Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

What’s The Perfect Age?

what is the perfect age,growing older is perfect, child is not an ungrown adult, baby is not an unformed child,

(Image:littlefantasy.deviantart.com)

There must be an ideal age floating around in our collective unconscious. This is such a fixed part of our media-driven culture that it’s hard to focus on it. But let’s give it a try. Allow a number come to you as you consider the following questions.

 What age do parents have in mind as they groom their kids for success?

 What age do kids have in mind as they imagine growing up?

 What age do older adults have in mind as they try to look and act younger?

I’m guessing it’s somewhere between 21 and 35, a time when we’re supposed to be brimming with youthful good looks and potential. Or maybe it’s not a number but just a fundamental belief that young adulthood is some sort of peak. Everything before that is preparation, everything after a slide toward old age.

Consciously or unconsciously, believing in this ideal age uses up a large part of all our other ages.

Consider how relentlessly the adult world prods children to get (or at least act) older. I know I’m somewhat guilty. I did my very best to savor the baby and toddler years but honestly, it’s hard. I found myself thinking that it would just get better after they finished teething, or could talk, or finally mastered toilet training. Even the most sainted in-the-moment parent will find him or herself bombarded with well-intended, future-oriented inquiries from others like, “Is she sleeping through the night?” and “Does he talk in sentences yet?” Such questions don’t stop as the child gets older, instead they have to do with bigger topics like academic abilities, athletic achievement, even popularity. Admiration is heaped on little ones who act much older than their developmental age, especially those children who exhibit social poise beyond their years, as if six-year-olds who act like six-year-olds are already somehow behind.

The pressure becomes more intense with each passing year. Parents often find themselves buying all sorts of educational toys and electronics, filling what could be free time with an ambitious schedule of practices and enrichment programs, and of course, pushing educational achievement. We’re told that these efforts “count” as if there’s a permanent record for eight-year-olds or 13-year-olds. There isn’t.

We’re assured that getting kids ahead in sports or hobbies will create passionate engagement, but research affirms that children build rewardingly intense interests when they are free to explore activities without adult pressure and interference

We’re led to believe that early academic accomplishment is the path to later success. Too often, that’s not true either. Success is closely linked to much more nuanced personal factors which develop quite nicely, research tells us, during free play, early participation in household tasks, conversation, and other experiences that foster self- control as well as an internal locus of control

Pushing our children toward adulthood takes us (and them) away from seeing that each of us are whole people exactly as we are. A baby is not an unformed child, a child is not an ungrown adult, an elder is not an age-ruined version of a once younger self.

Each of us is wonderfully unique. Of course we’re flawed and often foundering. But at the same time we are also brimming with emerging possibilities. We don’t have to paddle away from the moment we live in toward some ideal age. Doing so doesn’t just wish away right now, it also condemns every other age we live in to be something less.

Truly seeing our children and our elders as complete and whole, right now, means seeing ourselves that way too.

Dying My Hair Pink

Time to dye it?

Well, maybe. I haven’t seen anyone with pink hair in our small town, passing through or otherwise. But I’m contemplating it. Action may be necessary after what happened the other day.

I was out on the town engaging in a not-so-fascinating adventure: shopping for canning jar lids. I heard someone call out behind me from a distance. It was a stranger’s voice.

Using the logic bestowed on most members of our species, I assumed she was hailing some other person in the store so I ignored her. A moment later that stranger zoomed up behind me and said,

“Oh, I thought you were my mom.”

I’m a warm and motherly person, true. But I was not that stranger’s mother. Worse, she was in my approximate age group. Which means her own mother either looks like someone who gave birth as a kindergartener OR I look really old. (Particularly from behind.)

The stranger muttered something like, “Sorry, she has blonde hair too.”

Raised to be polite at all costs, I simply smiled at her (fist shake at Nice Girl upbringing). I’m not sure what an appropriate response might have been. Snort-enhanced laughter perhaps.

Wait, it gets worse.

I saw her join a woman one aisle over. I witnessed her call this woman “Mom.” Her mother was clearly 15 to 20 years old than I. And wearing tan stretch pants. With tennis shoes. And a quilted handbag.

