Friday, February 02, 2007

A little discomfort, if you please

I am intrigued by the idea that teaching our children (and ourselves) to be comfortable with discomfort could be one of the foundations for an anti-racist life ahead. This came up in one of Susan's posts and before that I was already thinking along the same lines. I think this comfort with discomfort, which can then translate into a willingness to continue with important but difficult grapplings, is really key to helping dismantle the "isms" in our lives. Instilling the patience and desire in our children to stick with people and issues even when things get hard for the greater good is so important.

In our society, the touted values - instant gratification, individualism, and a care-free existence, contradict the values key to building a more just and equitable society. It strikes me that in order to transform our society and ourselves, we must focus on goals diametrically opposed to what we are taught matters. (I know I'm generalizing. But I'm just talking about what I perceive to be mainstream U.S. values - i.e. middle class Anglo/Protestant values.) The main thing is to learn to trust others more and to build stronger ties with our neighbors and community, even our friends. In general as a society, we must learn deep empathy and accept that difficult issues we may never stop grappling with are a part of life and that it is healthy, even exciting sometimes, to have to wrestle with things. All of this contradicts what mainstream media and socialization into the mainstream teaches us.

Buy, don't grapple

Advertising (including product placement in movies and TV shows) has a lot to do with how we develop emotionally as Americans. Advertisers bombard us with images of the ideal life - carefree and happy-go-lucky. And this lifestyle is supposed to be something we're entitled to; our prerogative, which adds another dimension to the emotional equation. Of course, corporations want us to look to their products for solutions. Products, we are taught, can fix any kind of problem for us instantly, whether it be a stain on a shirt, a dirty window, or social anxiety. So, if there is an item or service we can buy or dream of buying, why do the work ourselves? At the same time, we are made to feel more insecure by the advertising we see. We question our looks, our lifestyles, tastes... And all this makes us the perfect consumers, because our insecurities and emotional needs trap us in a web of buying or dreaming of buying. I, for example, though I'm not very materialistic, do find a strange sense of false hope and excitement in buying something once in a while, whether it's new or used or useful or not. I am definitely guilty of projecting hopes and dreams onto items I buy sometimes. And I am conscious of this and am trying to figure out how to become less attached to things and more deeply trusting of people.

But my point is that in order to become better citizens and human beings, we must stop being the perfect consumers, precisely because consumerism encourages values such as individualism, selfishness, a sense of entitlement, and discourages trust in our own capabilities and closeness with others, two of the many makings of a caring, just society.

So, how do we do this? The messages are so pervasive that it's hard to keep them from colonizing our minds, but I try. I want to model strong friendships and trust in others more. Many of us live pretty isolated lives filled with work and so it's hard to get enough contact time with friends and family. That feels very unnatural to me. But I'm trying to be more present with my friends literally and figuratively, so my son sees that.

But as far as advertising, at my house, we have packed up our TV and put it in the basement. We listen to very little radio that plays ads. We don't buy toys or clothing which display huge brand names or messages that perpetuate inequalities or insecurities, etc. My family tends to de-emphasize the materialistic. Most everything we own, including furniture, is found, hand-me-down, or used. I don't mean to preach. I'm just brainstorming here. I'm sure the pressure to buy stuff and watch TV will increase as my child grows older and becomes aware of advertising and who has what. And then I will have a harder time shutting out "the messages," so I will have to teach him to be critical of the media.

The comfort of the right answers

There is an interesting article I read a while back that has stayed with me. The article is not directly related to the topic at hand, but it has some excellent food for thought relevant to anti-racist parenting.

In her piece Standardized Tests: A Clear and Pleasant Danger, published in Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change, Dr. Terri Meier, professor at Wheelock College specializing in cross-cultural communication and language development, discusses language socialization among different groups of children. She cites studies which have revealed some fascinating patterns:

Numerous studies of language socialization in white middle-class communities indicate that the largest percentage of questions addressed to preschoolers by mothers and other primary caregivers consists of simply structured questions to which the questioner already has the answer (e.g., "How many eyes do you have?"; "What color is this dolly's dress?"; How many fingers is mommy holding up?"). The purpose of such questions is not for the questioner to gain information, but for the child to display information, for which she is typically rewarded with extensive verbal and non-verbal praise.

When reading stories to preschool children, many middle-class parents often intersperse their reading with questions that focus the child's attention on noting and recalling specific details of the text.

. . . Research indicates that many working-class and minority children come to school with very different values and assumptions about what constitutes meaningful communication. In a 1983 study, Shirley Brice Heath found that in the working-class black community where she spent eleven years studying language socialization, children were almost never asked questions to which the adult or older child already knew the answer. According to Heath's data, the most prevalent type of question addressed to preschoolers in this community was the "analogy question," calling for an open-ended response drawn from the child's experience (e.g., "What do you think you are?" to a child crawling under the furniture). Other frequently asked questions were "story starters" (e.g., "Did you see Maggies' dog yesterday?") and accusations (e.g., "What's that all over your face?"). But very seldom were they asked test-type questions, the assumption being, why would you ask someone something you already know the answer to?

