Tag Archives: Parenting

Civility in the swelter (Hershey Park edition)

This post combines my love of vacations (context), my habit of taking pictures of people in public places (data)*, and my sociological tendency to invent big conclusions from minor events (theory). As with last year’s selfie post , I hope you don’t take from this that I don’t really love vacations.

With 3.2 million annual visitors, Hershey Park is barely in the top 20 amusement/theme parks in the country. And unlike the top draws, all Disney properties, I reckon Hershey mostly draws a local and regional crowd, which means they’re not as rich as the average Disney visitor.

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What interests me is the way this lower-middle amusement park creates the context for civility in a very diverse environment, even as racial and ethnic conflagration seems to be breaking out all over.

It’s very racially and ethnically diverse, and most of the Whites either aren’t rich or they’re hiding their wealth well.

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Why didn’t Charles Murray, in his obnoxious “do you live in a bubble” quiz, which is supposed to test your exposure to and familiarity with working-class White culture (yes, just White culture, though the PBS promoters of the quiz only mentioned that after people complained), ask about amusement parks, where White working class people spend their vacations mingling with — or at least in close proximity with — racial minorities?

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Including in the historically-fraught pool.

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Some may be merely standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people from different races. But I saw more interracial couples and families than I usually see in my diverse suburb.

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Are they just tolerating each other, or are they really getting along? Of course, I’m White and rich and blind to all sorts of things, but I’m not stupid. I have no doubt there were slights and insults and aggressions going on outside of my perception (though I was looking for them). But there were also the kind of casual moments of “us just getting along” that usually go unremarked, like when parents enjoy watching their kids having fun together.

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I’m not making an argument about the relative racism apparent across classes. I know your feed today is probably awash in racist stuff coming from all over the social spectrum. I’m more interested in what the social context does to interpersonal interaction. The park is very leveling, economically. The poorest people are obviously excluded, and the richest aren’t interested. And then most people buy tickets before they arrive, and it’s in a remote place, so there is no one visible who can’t get in, no obvious fast lane for rich people (even at the rides, unlike Disney). We all ride the same tram from the parking lot to the gate, so the car interaction is minimized. We go through the same giant line to enter, and then wait in the same lines to ride the same rides and eat the same food once inside.

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There are ways to spend more money conspicuously, buying extra crap, but there is less of that than I’ve seen at Disney or Universal Studios (have you priced a genuine Princess dress lately?). In short, it brings out what a lot of different Americans have in common: overpaying for entertainment, overeating greasy food, and alternately yelling at and loving on their children.

I’m reminded of two things. One is that there is less racial conflict and violence in the U.S. than there was in the past (dating the data trends here is obviously debatable). The level of racism — structurally and interpersonally — is still way too high, of course. But it partly stands out now because we have more casual, positive interaction, than we did in the past. Social movement scholars will tell you that periods of improving relations are ripe for upheaval and unrest, because expectations are raised and subordinate groups are empowered. Don’t draw from the level of conscious resistance we see now the conclusion that conditions are worse than ever, because that’s not how it works.

Two is that civility can be engineered. In 2002 my friend Jennifer Lee wrote of the “important untold story [of] the mostly quotidian nature of commercial life in neighborhoods like New York’s Harlem and West Philadelphia,” areas at the time experiencing racial tension erupting in occasional violence around the issue of ethnic turf and racism in retail spaces. This Civility in the City was partly the product of deliberate, conscious effort by store owners and employees to preserve it. The level of interpersonal conflict and expression of animosity is not determined by structural inequalities alone. That deep inequality remains the defining American problem of our time. I don’t know how the level of interpersonal conflict plays into our ability to confront and address that inequality — and I’m not saying we should settle for civility over equality — but I’m sure it’s somehow relevant.

* This is ethical and legal as long as I’m not trying to harm anyone – millions of people do it every day. If you happen to be in one of these pictures and want me to take them down I will happily oblige. Before you get mad about me using these pictures, close your eyes and think of all the pictures you’ve seen just this week of strangers who did not consent to have their pictures taken.