Alas, I see I’ve fallen right into the basement of People Who Make Superficial Comments despite my regular attempts to be my Better Self.

I’m not mocking my elders, heck, I’m looking forward to being a rowdy old lady myself (which is how I’ll finally outgrow that Nice Girl upbringing). And I’m in no position to judge this woman’s appearance, especially after outing myself as a beauty flunky. As I tell my kids, everyone has a lovely gleaming soul. (Boy do they ever like to hit me back with that one when I get snarky.) But I’m finding the chronological escalator a bit too relentless.

When I was younger I took a constantly functional body and seemingly unlimited time ahead for granted. Now various parts creak and I realize I may not be able to fit all my enthusiasm into an ordinary lifespan. Sometimes I walk by the library windows, noticing a stumpy little woman in the reflection. Who is that woman, I wonder? Why is she carrying my purse? It takes a moment to sink in. That’s me. I may feel like a fourteen-year-old sneaking out of the house in a halter top, but instead I’m some lady wearing a scarf.

I was raised to use everything up. To smack the bottle till it was empty, then add a little water and shake it to get out the last lingering drops. I fully intend to do that with my life too. I’ll be using up every single bit. But if I get any more reminders about being old before my time, you may see me with pink hair. Or at least pink streaks. My quietly rebellious fourteen-year-old self would be proud. And the rowdy old lady I hope to become will understand.

Who We Are In A Crisis

how people act in disaster, survivor, true survivor behavior,

Versions of Survivor are watched all over the world. Forty-five countries have pitted contestants against the odds and shows are still filmed in Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Serbia, France, India, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. These series drop people in inhospitable places with minimal resources and ask them to cope successfully with unexpected challenges. It’s called “reality” television, although people in the real world face harder challenges every day.

Survivor shows have to be carefully structured with authoritarian rules and imposed competition. Otherwise contestants might resort to a very natural state. Not Lord of the Flies levels of cruelty and exclusion. No, something far worse for ratings. Cooperation.

In our non-reality TV lives we don’t live as separate entities battling for limited resources like wanna-be stars on an island bristling with cameras. We humans are wired to live in interdependent networks of people based on mutual support and compassion. Ninety-nine percent of humanity’s time on earth took place while we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, a time when we did not make war against each other. Anthropologists tell us that our species never would have survived without structuring our lives around sharing food and resources. This responsive caring is basic to who we are.

But somehow, after years of schooling where collaboration is redefined as cheating and recreation where play is turned into supervised competition, we adopt the idea that people are essentially selfish. Popular culture feeds this concept by elevating what’s superficial and materialistic, the better to shape us into perpetual consumers. Worse, we seem to think that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behavior when disaster strikes. According to a remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the opposite is true.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Disaster is often compounded by those who believe that human nature is selfish and cruel. In many cases this is the drumbeat sounded by the media and acted on by authorities. An analysis of disasters shows that official efforts to deal with disaster tend to focus on this aspect, suppressing the efforts of ordinary people to help one another while increasing militaristic control. This deprives people of helping one another and compounds the crisis.

Solnit says that the enlivening purpose that truly comes to the fore as a result of disasters tells us something about ourselves. “Each of us enlarges the world by idealistic passion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”

No one wants their blessedly ordinary lives wiped away by something unimaginably horrible. But it’s good to know, as Solnit says, who we are in a crisis gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

who we are in a crisis, humanity at its best in crisis,

This article first published in Wired

Use Your Body Up

While waiting with other members of our food co-op, someone who should think of other ways to start a conversation asked me a cuttingly critical question. I couldn’t even come up with an answer. That’s not like me. The best response I could muster was a fake laugh, as if to acknowledge that she must have been joking. (She wasn’t.) Her question seemed to be more curious than mean spirited but it forced me to think about how other people see me.

I thought I’d let Beauty go, along with her twin sister, Shame, long ago. Apparently not.

Some people look amazing all the time and at any age.  They know what clothes are in, what accessories to use, how to walk in fussy shoes gracefully. I’m impressed by them even if they seem like a species only faintly related to my comfortably slouchy self.

