Who is Santa?

Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?

Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.

(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)

What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.

Continue reading “Who is Santa?”

Free meals from the nanny state

One of the first things the Cameron-Clegg government did when it came into power in 2010 was to announce the revocation of child benefit from families where one earner earned above £42,000 p.a. (the threshold for the 40% marginal tax bracket). They’ve held to this — and the implicit penalty for single-income families — though they have sensibly replaced the sharp cutoff, which would have caused some people to actually lose money if they got a salary raise, by a more gradual cutoff between £50,000 and £60,000. This was superficially sensible — in times of austerity, why should wealthy parents be getting a government handout? — although most developed countries have some sort of tax credit for children, reflecting a sense that some of the cost of taking care of children should be seen as public costs. In the US this comes in the form of an income deduction, so that high-income parents who pay more tax also get a larger subsidy, so the old UK system was less biased toward subsidising wealthy parents. For that matter, the same is true of the credit for childcare expenses in the UK, which comes in the form of paying expenses with pretax income, effectively giving a larger subsidy to wealthier parents. This has been slightly modified, but it still favours the wealthy.

Anyway, so far so consistent. But now the government has announced that they want to spend more money on children, to provide free school lunches to all children up to age 7. (Poor children already get free lunches, and there is also free fruit for children up to age 7.) The rhetoric around it is the government claim that parents don’t know how to pack appropriately nutritious lunches for their children. So the government has taken away a subsidy that parents could have spent in any way the choose — including nutritious lunches — and replaced it with a subsidy to the companies that have not been very successful at convincing children to eat their lunches voluntarily. And this from the party that attacks Labour as the party of the “nanny state”. If I had a nanny who insisted they had better ideas than I of what my children should eat, I would fire them.

It’s not entirely the Conservatives’ fault. This seems to have been some sort of coalition bargain to gain Liberal Democrat support for their even more pointless priority of a tax subsidy for married couples (whether or not they have children).

Richard Dawkins says child molestation is no longer acceptable

But it’s still not as bad as Catholicism.

Regular readers of this blog are already aware that Richard Dawkins thinks that, among the crimes perpetrated upon children by Catholic priests, sexual molestation is less bad than teaching religion. (The quote is here.) Now he has given an interview to the Times magazine (reported by Katie McDonough here) in which he describes a schoolteacher who “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”, and says this “mild touching up” and “mild pedophilia” is something he “can’t find it in me to condemn… by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” Being an expert on something or other, Dawkins opines that “I don’t think he did any of us any harm.”

Some of those school masters presumably also taught religion, but it’s sadly too late (by several centuries) to bring them to justice for that crime.

I find myself wondering why this man keeps coming back to publicly trivialising child abuse. Maybe the Bible can provide some insight.

Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision

Another unusual juxtaposition. This one was inspired by a thought-provoking rant by Alison Benedikt at Slate, titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”. It’s a commendably forthright statement of an extreme position in an argument in which all sides usually beat wildly around every possible bush. (It’s not the most extreme possible position, which I take to be the position of the makers of this film. Benedikt specifically opposes even banning private schools.)

I have some sympathy for her argument, which can basically be summarised (I hope I’m doing it justice; the article is definitely worth reading in full) in two major points:

  1. Wealthy and well-educated parents have an obligation to all children, not just to their own. Keeping their children in state schools will induce them to apply their power and learning to improve those schools for everyone.
  2. As regards your own children, they’ll be all right even in a crappy school. You’ll make up for the deficits at home. And the crappy public school will teach them lessons about society and citizenship that they can’t get anywhere else.

I don’t think either of these statements are entirely wrong. But in arguing for point 2, Benedikt writes

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer... I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all…

Is the argument here that the economic game (or, at least, journalism) in America is so badly rigged, that a child of middle-class parents doesn’t actually need an education to get a decent job as a journalist. All she needs is a college degree, and there are plenty of institutions who will happy to hand her one, despite the fact that she arrived woefully unprepared, and left having learned almost nothing. Or is she exaggerating? Or is she an exceptional autodidact, whose experience doesn’t necessarily translate well to the vast majority of other children. Continue reading “Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision”

Moral panic panic: How much ridicule are the lives of 4500 children a year worth?

