I do, I want to offer some practical ways to tell this story differently–practical ways that might be even approved for use in an elementary school…well, as long as it isn’t in Texas. So, here are my suggestions for some small (but potentially transformative) ways to make this a story that offers a more expansive and effective vision of what it means to care:

  • Have the teacher contact the shelter and actually ask: what can we do to help? What care can we give to your residents? You could have her ask the director or, even better, have her talk with actual residents.
  • What about including a brief mention (even a sentence would help) of how a resident or the director visited the class and told them about the shelter and what the residents needed.
  • Let Jynelle ask why. You don’t even have to answer it (although that would be awesome), just let her ask it.
  • Include some faces, names, voices of the residents. At least include them in some of the pictures.

Okay, here is one suggestion that might be too ambitious for a third-grade level book:

  • Instead of talking so much about how students get a warm feeling because they feel good about caring for others, focus just a little more attention on why they are sad (at least you mention it on page 13) or even why they are mad that others don’t have a home.

Okay, my brain (and the rest of me too) is done. Now I want to find some kids’ books that talk about social justice and encourage kids to question and challenge. Any suggestions?