My presence makes people who are fashion backward and technologically inept feel much better about themselves. Clearly there are perks for hanging out with me. But apparently I give so little thought to my appearance that others might come away with the wrong impression. As my questioner put it, “You really leave the house looking like that? It must be easy when you don’t care.”

I do care.

I care about practically everything.

It’s exhausting.

I churn through my days trying, and sometimes succeeding, in doing what good I can do even if on the smallest scale. I talk to people and animals kindly, try to listen more than react,  and when I’m upset ask myself what darkness in myself lets me see shadows elsewhere. I write about natural learning and sustainability and peace. I support good causes and when times are hard, as they tend to be, I attach myself to hope like a barnacle.  This leaves very little energy for personal beautification. Heck, I rarely muster up the ooompf to keep weeds from towering over my vegetable plants so there’s no way I’ll get around to using a blow dryer or nail polish. I’ve never had the money let alone the inclination to have a manicure or pedicure, go to a spa, or have my hair styled. Well, I’ve never actually had a hair style….

When I came home I emailed a few close friends. I explained I’d been at the co-op, where we unload a truck and do other labors befitting less-than-great clothes, so I wore jeans and an old embroidered cotton shirt, my hair tied up and scuffed clogs on my feet. Because I’m no saint, I described the unflattering horizontal stripes of the shirt my questioner wore and how it was a so tight that her form-fitting pants pushed bulges of flesh through at least three of those stripes. (I try to be non-judgmental. That day I failed.) Then I asked the most important question. I’ve never steered that question to appearances before. My friends were all ridiculously nice when really, I was hoping to know if it’s time to start dying my hair or stop wearing my daughter’s hand-me-ups.

I know we broadcast something about our self-esteem via our appearance. Still, I’m not any more motivated than I was before that day at the co-op. I tweezed an eyebrow once, back when I was a teen. It hurt at the tears-in-my-eyes level. Won’t do that again. There’s no way I’ll bother wearing earrings or remembering hand lotion.

But I’ve realized an appearance-based truth from all of this. My body, like everyone else’s body, gets used up by life. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Years of changing diapers, gardening, canning, washing dishes, kneading dough, and taking walks no matter the weather have left me with creaking knees and hands that belong on someone much older. These are all ways of using my body for a purpose. When I stroll off the planet I want to know that I’ve enjoyed all the health, vigor, pleasure, and meaningful work my body can generate.

During yesterday’s walk the wind was intense and it started to rain. My face and hands were pelted with icy drops from a beautiful still-bright sky. I should have left the house with a scarf and gloves but I didn’t turn around. I walked right into the wind, letting it toss my hair as freely as it blew the last leaves off the trees. I felt completely alive.

enjoy your body not your looks, beyond beauty, beyond body perfection, die used up,

Aja-ann Trier /www.etsy.com/shop/SagittariusGallery

Bringing Kids Back To The Commons

involve kids in community, end age segregation, youth volunteers, business engagement with community, non-profit engagement with community, babies in nursing homes, daycare in nursing home,

Image by mollicles420.deviantart.com

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefitted enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and in better moods. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

I contacted a nursing home around the corner. The administrator was enthusiastic. Then I talked my Le Leche League friends into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. They were somewhat wary, but agreed to give it a try. Finally I got a local store to donate a carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. We were ready.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. Our babies grew into toddlers, the elders became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. We were awed. Something as simple as our presence, sitting on the carpet playing with our children, made a difference to people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefitted too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. And we noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace.

I’m still not sure why the very old and young are kept apart from life on the commons. Vital and engaged communities are made up of all ages. And children have fewer opportunities to take an active part than almost any adult. This shortchanges everyone.

Throughout history, the young of our species have learned by getting involved. Children long to take on real responsibilities and make useful contributions. This is how they advance in skill and maturity. That is, unless we restrict them to child-centered activities.

Young people are also drawn to seek mentors. They want to see how all sorts of people handle crises, start new enterprises, settle disputes, and stay in love. But today’s young people are largely kept from meaningful engagement with the wider community. They’re segregated by age not only in day care and school but also in most spheres of recreation, religion, and enrichment. When we keep kids from purposeful and interesting involvement with people of all ages they are pushed to find satisfaction in other (often less beneficial) ways. Meanwhile, our communities are deprived of their youthful energy and innovative outlook.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to reconnect children with our communities.