As though it need to defend its title as the world’s leading provider of smug, The New Republic has published a piece by NY Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer (MO hereafter) about how irrational everyone is. This disturbs him, because when he was growing up, when all was right with the world, “It was taken for granted in my house… that only right-wingers were mad enough to oppose scientifically tested public-health measures.” He describes what he calls “The New Puritanism”, starting from opposition to water fluoridation in Portland (which doesn’t look like an archetypically puritanical cause to the untrained eye), and moving on to Kids Today:

At a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

Now, this could be dismissed as a dreary attempt to channel PJ O’Rourke, or some comparable swaggering humourist, with a cookie-cutter tall tale, but it’s stuffed with all kinds of weird. He hallucinates “whispers all around” about the organic status of the veggie dip, and yet he insists it is the others whose mental stability is in doubt. With that in mind, one might suspect that the father was not “panicking”, but was simply asking where his daughter could wash her hands before eating, which was certainly the custom when I was a child, though perhaps not in Oppenheimer’s antediluvian childhood.

He cites The Crucible, presumably both as a touchstone of left-wing right-thinking and as a marker of his own cultural sophistication, but has clearly never read or seen it. While “witchcraft” are often taken as a metonym for fear of moral contamination, Miller’s play dramatizes political manipulation of mob psychology.

But putting aside MO’s paranoid-pretentious MO, I am fascinated by his comments

When I was a child, birthday parties involved cake, ice cream, and Chuck E. Cheese pizza, or pizza-like substance; and trips to the grandparents’ house involved root-beer floats and late-night viewings of Benny Hill with my grandfather, who liked the T&A humor. I never washed my hands before I ate. And I turned out splendidly.

So, we started with fluoridation of water, which is a “scientifically tested public-health measure” that only a crazy person could oppose, but washing hands before eating — at a “barn-like space” where, presumably, it is not absurd to suppose the children may have been exposed to animal feces — is the kind of over-the-top fear of moral contamination (not just bacterial contamination) that invites mockery.

Now, MO’s aforementioned paranoid delusions may cause one to question his splendid self-appraisal, but he is certainly not alone in trumpeting the formulation “When I was a child we all did X, and we all turned out alright,” where X is some dangerous or unedifying activity that educated middle-class parents today try to limit or eliminate. An extreme version is this text that got forwarded to me a few years back:

To Those of Us Born 1930 – 1979

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with bright colored lead-base paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps not helmets on our heads. As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes. Riding in the back of a pick- up truck on a warm day was always a special treat. We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died from this. We ate cupcakes made with Lard, white bread, real butter and bacon. We drank FLAV-OR- AID made with real white sugar…. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping pong paddles, or just a bare hand and no one would call child services to report abuse…

You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good. While you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave and lucky their parents were. Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn’t it?

The implication is that the kids are all softies and the parents are anxious killjoys. I heard a stand-up comedian a few years back complaining about bicycle helmets: “When I was a kid we all fell off our bikes. We didn’t fall on our heads. If we did, no one died. Have kids’ heads gotten softer?”

Except, of course, that it’s not true that no one died. This is a good example of how people deal with small risks: Some are treated as zero, others are exaggerated. And part of the phenomenon (though I’ve never seen anyone analyse this process in detail) is that people fixate on whatever the current largest risks are, and often succeed in pushing them down. At that point, a new danger pops up that was always there, but masked by a larger risk, and so psychologically zeroed out. Thus, when I was growing up, in the 1970s, public health officials weren’t very concerned with children’s head injuries from bicycle accidents because there were far more of them from automobile accidents in the absence of seat belts, not to mention all the poisonings from medications without child-resistant packaging. If the risk of dying

To put some numbers on it: In the US, in 1998, about 6500 children under the age of 15 died in accidents. In 1981 (the earliest year whose statistics I have easily available at the moment) the number was 9000. In that time, the population under 15 increased from 49 to 60 million. In other words, if the society had held onto its habits of eschewing bicycle helmets, leaving the medications out, riding in the back of a pickup truck and all the rest, we’d have more than 4500 extra dead children a year. How awesome would that be?

That’s not to say that all concerns about health and nutrition and environment are reasonable — or that, even if they are reasonable, that the actions one would take to prevent or mitigate harm would not impose considerable costs, even such that they might be judged to outweigh the benefits. But instead of mockery and “I turned out alright” populism, we need to be clear on what the benefits are: 4500 fewer children being buried every year. And that’s ignoring the costs of nonlethal sickness and injury, the extra miscarriages and stillbirths, and the long-term damage to lungs and other organs that we now know were caused by all those smoking and drinking parents.

