Saturday, January 23, 2010

Humane Parenting, Lesson One

Now that I am done (DONE!) with my thesis, I am enjoying the opportunity to read for pleasure - though, strangely, my "pleasure" reading looks an awful lot like my "school" reading. Anyway, right now I am working through Education and the Significance of Life by J. Krishnamurti (nice, light reading, kind of like a Harlequin romance novel - NOT!), and I am loving it. It's short and surprisingly easy to read, and chock full of profound nuggets of wisdom.

One of the ideas that really caught my eye is this: "Fear perverts intelligence and is one of the causes of self-centered action." When I read this, I began thinking about Lawrence Kohlberg and the stages of moral development, and the idea that we cannot meet our higher needs for connection and development if our most basic needs, such as those for food, water, shelter and safety, are not met.

I began thinking about some of the more self-centered people I know. (Forgive the judgemental-sounding term, maybe ego-attached people would be better. Or maybe not.) I often find that these people are not "bad" or unkind people, it's just that their first reaction to situations is often to consider the impact on themselves. I began to consider the fact that this could be a reaction to some deep-seated fear: namely, the fear that if they don't look out for themselves, if they don't ensure that their needs are met, then no one else will. They don't trust the world to provide for them.

And I began thinking that, for all the consideration I've been giving to finding ways to teach children about diversity, and responsibility, and creativity, and all those things, maybe the first thing we should consider as humane parents is what I included last in my thesis: Respectful Parenting. Perhaps none of the teaching and lecturing and modelling will do any good if our children do not feel safe enough in the world to be able to turn their attention to the needs of others. Perhaps we need to, first and foremost, ensure that our children have confidence that they are loved and cared for in this world, no matter what, and know that compassion will grow from there.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

International Aid

News of the devastating earthquake in Haiti is all over the airwaves, newspapers and Internet. Millions of people are suffering unspeakably due to lack of food, drinkable water, basic services, or the loss of a loved one(s). Aid organizations are mobilizing around the globe, and donations are pouring in.

My question is this: why is it that Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world and THE poorest in the western hemisphere, all of a sudden deserves the world's attention on Tuesday when it didn't deserve the attention on Monday? We should always help a neighbor in crisis, but Haiti has been in crisis for a long time.

Some of the reports that I've read argue that much of the devastation in the city of Port au Prince could have been avoided had the buildings there been built properly. However, they were not built well because there wasn't enough money to do the job right, or if there was money it went to corrupt government officials instead of to materials and labor. I cannot confirm or deny the accuracy of these reports not being a contractor nor having ever been to Haiti, but certainly that country's history suggests that this report is likely true. Haiti has been ruled by one militaristic despot after another for the past several centuries, and is isolated from the world by trade embargoes that do not seem to have a warming effect on the country's totalitarian leaders.

The pain and suffering the Haitian people are enduring right now is heartbreaking. I hope that many survivors are found and are given treatment, and that basic services are restored quickly. I am glad that so many people are finally having their eyes opened to the everyday living conditions of many of the people in Haiti, and that if anything good can come of this horrible tragedy it is that people are mobilized to help, not just in the short-term, but over time to improve the lives of these poor and downtrodden people.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Boys and Girls

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a Reggio Emilia roundtable at my daughter's school. This is a monthly event put on by the New Jersey Educators Exploring the Practice of Reggio Emilia and is held at a different location each month. They also organize trips to Italy to visit the schools where it all began - I'll add that to my To-Do list.

Anyway, yesterday's discussion was about how to manage long-term projects in the classroom, and one of the issues that came up was that of how boys and girls tend to segregate themselves at the younger ages, and how they tend to do things differently from each other. This is something that has become increasingly interesting to me as my kids have become older and I am seeing the differences between my son and daughter emerge. I'm sure many of the differences between them are particular to them as individuals, but there are also some highly stereotypical gender differences that are appearing and becoming stronger. My daughter is all about pink and sparkles and drama, and my son is obsessed with trucks and sports. Now, I am in no way a pink sparkles person, and while my husband is definitely a sports guy, cars and machines are of no interest to him whatsoever, so whatever proclivities my kids are showing in these areas are their own.