Reading was also often perceived differently, according to Heath. It tended to be a social event in which listeners, young and old, were free to throw in comments or to elaborate on some connection with their personal experience, rather than a context for testing children's reading comprehension or teaching appropriate school behaviors. People in this community were admired for their ability to tell a good story, draw insightful analogies, or present an interesting and unique point of view, rather than for their ability to display information or show off knowledge for its own sake.

How does this tie into anti-racist parenting? The middle-class emphasis on knowing and displaying the knowledge of right answers strikes me as directly related to the comfort/discomfort question. If right answers are so important and we're praised as children (at home or IN SCHOOL) for regurgitating them... the faster the better, this is the pattern we may learn. We want to do good, be good, be accepted, so we learn this style of communication and the values accompanying it. But what happens in situations when there are no right answers or when we have to work as a community to come up with answers together instead of racing to be the first one = the winner? What happens when there is no one to praise us? Catch my drift? Maybe anti-racist parenting extends even to this - the values we communicate on a daily basis to our children in the way we read with them or through the types of questions we ask. What do you think?


Emptyman said...

Your comment on "discomfort" could have come from the sermon at most evangelical churches. Funny how these connections keep coming up.

I agree that advertising messages cause uncritical consumers to become too emotionally committed to material things. But eliminating television entirely seems to be an over-reaction, especially if the child is school-aged or older. Not all valuable cultural legacy comes in written form. The secret is, I suppose, to teach your children to be skeptical of the advertising message.

t.t. said...

Thanks for chiming in, Emptyman. Funny, that you compare my post to a sermon in an evangelical church. I wonder what you meant by that as I am not even a Christian and am not very familiar with evangelican services.

Also, you say that the secret is to teach your children to be skeptical of the advertising message. That's why in the above post I said, "I'm sure the pressure to buy stuff and watch TV will increase as my child grows older and becomes aware of advertising and who has what. And then I will have a harder time shutting out 'the messages', so I will have to teach him to be critical of the media."

Maybe turning off the TV is a drastic step, but it's amazing how much time and mind space this has freed up in my life.

In my post I'm not just talking about the power advertising has over uncritical consumers, which little children such as mine still are. Though I wonder, isn't there a grain in my writing that even you, the critical consumer I assume you are, could identify with? I admitted some of my struggles with all this. Have you read Daniel Harris' Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism? I totally agree with him when he says, "If there is a conspiracy, we ourselves are its tacticians, as well as its beneficiaries. The aesthetics of consumerism are not foisted upon us; they emerge out of a rich and imaginiative collaboration between the forces of capitalism and our own fears and desires. . . The advertiser has simply taken up residence in the well-appointed quarters we have so obligingly prepared for him in our collective aesthetic unconscious."

And, don't you think that this, also by Harris, is true: "In a world sensitized to the distastefulness of selling, one in which even the most gullible people recognize how commercial our culture has become, manufacturers have learned to incorporate this distrust into their marketing techniques. They have built into consumerism symbolic forms of resistance to it, ineffectual strategies of rebellion that flatter the consumer with the belief that, far from being a marketing guinea pig, at the mercy of Madison Avenue, he is a courageous loner, a wacky oddball immune to the indoctrination of advertising"?

And yes, not all valuable cultural legacy comes in written form. There is so much out there, other than TV, that I appreciate - community radio, podcasts, movies, documentaries, oral history, art, music...

cloudscome said...

Interesting post. I have put the TV up in the attic for periods of time. Right now it is back in the living room but I don't turn it on much. The boys get about an hour a day of videos or pbs. Once they get to school age they are out of the social circles if they don't know who spongebob is. It is really the advertising that I want to shield them from.

I am interested in the different questioning patterns you mentioned. I think you are onto something there... It is a shame schools can't incorporate both (and other) styles of questioning/communicating/learning. There is a lot of creativity, humor, insight and collaboration in the working-class model as it is described here.

Susan said...

You know, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of mine - years ago - before I had Luca. My friend, Ricardo, has two children. They will be the fourth generation of artists/revolutionaries in his family - his parents and grandparents were Puerto Rican independence fighters, Jewish communists, and more. They have a multigenerational commitment to compassionate radical work. This means that they seem to belie the cliche that the kids of radical parents vote Republican. When I asked Ricardo to what he attributed this, he said that he was never taught nor does he teach his children WHAT to think but only TO think. I notice that I am very careful with Luca - I never tell her that President Bush is bad or put my politics on her - instead, I talk about policies and decisions and ask her to make her own choices. AND she is being raised with and exposed to very conscious values about war, etc, but most of our conversations are discursive rather than teacherly about this. I feel like learning how to be a critical creative thinker is the tool that is directly linked to a lifetime of antiracist work.