Update: The comedian I was thinking of was a woman, but here’s another comedian making fun of bicycle helmets for emasculating our children; in this version, he’s not asking why heads got softer, but why the pavement is harder. Same joke.

Reprobationist childrearing

This article about the differences between parental attitudes and obsessions in the US from those in other western nations (in this case, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Spain) reminded me of my own perplexity about the general culture of childrearing among ambitious middle-class Americans. (When I say Americans, I really mean Anglo-Americans. I think the Americans would have seemed less of an outlier if the original study had included Canadian or British parents.) In particular, why are parents in these countries (and their governments — particularly in the UK) so concerned with training their children in age-inappropriate skills — reading at 4, playing violin at 3 — and so keen to find evidence that their children are prodigies? This despite the clear evidence of child development research that early training in reading is largely counterproductive.

The article points out that the Anglo-American parents are uniquely concerned with convincing themselves (and reassuring their friends) that their children are “intelligent”. Why? Well, in our increasingly winner-take-all societies, there’s obviously a lot of anxiety for the future status of ones children: Modest success no longer seems feasible, so one is left straining to heave ones children into the ranks of the winners, lest they sink into the vast mob of losers. Despite all the evidence that the main criterion for success is having successful parents, it seems to me that there’s been an enormous amount of propaganda in recent decades for the notion that intelligence determines all, and that intelligence is innate.

This is where reprobationism comes in, the Calvinist doctrine that God has chosen the elect, those who ultimately will be saved, from the beginning of time, and there is nothing a damned goat can do, neither faith nor good works, to ascend to the saved sheep. Continue reading “Reprobationist childrearing”

Drinking in the park

Codornices_Park_Berkeley chavez_park

 

We’ve been spending a month back in our old hometown of Berkeley, California. Of course, there are features that distinguish Berkeley from Oxford — the hills, the ocean, the redwoods and eucalyptus, the sunshine — but one that particularly struck me this time were the drinking fountains and toilet facilities in all the municipal parks. It’s not just Berkeley. The whole Bay Area, at least, seems to have these basic amenities in parks, as does Portland, Oregon, where we’ve also just been visiting. Some parks have clean, well-lighted, well-functioning toilets, while others have dingy, rudimentary sanitary facilities, but they all have something. Where I grew up, on Long Island, you also expected to have them, so I’ll make the inference that this is a general US thing. It’s not such a big deal if you’re not a parent or a child, but for children and their caretakers the opportunities to take in water and to let it out loom large. You can make a point of bringing water with you, but public displays of excretion are generally frowned upon in public, even if you do use your own containers, so the absence of lavatory facilities puts an effective time limit on playground visits. (Although, I’ve seen surprisingly large boys peeing on the grass at playgrounds in Oxford.) The only playgrounds in the UK that I’ve found to have toilets (I’m judgeing, admittedly, from a tiny sample, having been living there for less than two years) are the two in Regents’ Park in London, and these are exclusively for children, to the extent that each playground has a fulltime attendant who seems to have no duties other than to keep unauthorised age-groups out of the loo. Drinking fountains seem to be entirely unknown on the Sceptered Isle. Interestingly, there was recently a BBC report, on the suggestion of some children’s health advocates that providing water at the playgrounds would reduce the temptation to bring bottles of sugary drinks instead, a net plus for children’s health. A representative of the Local Government contended that it would be too costly to maintain the fountains, and that they would quickly be rendered unusable by vandals.

Now, it may be that the park officials were lying, and drinking fountains just seem like too much bother. But if they are to be believed, there is a huge gap between the US and the UK, either in the competence of municipal engineers and maintenance workers, or in the extent and intensity of antisocial behaviour. (The latter may really be the case. On my initial visit to England, for job interviews, I read in the local newspaper in Coventry that a new city playground had been taken over by feral youths, and that a father who had attempted to use the playground with his young child had been set upon and beaten.)

I’ve been in the UK long enough to be, at the first moment, shocked to observe in Berkeley signs, scattered around houses and apartment blocks, saying “No Solicitors” — much as I know that members of that occupation are not held in the highest esteem. For that matter, the trash bins stenciled “REFUSE ONLY” struck me for a moment as a polite variant of Nancy Reagan’s antidrug “Just say no” slogan.