  1. Involve children by giving them real input and responsibility in civic groups, churches, co-ops, CSA’s, arts organizations, clubs, and neighborhood organizations. What about a child who is a dedicated rock enthusiast but the local lapidary club only accepts adult members? Propose a joint adult/child membership, giving that child the same (age factored) opportunities to build social capital in the club. A similar approach can be taken with organizations that refuse to take youthful volunteers. Offer to give your time in partnership with the child, a two-for-one volunteer bargain. Adult advocates are often necessary to pave the way for genuine youth involvement in many groups.
  2. Give children contact with the workaday world. They need to know people with a range of hobbies and careers. Seek out those who are passionate about chemistry, bird watching, farming, the Civil War, engineering, astronomy,  geology, blacksmithing, wood carving, well, you get the idea. Something vital is transmitted when one person’s enthusiasm sets off a spark of interest in a child. We’re rarely turned down when we ask to learn from others. People who love what they do can’t help but inspire kids and, they often tell me, the kids reignite their hope for the future of their work.
  3. Help local businesses tune in to children’s interests. For example, a bakery might hang children’s art on the walls, make meeting space available for a kids’ chess club, host Invent A Cookie contests, open the kitchen for tours, offer apprenticeships to aspiring young pastry chefs, teach parent-child baking classes, invite speakers to explain the science of yeast and flour, give cupcakes as prizes for youth community volunteer hours, etc. Businesses that are truly engaged in this way inspire loyal customers, they also enliven the community.
  4. Create age-bridging partnerships, as we did with babies and nursing home residents. Non-profit organizations are great places to start. One successful program called Girlfriend Circle started due to complaints. A group of women at a senior center often told a volunteer that they had no hope for the future because children “nowadays” are rude. The volunteer offered to set up a tea party for the ladies that included her daughters and their friends. At that first event the girls were seated between their older hostesses. Everyone enjoyed a lesson in napkin origami. Then they took part in a Q&A to learn about one another. After sharing refreshments both age groups were eager to meet again. The Girlfriend Circle met bi-monthly for several years, finding their friendships instructive and rewarding.
  5. Include young people in civic affairs, giving them genuine input into programs and policies. This works in Hampton, Virginia. Young people take leadership roles by holding conferences and open forums, advising municipal divisions, and helping to run the Hampton Youth Teen Center. City administration also includes a Youth Commission, with 24 youth commissioners, 3 youth planners, and one youth secretary–all high school age.
  6. Develop a tradition of service, starting at an early age. Need ideas? Here are 40 ways kids can volunteer, toddler to teen.

This comes full circle for me, right back to dogs and volunteering. A boy who had been a pint-sized member of the play group we held at the nursing home talked his family into raising puppies to be trained as service dogs. By the time he was 12 years old, this boy gave promotional talks about this program to clubs and schools. I attended one of his speeches. He started off with some anecdotes about exasperating puppies. Then he went on to describe the generosity and hope his family felt each time they attended graduation ceremonies for fully trained dogs, ready to serve. I tend to think community involvement is a path to wholeness. I’m convinced it has a lot to do with this boy’s smile.

Portions of this piece excerpted from Free Range Learning.

What Movies Tell Girls

how movies affect girl's self-image, damaging effect of media on girls, For years my daughter’s favorite movie was Just Visiting. This old remake of an older hit French comedy was packed with plenty for my little girl to adore. Magic, time travel, and plenty of humor. Some quotes from the film are still in rotation as favorite family sayings. Although it didn’t lack for laughs, it was missing something more vital. Strong female roles. Sure, women star in the film. Passive, pretty characters who only gain a stronger sense of themselves through men. Well, there’s also a stereotypical witch. Don’t even get me started on that. I’m not about to stomp my foot and decry one B movie because the women’s roles aren’t up to good-for-my-daughter standards. But when I take a look at movies available in theaters and on Netflix, foot stomping seems imperative. In the real world girls and women have full, interesting lives. Their conversations are complex and rarely limited to shoes, hair styles, and attracting the “right” XY chromosomes. But in the entertainment world, females are often little more than gloss. Little more than women’s roles in the past. sexualized roles in movies, One way to gauge a female character’s presence in any movie is the Bechdel test. This method doesn’t imply that a particular movie has merit, it simply demonstrates character treatment based on gender. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie has to meet all of the following three qualifications:

  1. Have at least two female characters (with names known to the audience)
  2. who have a conversation with each other
  3. about something besides a male.

