The Supreme Court, Hate Speech & Kids

I have a new piece up at SF Gate and in the San Francisco Chronicle about last week’s Supreme Court decision to allow protesters at military funerals. This decision came on the heels of a run-in my daughter and I had with some protesters in our town, and the doubling of up angry political people got me thinking: it’s one thing for me to shake my head and fight back, or ignore speech I don’t like, but what kind of message does that send my daughter and son? And worse:  what kind of political world are they going to inherit? What’s the speech of their future going to look like? And how I can make sure they participate in civic life civically?

You can read the full piece here, then please come back to comment.


The Girl Effect

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For the Birds

One of the things we love to do here is birdwatch and we do it with some frequency. I first heard about birding as a serious thing that real people did back in college from a friend, who since walked across Cuba and wrote a great book about it (in which the birding bits are among the best). He’s traveled all over the world for work and birding, and you should read his blog, which these days is full of urgent, important information on Haiti, where he has spent a goodly amount time.

We’re lucky enough to have a superb wetlands preserve near our house that is home to numerous species of birds. Some are migratory, some make their home year round.Some are common, some are very rare and draw birders from many miles around.   There’s an amazing hatchery/nesting ground for blue herons, and Snowy Egrets are so common that the kids are no longer startled to see one of these beautiful creatures. It’s an amazing place to take the kids, and each trip reveals something different.

We are not experts at birdwatching, and we do it in a kind of haphazard way.  We don’t always (often?) even know what we’re looking, but we’ve found that birders can be a friendly lot, and are eager to name or point out new species or give us advice, especially when they realize we’re are serious as one can be with a 5 & 7 year old, and always respectful.

For some years now, we’ve been trying to see a Clapper Rail, an endangered and elusive bird that makes its home in the pickelweed of these wetlands. It has eluded us, trip after trip.  But on our last visit we saw something nearly as good:  the Virginia Rail.  Over the space of 2 hours, we spotted 3 (three!) darting in and out of the weeds and grasses at the edge of the path at high tide. They were very quick and very well-camouflaged, which made it all the more satisfying. Ella, who has been the one driving our mission for 2+ years now was thrilled and snapped this picture. If you look very closely, you can see the rail’s orange beak hidden in the dark patch at the bottom of the frame.

really, it’s there, the Virginia Rail

And then we got a great look at a hawk, that might just be the opposite of the Rail in terms of obviousness.

And what, you are wondering by now, does birding and the Virginia Rail and 7-year-old’s birding life list have to do with Raising Generation O?

Exactly this, from Rachel Carson:

The pleasures, the values of contact with the natural world, are not reserved for scientists.  They are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of a lonely mountain top–or the sea–or the stillness of a forest; or who will stop to think about so small a thing as the mystery of a growing seed.  I am not afraid of being thought a sentimentalist when I stand here tonight and tell you that I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.

Or, I would add, the elusive, playful, mysterious nature of a Rail.  When we take our kids “birding” they absorb something elemental about their world, and they begin to understand and observe that habitat change, tides influence land and animals. They begin to see that they share the earth with many, fragile species.  They know first hand just what endangered means.  They are forced to slow down and to look closely, on their bellies, and wait and wait and watch and listen and see how the world is alive in so very many ways.  They move deeper toward an understanding of natural beauty and order.

Carson wrote, presciently, in the middle of last century:

For there is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; in the folded bud ready for spring. THere is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, with steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water. … For this unhappy trend there is no single remedy–no panacea.

But turning off the screens, and getting out of the house and looking at a few birds. Well, that’s definitely a start.

A Sense of Wonder

In the Rainforest at the Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Much is said and written these days about how children, American children especially, need to be educated in the sciences. If we are to innovate our way out of global climate change, world hunger, species extinction, global epidemic etc. we need our children to be strong and innovative scientific thinkers.   No argument from me there.

However, I’d argue one of the very best ways to ensure that kids become and remain interested in the sciences is to cultivate a fundamental interest in the natural, biological world.  Steeping your child in the mystery, beauty, and sheer, expanding complexity of the natural world is one to cultivate a love of science. Sure, you can read them romantic poetry, or leave your National Geographics lying around in their rooms, or put a periodic table and make them memorize it….but at bottom, if they have a love for the physical world, and a curiosity about how it works, they are also on their way to becoming scientifically minded problem solvers and creative thinkers.

The great nature writer, Rachel Carson, for me one of the great writers of the 20th century, wrote as much in her extraordinary book aimed at children and parents, The Sense of Wonder. In it, she argues that cultivating a child’s sense of the natural world and its beauty is the first thing you can do to culitvate a budding scientific mind.  That sense of play, of curiosity, and of wonder that a child has at the ocean’s shore, for instance, are the self same qualities that help mature scientists innovate their way into and out of important new discoveries. For young children, its often not so much about what they know, but about how they think. For Carson herself admits:  “My first impressions of the ocean were sensory and emotional, and that the intellectual response came later.”  In fact, although her great life’s work was about the sea, she never even saw the ocean until she was in college.

