What’s the Best Age to Discuss Painful Realities?

When do you think is the best age to start talking to a child about the sad realities of our existence, such as racism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, etc.?

In my opinion, it makes sense to tell a kid that these things exist at around the age of 9-10.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a regime that my parents hated passionately. They experienced anti-Semitism and read forbidden authors. My father listened in a clandestine manner to the BBC and Voice of America at night. However, they never shared their feelings about the regime with me. They let me grow up believing that we lived in the best country possible. I devoured children’s stories about the kind Grandpa Lenin who loved little kids and saved sick hedgehogs. I was a happy child who wasn’t tortured by insecurities and anxieties about things I was yet not equipped to understand.

When I was 10, my mother had the first cautious talk with me about the history of the Soviet Union. She talked to me in a way that made me understand certain things about our historic legacy but that didn’t scare me or make me feel despondent.

I know people whose parents talked to them about the life in the Soviet Union in very negative terms from a very early age. I honestly don’t see how these hard, painful truths enriched those kids’ existences.

“A child needs to know that she lives in a happy, warm, welcoming universe,” my father always says. “Then, when she grows up, the realization that bad things exist will not break her. She will still have her memories of happiness and security that will carry her through the rest of her life.”

What do you think?

New Students

This semester I’m teaching my trademark course in Hispanic Civilization to upper-level students and as a Freshman Seminar to first-year students. The first lecture in this course was the same for both groups. And this is what I have observed. Freshmen are better prepared and more curious than the upper-level students. They know more in terms of history and geography. They ask many interesting questions.

This tells me that each new year brings us better and smarter students. Contrary to the dire predictions of the doom-and-gloom crowd that wants to see young people as getting more and more stupid with every passing year, the kids today are getting more intelligent and intellectually curious. Now our job as educators consists in not throttling this interest in acquiring knowledge.

The Gender of a Slob

Noah Brand at No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz? writes about how the narrative of cleanliness versus messiness has been framed according to the fictitious gender divide:

It’s taken as cultural gospel that men are, by nature, sloppy, unhygienic, and generally filthy. Women, by contrast, are neat and clean and constantly exasperated by the unending tide of filth that is the male gender. Indeed, a standard way of calling a man’s masculinity into question is to show that he is neat and well-groomed (i.e. thousands of throwaway gay jokes, or every episode of Frasier). This is part of a larger cultural narrative, one that I’ll call the “civilizing” narrative, wherein men are grunting, violent, ill-smelling brutes, and women must overcome these disgusting attributes and train the men to ape the manners of civilization. (Usually via their role as sexual gatekeeper, dontcha know.)

This kind of narrative is not only is insulting to men, as this talented blogger points out. It also marginalizes many women by presenting them as not fully female if they are not bravely fighting germs for the benefit of their entire family.

My sister and I, the slob of the millenium and the slob of the century respectively, are a case in point. We both have many amazing attributes: we are intelligent, funny, loyal, and also extremely feminine, among other things. However, we were born to be messy. The men in our lives are very traditionally masculine in appearance and general modes of behavior. They are also very neat, clean, meticulous people who are doomed to be picking up after their messy partners. Thankfully, they both really dig cleaning and are great at it.

The four of us are very opinionated and, as a result, have never bought into the dominant narrative that tells us that a woman who washed the floors in her house once every six months when she lived alone and a man who gets annoyed when somebody does the dishes instead of him must have something wrong with them. Many people, however, spend their lives trying to fit into a model that is alien to who they are because they don’t want their gender identity to be questioned.

It is truly sad that in year 2011 we still have to talk about the fact that having a penis or a vagina means absolutely nothing in terms of whether you will be messy or neat.

Anti-Cesarean Movement as Part of the Sacrificial Motherhood Philosophy

Reader Rimi asked me to talk about the anti-cesarean movement in North America. This movement is part of a wider phenomenon I refer to as “the sacrificial motherhood philosophy.” It started to develop as part of the backlash against the feminist advances of the 1970ies. As we all know, I come from a different culture, one that still believes the myth that everybody is profoundly feminist in North America. It took me a while to discover the main tenets of this philosophy. Here they are as I see them right now. Feel free to add your own.

– You can never do enough or sacrifice enough to be a “good” mother.

– A pregnant woman is a sort of an invalid who needs to renounce many things in order to have a “correct” pregnancy. For instance, the list of foods a pregnant woman is not supposed to touch is mile-long. Seeing that list made me envy my illiterate great-great-grandmother who had 6 perfectly healthy children without ever discovering that tomatoes were supposed to be poison for her.