One of Bess' teachers used the opportunity to express her concern over the boys' attraction to guns, and her uncertainty about how to handle it. In striving for a child-led learning environment, she wondered, what do you do if the children want to do a project that the teacher does not want to do? Again, as a humane educator, this is something that is very interesting to me and something that I am asked about often - at nearly every talk I give, I am asked "Humane Parenting, blah blah blah - what do I do about my son's need to turn sticks, blocks, and slices of bread into a lethal weapon?" The ubiquity of the question, both in my reading and in my personal experience, leads me to this conclusion: boys' attraction to gun play is archetypal, and it is gender-specific. It is a way of dealing with questions of gender identity, of power and weakness, and of persuasion.

I know this may sound strange coming from a militant feminist such as myself, but I am going to say it anyway. Boys and girls are different from each other. That's not to say that some boys don't do things that we typically consider feminine, and certainly not to say that girls can't do or be anything they want to. However, it is the height of hubris to think that millennia of natural selection, which designed female humans to serve different functions than male humans in terms of the survival of the species, no longer apply to humans. We may consider ourselves to be the most evolved of all animals, but we're still animals.

Female humans are designed to nurture new and growing life. Male humans are designed, from a physical, psychological, and social perspective, to do something different. They are better equipped to hunt game (a woman with a sometimes noisy and often cumbersome infant tied to her breast or a tantruming toddler hanging on her leg is not likely to have much success sneaking up on a gazelle) and to do other physical tasks. While some modern societies are increasingly expecting men to do some of the nurturing, and many of the physical tasks that used to be required for our species' survival are becoming obsolete, that does not necessarily change the way we are wired.

War is not inevitable, and I am in no way advocating violence as an acceptable conflict resolution strategy. I am a hard-core pacifist all the way. However, I do believe that it is inevitable - healthy, even - that young boys will be driven to explore their physicality and to express some of their aggressive feelings in a more physical way than many girls do, for whatever reason (biological, social, whatever - I don't pretend to know the answer to that one). I believe that by teaching our sons about the realities of violence, and giving them safe and constructive outlets for their curiosity about violence, we will raise them to be more kind, compassionate, and nurturing men.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Teaching Empathy - Mission Impossible???

Lisa Belkin posted on her Motherlode blog the question, Can You Teach Empathy to Children? As someone who has spent the better half of the past five years trying to do just that, and the better half of the past year also writing about how to do just that, my answer is, "I sure hope so!" I see her point, but I think the question is better phrased this way: Can You Teach Empathy to Children by Requiring them to do Service Projects? To that, I think my answer would be "Not really."

In theory, service requirements are good, I guess. Get children out there, in the real world, and maybe they'll learn a bit about how good they really have it while making a positive contribution to their communities. The problem is, I think it often loses something in the translation. They see service learning as another thing to add to college applications, and don't really commit themselves to the cause. Instead of immersing themselves in a cause they really believe in, they often look for the project requiring the least commitment and effort they can get away with. The fact of the matter is that kids who would get something out of it would do it anyway, and the ones who wouldn't, well, I think the non-profit sector is often better off without them.

But as for the question of whether we can teach empathy to children, now that's something altogether different. Research shows that by modeling empathy and respect for self and others, by practicing autonomy-supportive parenting, by nurturing creativity and critical thinking among our children, they are more likely to be empathetic and to reach high levels of moral functioning. But it's not a six hour investment, please sign my time log and thank you very much. It's a lifelong investment that we, as parents, begin to make from the moment our children are born by treating them with empathy, respect and love.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Two Months? Really?!?!?!

Has it really been that long since I've been here? Shame on me!

Well, it's not like I've been sitting around eating bon-bons on the couch. Mostly, I've had my head down, plowing towards the finish line that is my Master of Education degree. I am proud and relieved to say that my Independent Learning Project is complete, all 100 pages and 30,000 words of it, and now I - Kelly Coyle DiNorcia, M.Ed. - am ready to re-commit myself to everything else that I've been neglecting.

The beginning of a new year is just the time to be doing that, right? New Year's Resolutions and all that jazz? At our house, we've taken a different path towards self-improvement. John got the family a Vision Board that we've hung in the dining room, with pen and paper nearby for whenever the inspiration strikes us. When something comes up that requires some work, personal development, or commitment, we manifest it in the physical Universe by writing our intention on a slip of paper and putting it in the board. I think I'm the only one who has used it so far, but that's okay. So far, I have set my intention to be more patient with my children (which I'm hoping will be a bit easier now that I don't have this huge deadline looming over my head), to commit myself to a regular spiritual practice, and to develop my ILP into a book. I also plan to recommit myself to blogging, because I love the opportunity to explore my thoughts, send them out into the Universe, and get feedback. I hope you'll join me!