Recall the last five movies you saw. How many really pass the test? I’m not sure Just Visiting passes. But according to the Bechdel test database, recent movies such as Limitless, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,  The Tree of Life, Water For Elephants, Your Highness, Beastly, I Am Number Four, The Lincoln Lawyer, No Strings Attached, Source Code, and Avatar don’t pass. Kids’ movies aren’t much better. Bechdel test failures include Hop, Rango, Rio, Jack and the Beanstalk, Megamind, The Secret of KellsFantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Ice AgeDawn of the Dinosaursand Shrek Forever After. Another way to pay attention to gender disparity in movies is to simply count the number of female speaking characters. Top movies for kids from 1990 to 2005 averaged less than one female out of every three speaking characters. And in both animated and live action movies from 1999 to 2006, researchers noted that females were outnumbered by males in speaking roles as well as crowd scenes. Worse, girls and women were typically portrayed in stereotypical, often hypersexualized roles. It seems girl power, even in today’s family films, has a lot to do with sexy clothes.

Jeff Brunner thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/10/25/disney-princesses-deconstructed/

This gender disparity is more than annoying. It’s damaging. Sexualized stereotypes are linked to a slew of problems in girls as well as women including eating disorders, poor self-esteem, and depression. Girls and young women who frequently consume mainstream media content are more likely to believe that a woman’s value is based on physical attractiveness. Even very young girls are beginning to self-objectify, to think of themselves as objects to be evaluated by appearance. And there’s a lot of media consumption going on. Half of kids under six watch at least one DVD a day. That’s some heavy reinforcement of Hollywood ideals. In our house Just Visiting has given way to new favorites. I’ll be watching them with popcorn, a snuggly blanket, and some attitude. My foot is just itching to stomp. Here are a few resources to light the way. About Face Adios Barbie All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty Beauty Redefined Body Drama: Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders (Excelsior Editions) Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture Mothers for a Human Future New Moon Girls Packaging Girlhood Pink Stinks Resolving the Confidence Crisis Taking Back Childhood Teen Voices The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls 101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body

Making Heroism Happen

Notice similar statements when people who have committed heroic acts are interviewed? They tend to say, “I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was just doing what anyone would have done.”  (This from a man who climbed into a burning car to save a woman.)

we can all be heroes

Hero: Wesley Autrey

Or  “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular” (this from a man who leaped in front of an oncoming subway train to pull an unconscious man from the tracks.)

Hero: Jencie Fagan

Or “I think anybody else would have done it.” (This from a teacher who stopped a school shooter by embracing him in a bear hug.)

The same rationale is heard from people who rise to heroic acts despite living with difficult circumstances of their own.

A homeless man who tried to tackle robbers during an attempted hold-up of a Brinks truck and memorized the license plate of their get-away car said, “You just gotta look out for what’s happening with people around you other than yourself.”

A teen with an extensive criminal record stole a bus to drive victims of Hurricane Katrina to safety. He explained, “The police was leaving people behind. I had to pick up people on the bus. The police didn’t want to do nothing. We stepped up and did what we had to  do.”

And a homeless man lost his few possessions after jumping into an icy river to rescue a drowning woman. He said “I just did what needed to be done because someone needed my help.”

what it takes to be a hero

Hero: Adan Abobaker

In their own words heroes continue to tell us that what they have done is not at all extraordinary. If we hold heroes apart from us as superhuman and describe their actions as unfathomably brave, we deny that all of us have the capacity to be heroes if the need arises.