– There are correct and incorrect ways of giving birth. The correct way is to have a “natural” birth. If you want an elective C-section or an epidural, you are not a real woman. If you do not enjoy getting together with other women or accosting pregnant women in public to share your horror story of shredded vaginas and horrible deliveries, you are not a real woman.

– Breast is best. Which means that if you can’t or don’t want to breastfeed until the child is old enough to walk and talk, you are a vile monster. If you want to use a breast pump, you are also a vile monster. If your kid doesn’t get enough nourishment from your breast milk and you supplement it with formula, you are a truly vile monster. And, of course, there is yet another endless list of foods a breast-feeding woman is not supposed to touch.

– Kids benefit from being around their mother 24-7. So if you return to work while your child is at a pre-school age, you are a horrible mother and your kid will grow up to be all kinds of criminal.

– A pacifier is a horrible thing. I haven’t yet been able to find out why some people have fits when they hear the word “pacifier.” All I have been able to gather this far is that the pacifier is supposed to mess with a kid’s teeth. Permanent teeth normally appear much later in a person’s life, but the pacifier-phobia persists.

– If you don’t strive to occupy all of your kid’s time with activities, you are a horrible mother. Sending the kid to play outside or leaving her alone in the room to play with her toys instead of ferreting her around from one play date to another is a sign of a horrible motherhood.

Of course, there are crowds of people who believe that a woman is perfectly capable of choosing the method of delivering a child that suits her best, deciding whether to breastfeed and for how long, and having a career while being a mother. These same people think that nothing tragic will happen if a kid is socialized through day care and is even allowed to play on his or her own every once in a while. They even believe that mothers and their small children can benefit from spending some time apart from each other every once in a while. However, the fanatics of sacrificial mommyhood are so loud that they are capable of screaming down any reasonable person who doesn’t see motherhood as something that needs to condemn you to endless suffering and sacrifice.

Students Skip Buying Textbooks

A survey has found that many students have skipped buying textbooks for class:

In the survey, released on Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization, seven in 10 college students said they had not purchased a textbook at least once because they had found the price too high.

I hate to be cynical but I have to ask: do all of these students also not have a cell phone? My students mostly come from backgrounds described as “poor.” Yet, the number of iPhones, iPods and iPads in the classrooms is overwhelming. Is the price of the textbooks too high in the sense of “I have no money to buy it” or, rather, in the sense of “I’d much rather use the money to buy a new gadget and pay my cell phone bill”?

How do you decide what book to read next?

Joshua Kim’s article in Inside Higher Ed made me consider this question. Here is the answer Kim provides:

I always go first to nytimes.com/books . A good review attached to a subject that I’m interested in, or an author that I like, will almost always result in a purchase (as an Amazon Audible audiobook or a Kindle e-book). A middling or bad review – no sale. Sometimes I’ll do a Google search for “book review (book title)” – and read reviews from other sites – but rarely. If the book is reviewed on IHE, then I’m definitely buying. This book selection process has been seriously disrupted by the NYTimes paywall. Sure, it is easy to get around (just do a Google search with the headline of the article you want to read) – but this is an extra and unpleasant step.

I find this account very curious because it is so different from how I buy books. For me, the main – and I’d say the only – source of reading suggestions is the Amazon. I’ve spent so much time and money there that Amazon really knows me well and always recommends books that will interest me. I’m very familiar with Amazon’s structure and the different ways one can search for reading matter on it. I now try to avoid the site as much as possible because it’s hard for me to leave it without a purchase.

It’s strange to me that Joshua Kim relies on the NYTimes so much for his choice of books to read. I dislike NYTimes and discontinued my Kindle subscription to NYTimes Book Review because, for the most part, the books it reviewed were part of what I refer to as “reading for housewives”: cheesy, overly sentimental fare of the tearjerker variety. The reviews were always dedicated to retelling the plot in as much detail as possible, which is something that even the least bright among the Amazon reviewers know not to do.

In my opinion, Amazon reviews are always going to be more reliable than the ones that appear in print media for the same reason that independent bloggers will eventually destroy traditional newspapers. Amazon reviewers and bloggers can only rely on their own hard work and the reputation they manage to build for themselves among their readers. The NYTimes, however, can manage its affairs right into the ground and then rely upon somebody to bail it out. Besides, there is absolutely no reason to believe that newspaper journalists will offer their honest opinion about books. They don’t seem to offer honest opinions about anything else, so why trust them on this subject?

And how do you decide what book to read next?

P.S. If this passionate diatribe on what might seem like a pretty trivial subject surprised you, I have to confess that I’m one of Amazon’s popular reviewers.