Carson believed that science was not separate from life:  “The material of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience…The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction.”

And there is something life-sustaining in the truly science-minded individual too:  Carson also wrote “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the les taste we shall have for the destruction of the race.  Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

What can you do for your children? Take them to great, interactive natural history and science museums and good zoos, sure.  But also just take them outside. Teach them to observe the world around them, the seasons, the particular wildlife that live in your region. Let them sketch, draw, take notes, get really muddy, turn over rocks, climb trees, find new kinds of birds…let them look at and wade in lakes, observe tides, take night walks. Attune them to what is happening in their enviroment, all the time, all the mystery and beauty and change that resides in the factness of the world.

Squanto's Journey

A confession:  I love Pilgrims.

I think Pilgrims are underrated, misunderstood, and oversimplified.  “Pilgrims” by the way accurately refers only to those Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower and established a colony at Plymouth in 1620.  For instance, while Pilgrim chastity is the stuff of legend, you might be interested to know that all sexual deviance–from homosexuality to sex with turkeys and goats (which really is historically documented: in one incredible scene in which a young man accused of the latter actually points out the specific turkeys he had relation with…)–was considered the same order of sin.  And while they did believe that everything was Providential (according to God’s will) they knew one could never really, truly know that one was elect. You might be pretty certain, but you could never be positive.  This led to much study and scholarship, cultivated soul searching and personal responsibility. The rebelled against the corrupt Anglican church and thus cultivated, ironically, a kind of independent thinking.  They worked hard and were humble. All those stereotypical New England Puritan virtues are based in some interesting historical fact.

Moreover, their journey from grave persecution in England to Holland to the “New” World took over 13 years, and the passage and arrival was difficult and epic.  They arrived in winter, in Massachussets, to a wild and unforgiving coast. True, the Native Americans had survived there for a long time, and there were other colonies, but the Pilgrims were ill-equipped for the task.  Plus, nearly half of their 100 members died that first winter. It was a difficult and terrible time, and no one was certain of survival. But thanks to the help of the Wampanoag and especially the Pautaxet Squanto, they survived and even thrived. Thus, the first Thanksgiving really was a feast of plenty and of thanks, and it was attended by twice as many Native Americans as Pilgrims. Also, it lasted 3 days, at the end of which the Indians shot and offered 5 deer to the colonists, which no doubt helped them through the 2nd winter. And while this interval of good will between Pilgrims and Indians did not last, it was real and significant, and it marked a turning point in the colony’s success.

So one of my missions (in life? in my family?) is to translate what was incredible about their story in a meaningful and balanced (and, of course age appropriate) way. I think that if you consider the first Thanksgiving in the context of the Pilgrim’s really extraordinary exile, hardship, adventure, starvation, illness, compromise, and reliance on the Indians,  it becomes, truly, a kind of miraculous story of survival and success and a moment of peace and possibility.  Modern Thanksgiving is about none of this, and I think that’s kind of too bad.

For instance, how many of us celebrates Thanksgiving as a religious holiday? (Which was certainly part of the Pilgrim’s feast, since everything returned to God..)

And how many of us really, truly celebrates it as a feast of harvest or plenty?   How many of us shop exclusively at farmer’s markets for the season’s bounty for tables? How many go and shoot the abundant native fowl or deer in our regions? Or even bother to search out an heirloom bird? Or fish in local waters for the abundant catch available at harvest time? (there were a lot of lobsters in New England).  That we don’t is okay, of course. Traditions morph.  But I do think it’s important to remember what started all of this feasting anyway, and remember that simply being thankful for family and health and abundance in our middle class home is something we should do everyday of the year. It seems sort of empty to me to make this the only focus of the holiday. Then again, I do have a PhD in American literature. I love history. And Pilgrims.

In sum: I think the day is enriched for kids if it’s put into an accurate historical and sort of somber historical context.

Thus: every year, we make a Thanksgiving movie (See 2007 & 2008). This year, Ella, who is on the fast track to becoming a spy reporter and has a penchant for writing nonfiction decided we had to make an Historical & Fun movie.  Of course, I leapt at the chance in and in less time than it takes to Google Mayflower, I was parsing my grad school copy of William Bradford’s journal-turned-formal-account of Pilgrim History, Of Plymouth Plantation and reading her the juicy bits about the journey and the landing at Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving (but not, of course, the turkeys…)  The book became our primary source for the film (which should be released this weekend, God of the Pilgrims willing) and I never thought I’d see the day my 7-year-old parsed a footnote of a 17th century text looking for a detail.

