The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

PBB in SF Bay Area just days away

Secular parents in the San Francisco Bay Area: Join me THIS SATURDAY, February 25, 1:00-4:30pm for the Parenting Beyond Belief Workshop at Prometheus CrossFit in Mountain View. This will be my only Northern California parenting workshop this year, and I promise to be handsome and fascinating.

Learn more about the workshop and register here!

The easy ones and the hard ones

Preparing a talk on critical thinking and ethics reminded me of this post from three years ago.

linky“Omigosh. Some of these things are soooo easy, but this one is totally hard.”

“What things?”

“These Question Book questions. Some are just so easy they’re dumb.”

Delaney [then 7] has been reading Gregory Stock’s The Kids’ Book of Questions on and off for a few weeks now. Two hundred sixty-eight questions to ponder. And she’s right — some are so easy they’re dumb.

“Like this, listen,” she said. “Number 110: ‘If it would save the lives of ten kids in another country, would you be willing to have really bad acne for a year?’ That’s so dumb!”

“So what’s your answer, then?”

“Of course I would do it. I mean, it’s their lives, Dad.” She paused, crinkled her brow. “What’s acne?”

“Pimples.”

“WHAT?! That’s even stupider. I thought it was a bad sickness or something. Who would let ten kids die just to not have pimples?!”

I thought back to junior high school, trying to recall how many strangers I’d have whacked in exchange for clear skin, and decided her question was rhetorical.

“But this one is really hard. Listen — Number 50: ‘If everyone in your class but you would be killed unless you sacrificed your own life, would you save everyone else or save yourself?'”

Long pause.

“I don’t know! That’s soooo hard! I really love to be alive. But so do they!”

She seemed genuinely tormented by the dilemma. It’s precisely the sacrifice that makes the Christ story so compelling. The willing sacrifice of one’s own life is just so hard to fathom. Until you add the heavenly out, at which point I suppose Christs and hijackers alike gain a decided advantage in nerve.

Laney, having no such advantage, prefers to live.

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Squinting in hindsight

Delaney (10) is on an awesome winning streak with fantastic teachers all the way back to preschool. Her current one has her all lit up about the American Revolution, and she gets off the bus every day and regales me (in the fluent Lightspeedese of an excited fourth grader) with the implications of the Intolerable Acts or Paul Revere’s provocative engraving of Occupy Boston the Boston Massacre. (That’s Revere’s propaganda piece to the left.)

So I wasn’t surprised when she came home last week with news that Ms. Monsour had asked the kids a really good question: If you were alive in the Revolution, would you have been a Patriot, a Loyalist, or a neutral?

The question comes from way up in the nosebleed section of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s a higher-order question, one with ten times more educational potential per square inch than the leading brand. And in this case, it’s one with an obvious answer, which is not to say an accurate one: I’d have been a Patriot, of course, how dare you.

If Mrs. Burks asked me the same question when I was in fourth grade — and maybe she did, I don’t remember — I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d have said. I’d have sided with the revolutionaries. They were after all the good guys. And I wouldn’t have been a nasty slaveholder in the 1850s, I’d have helped run the Underground Railroad, duh. I certainly wouldn’t have sat silent during the Nazi atrocities in the Third Reich either. I’d have had ten Anne Franks in my attic. And so on.

The moment hindsight assigns the white and black hats, we “know” which side we’d have been on with such confidence that we rarely even think to pose the question. “Would I have been for or against Hitler? WTF??!”

This doesn’t mean slavery and genocide were somehow “okay” in the context of another time. But the question of what “I” would have done and believed as a product of that time is a different one. “I” can’t be plucked from the here and now and inserted into some long-ago there and then in any meaningful way. My values and convictions flow from my knowledge and experience, two things that would have been entirely different then. It’s a tenfold version of “If I could be 18 again, knowing what I know now…” A nice game, but in the end not all that enlightening.

“So what’d you say?”

“I was the only one who said I’d be a Loyalist. Everybody else said they’d be Patriots.”

“Ooh, interesting. Why would you have been a Loyalist?”

“Well not because I think they were right,” she said. “But the British army and navy were SO much bigger, and they had all these resources, and the colonists just had a little. I probably would have wanted to be on the winning side, and it would have looked like the colonists were going to lose. I might have also thought the colonists were like terrorists fighting against my government, you know? So yeah, I would have probably been a Loyalist.”

Raymond Taylor, my 7th grade history teacher, was the first to help me to see history as something other than a parade of inevitabilities — helping me squint my 20/20 hindsight into a blur until I felt what it must have been like to dump that tea in Boston Harbor or sign that Declaration or march against Hitler or sit at a segregated lunch counter without the benefit of a known outcome. History suddenly becomes a whole different animal, pulsing with uncertainty and populated with scriptless actors.

I’d like to think I’d have always been on the side of the now-bloody-obvious, but I doubt that. I’ve played a game with my kids for years, imagining how future generations might facepalm at us: “Just imagine, Mergadink-5,” says the mother to her 24th century child. “People in the 21st century kept animals in their homes as pets, gave them demeaning names like Goober and Mister Tickles, and walked them on leashes. And children weren’t even allowed to work! Their parents gave them money in little bits called ‘allowances.'” And so on.

That game is a nice little slice of humble pie to complicate our smug hindsights, and my kids love to generate their own examples. It’s hard to be too cocksure about your position in the past when you’re not entirely sure you’ve got the present right.