We can develop that capacity. When I lead non-violence workshops we start by working on issues of empathy (identifying with the emotions, ideas, and attitudes of others) as well as empowerment to act on that empathy. Both are necessary to break through what’s been called the “bystander effect.” This was first identified by Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule due to the kindness of others. Dr. Staub explains in  The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence that it takes the willingness of those who are uninvolved (bystanders) to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Without such bystanders, atrocities such as war and genocide are “permitted” to happen.

The bystander effect is active on a smaller scale as well. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person they are more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.

What’s the difference between those who ignore suffering and those who are moved to alleviate suffering? People who have imperiled their lives for months or years to help others can give us some insight. Svetlana Broz, author of Good People in an Evil Time: Portraits of Complicity and Resistance in the Bosnian War, says it requires at least three attributes.

1. The courage to think for oneself, resisting conformity even at the risk of one’s own safety.

2. A moral core that inspires action.

3. The capacity to empathize with those who are dissimilar.

Hero: Zofia Baniecka, rescued 50 Jews during Holocaust

Eva Fogelman, author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, writes that heroic acts tend to come from a deep sense of common humanity. The roots of this behavior may stem from early upbringing. Fogelman notes that many Holocaust rescuers themselves suffered and were sensitized to the suffering of others. They also tended to have been raised in loving families where self-worth was fostered and reason rather than punishment was used as discipline.

Social scientists still know quite a bit more about aberrant behavior than why people choose to do good. That’s changing according to Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.  Zimbardo conducted the now infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (check it out on this slide show) which demonstrated that psychologically normal people will instigate and take part in atrocities. Now Zimbardo is devoting himself to bringing forth the brighter side. He’s started an organization called  Heroic Imagination Project which aims to teach the rudiments of heroism.

Currently a pilot project, it consists of four main educational components taught over four weeks.

  1. Students initially learn about us versus them attitudes, unthinking obedience to authority, and other human tendencies which unwittingly allow cruelties to happen.
  2. Next they work on building empathic responses through listening, paying attention, and “walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes.”
  3. Then they study heroic stories, seeking role models and discovering that compassionate action does inspire.
  4. And finally they practice heroic behavior on a daily basis by translating their good intentions into action, no matter how small.

We don’t have to wait for a course. The steps taught by the Heroic Imagination Project are the building blocks of human decency, things we should teach our children every day and should continue to develop in ourselves.

We’re captivated by real heroes in the news and imaginary heroes in the movies because they call out the best in us. Such stories ask us to live up to our values, not only when we’re in extreme situations.

It’s also time to recognize unsung heroes around us everywhere. They don’t get publicity because their deeds don’t seem extraordinary. Unselfish acts performed a million times a minute weave us together as a caring species. We tend to the helpless, comfort the sorrowful, share knowledge, and create happiness. Such kindness is contagious, each act of compassion and cooperation spreading out in enlarging waves of goodwill. Such efforts may seem small, but they are the basis for making heroism happen.

Letting Beauty Go

Beauty rarely shows herself nowadays.

It’s been years since I thought I owned her, but I remember our time together well. At first she was small, shy, and had more in common with cuteness than Beauty. Yes, I coddled her. I lavished hours on Beauty and the attention showed.

“Best not get attached to Beauty,” I was warned by people older and wiser. They told me the day would come when ordinary measures wouldn’t be enough to control her. They also told me that there was nothing I could do to change fate. Eventually Beauty and I would be parted forever.

I tried to deny it when the first chin bristles showed up. I pretended the increasing girth didn’t put me farther from Beauty. I ignored other tendencies like messy habits and gleeful snorting.

Time passed. Beauty was well on the other side of cute and would soon be taken from me for good. So I did what no one I know has ever done. I opened the gate to her pasture and made a path to the woods with apples, corn, and banana bread. Beauty was wary but followed her appetite. When she was well into the forest she heeded her instincts and kept walking toward freedom.

I don’t often get a glimpse of her these days. When Beauty shows herself I see that she is huge, bristled, her snout trembling as she smells the air. She seems gloriously happy. Let Beauty go. You’ll both be free.