Of course, I’m not recommending you all go read the entirety of Bradford’s account, which really is best studied in a PhD seminar, but the short DVD William Bradford: The First Thanksgiving in The Animated Hero classic series is excellent as far as Pilgrims go.  It’s historically accurate and gives children a good sense of their decades of hardship and deprivation as well as the absolute necessity of Squanto and the Wampanoag in their surivival.  Paired with the really excellent Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac, which details Squato’s kidnapping, the decimation of his tribe, his return to America and his providential meeting with the colonists,  your child can have a fuller, deeper, more balanced and accurate sense of what that first feast was all about and why any of us should give a damn about the Pilgrims and Indians and in the first place.

Next year, it’s Squanto’s turn.

Child's Play

This weekend the NYT Magazine ran a piece about the Obama marriage that quoted Obama on the significance of his election. When Michelle Obama asked him during the primary season what would distinguish his Presidency from that of other Democratic candidates Obama replied,

“When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don’t really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be,” Barack replied.  “And I think the world will look at America a little differently.”

Certainly, Obama’s Nobel Prize, controversial or not, has proven the latter part of his statement to be true.   I don’t think we’ve even begun to register in this country the profound shift in international attitudes and climates that will result from this Presidency.

But I was especially gratified to read the first part, because before I read this statement I wrote in an essay:

During the Primaries, I knew that whether we elected Clinton or Obama, either would signal a new order, one which concretized academic theorizing about diversity and identity politics.  In one historic ballot, many more children would be able to look at the person inhabiting the highest office in our country and say the President Looks Like Me.  And for them it really would mean that anything was possible.

So, when my daughter professed her single-minded Clinton love, I understood exactly what having a woman President would mean to the rest of her childhood (and probably the rest of her life).  If Clinton were to become President, not only could Ella play softball, or football, or run a Fortune 500 company or innovate a new technology, but Being President would become a Viable Career Option.  A Clinton Presidency would be, for my daughter, a revolutionary fact.  Perhaps not quite so revolutionary as getting the vote, but certainly it would signal a seachange in the national female psyche.  It would be a vision, a game changer, something akin to Phillipe Petit’s dance in the air.

And in the wake of the Clinton run and Obama’s victory, it has proven true that my privileged, middle-class white children do see politics differently and more importantly than they did before.  Mostly, since the election, we’ve had a long, quiet spell & a busy summer (no posts here you may have noticed).

But last week, Finley announced, “When I grow up I want to work for the President. I want to work for Obama.” Ella pointed out,  of course, that this would not be possible, but that he could work for a different President, a career which he roundly embraced.  Ella, too, announced that she shares this ambition, and this weekend, they set up a White House in the back yard, and played President. This didn’t involve much of all except imagining that they inhabited that space.

And that imagination, for both my boy and my girl, can be the beginning. It’s the beginning of being involved, of believing that democracy matters, of understanding a wide range of public service.

But most of all, it’s the beginning of possibility.

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

I’ve been quiet here partly because we’ve been gone for much of the summer, but also because we’ve been slowly figuring out what community service and civic life mean for our young kids now that the immediate energy and opportunity of the election has passed. These are sobering times, and getting involved certainly requires more effort. But the process of educating young children is always embedded in the family, and for the very youngest, I’ve been reminded that it can be embedded in play.

Last year we discovered the excellent picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein.  It’s a biography of Phillipe Petit, which captures all the drama and poetry of his career and its culminating walk between the towers of the World Trade Center.  My children were both captivated by it, especially Finn, who spent one morning reconstructing a cardboard model  of the site.



We also made the decision to show them both Man on Wire, which Ella astutely realized “was just like detective movie” in the first minutes.  And indeed, it is, and they were both mesmerized by the film and its images. (There is definitely one questionable, celebratory naked scene at the end, but it passed right by them while we held our breath.)   But  because of its context and visual imagery, the film is also for the astute adult observer, not simply an homage to the poetry and majesty of Petit’s accomplishment, but a requiem for the Towers and those who perished there.   My children didn’t realize this exactly, of course, but they did have a sense, watching it,  that something had once been that no longer was.

The book, written post September 11,  states simply that the Towers no longer exist.  When we read it to Finn, we explained exactly why.  The story offered me another opportunity to discuss the tragedy, and terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with Ella.   Everyone in my family lost a friend or a colleague or a childhood acquaintance in the Towers, so the tragedy is immediate and personal for us.

And so, when we visited the east coast this summer, we drove by the Pit, as some New Yorkers call the site of Ground Zero, on our way to Brooklyn, and they both got to see the tremendous scale of the event.  We didn’t stop, but it was sad and satisfying that they got to see something of the reality of it, and that they could begin to understand some of its hard significance.  It’s a lot for a small child, I know.  It’s a lot for me, and for all of us. But it is as much a part of their world as endangered panda bears and polluted lakes, and this book, and that movie, and the actual site are ways that begin to make it real and meaningful.  They are ways slowly to begin the hard and difficult discussion about what happened and why and where we are now and what might come next.