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Recommended post When Girls Think Their Looks Mean Everything

Woman and Pig by Wade Schuman

Free Pig

When Girls Think Their Looks Mean Everything

lookism, girls who hate their looks, moms helping girls love themselves, mean girls, geek girls,

As little girls, Elissa’s friends were rambunctious and wholly themselves. They pursued their own interests with no concern for other people’s opinions. They drew comics featuring hilarious dialogue, danced and laughed simultaneously until they fell down in breathless mirth, conducted basement science experiments, and pretended they had super powers. Their mothers talked about how freely their girls expressed themselves, grateful to have strong daughters.

Then it started.

Like a relentless viral infection, one by one these girls succumbed to our appearance-obsessed culture. Elissa watched angrily as her friends were laden with heavy new concerns. They worried about what they looked like and what others thought of them. By 11, 12, or 13 years old they hid their unique interests and suppressed their considerable talents. Instead they maintained a near constant awareness of hair, make-up, clothes, body shape, who said what, and how everyone else reacted.

Threats, screaming outbursts, bleak despair became common. And that was just their mothers’ reaction to their daughters’ behavior. Helplessly witnessing what has become a female ritual of relentless self-scrutiny causes many of us to lose it.  We know all too well that the effort to constrict oneself into a mold is exhausting.

But who can blame our girls, let alone the adult women who continue to suffer painful confidence wounds, when impossible standards are the norm?  It’s almost as if we females are set up to fail at this appearance game. Oh wait, we are. Even the Beautiful People aren’t beautiful enough.

photoshopping, mena suvari, celebrity photoshop, teen beauty,

Celebrities “fail” too. Take a look at the already lovely Mena Suvari, model and actress whose acne is removed, pores eliminated, eyes brightened and skin smoothed.

Check out the before-photoshop pics of women like Kirsten Dunst, Alicia Silverstone, Christina Ricci, and others. Until they’re rendered plastic smooth and Barbie thin, they look somewhat like ordinary people.

And let’s not forget, reality shows have made transformation from ordinary to perfect an entertainment phenomenon in a society where make-overs for little girls and high heels for babies aren’t out of the question.

Image after image through their young lives, girls absorb an ever present lesson that females aren’t good enough as they are. Such lessons aren’t confined to images. Girls and women portrayed in movies are typically clad in sexualized clothes and lead one-dimensional lives.

What’s the effect?

Devastating, according to the American Psychological Association. Shame, anxiety, eating disorders, and depression. Girls judge their bodies harshly as young as the age of five.  No wonder a girl might choose keep the vitality of her true self hidden.

But there’s another side, often overlooked. Because Elissa and a few of her friends didn’t suffer (at least fully) the perils of lookism. They barreled through their pre-teen and teen years fueled by interests strong enough to hold them steady. Elissa poured her energy into a number of pursuits. She was a docent at the zoo, raised white rats, studied an ever increasing range of scientific interests, and moderated an online forum. One of her friends took up photography, becoming proficient in pinhole camera techniques and making albumen prints, while also advancing in a hockey league. Elissa noticed that girls who didn’t engage in the looks-first game were often ostracized by their more mainstream peers, but they also had strong friendships beyond school. Elissa, homeschooled through highschool, was one of those friends. She says she felt freer to follow her own interests without the pressures of school culture and advocated individuality to others.

As a teen, Elissa was angry at the influences that swayed so many of her other girlhood friends. She scorned their preoccupation with boys, clothes, body image, and interpersonal drama. But now Elissa is in her early 20’s. She’s reconnected with many of these same friends and learned a little about the adversity they suffered as they made their way through adolescence different than hers. One of her childhood friends became a mother at 15, another made multiple suicide attempts, still another struggles with bulimia. Elissa is sure the strengths from girlhood are still with all of them. She just doesn’t know how to let them know that their looks don’t define them.

Here are a few resources to light the way.

About Face

Adios Barbie

All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty

Body Drama: Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers

Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel

Mothers for a Human Future

New Moon Girls

Packaging Girlhood

Pink Stinks

Resolving the Confidence Crisis

Teen Voices

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls

101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body

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Trying to Be Happy courtesy of Orm Huz