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That time when your research is used to justify ripping a baby from the arms of its loving adoptive parents

UPDATE: Judge Johansen has rescinded his order

Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus lost in their attempt to turn the federal courts against marriage equality. The work they did culminated in a paper published under Regnerus’s name, and Regnerus is the name most associated with its bogusness, but it was Wilcox who led the effort to raise the money (some of which he kept), helped direct the study, and weaseled it into the journal by serving as a peer reviewer for its publication. (Two subsequent studies reanalyzed the Wilcox/Regnerus data, and thoroughly debunked its results — here and here; you can get the full story by following the links in this post.)

Although they failed in their quest to affect the Supreme Court, their work lives on in the very small, evil minds of anti-gay fanatics around the world, who continuously cite the original paper. One of those men is Judge Scott Johansen, a juvenile court judge in Carbon County, Utah (the state’s seventh district), who has cited unspecified “research” to justify his decision to take a one-year-old baby from the home of Beckie Peirce and April Hoagland, a married lesbian couple who are the child’s foster parents. With the approval of the baby’s biological mother and child welfare authorities — who did the routine thorough investigation and vetting that all adoptive parents (including me) have endured — the two were moving ahead with plans to legally adopt the baby when Johansen, a law graduate of the Mormon Brigham Young University, handed down his decision. The decision is set to take effect next Tuesday (November 17). His decision is not public, but he told the couple his own research showed it was better for children to be raised by a heterosexual couple. We don’t need to ask what research he has in mind.

Legal efforts continue, and officials — including the governor of Utah — have asked the judge to reconsider.

If your research was used like this, what would you do?

So, this is the point of all the work Wilcox and Regnerus did. We must assume they wanted exactly this decision, but on a much larger scale; they wanted same-sex couples to be denied the right to adopt children, and children to be denied the right to have married gay and lesbian parents. They would apparently rather see a one-year-old child who has spent three months with a loving family ripped from that family rather than face the fate of having lesbian parents.

If I’m wrong, and I would be especially happy to be wrong in this case, then Wilcox and Regnerus should be the first experts lining up to convince Judge Johansen that he’s making a mistake, that the actual well-being of the child, and the civil rights of its parents, should come before slavish devotion to religious dogma. In fact, speaking up right now might actually do some good.

Wilcox has gone out of his way to sing the praises of the “deep normative and religious commitments to marriage and to raising children within marriage” in Utah specifically. But he doesn’t comment on this aspect of Utah’s holiness — the deep commitment that has led the Mormon church to announce a wretched, hateful policy under which it will not bless or baptize the children of gay and lesbian couples unless they denounce their parents.

Now might be a good time for Wilcox’s sham Institute for Family Studies — which has yet to ever use the words “lesbian,” “gay,” or “homosexual” on its web pages — to break its silence and take a stand for children and family well-being.

I’ll be holding my breath.

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NYT magazine infographic: not just dumb and annoying

This graphic from the New York Times magazine is bad data presented poorly (and reproduced poorly, by my camera phone):

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It’s presented poorly because those blood stains are impossible to compare since you can’t discern their edges, and it appears they don’t taper toward the edges at the same rate. Maybe they simply resized one of them to get the relative size, which would be wrong. Anyway, if they cared about communicating the data they probably would have used real data in the first place. (You could also complain that a red speckle-cloud is unfriendly to some color-blind people.)

It’s bad data because it’s an online NYT reader survey, which — although it’s from the “research and analytics” department (and no, I’m not going to add “analytics” to my Windows dictionary) — represents unknown sample selection effects on an undefined population. In other words, who cares what they think?

A survey like that would be a start if it was the only way you had to answer an important or hard-to-measure issue, and if you clearly stated that it was likely unreliable. But in this case there is good, nationally-representative data on this very question. So if NYT Magazine wanted to inform its readers of something, they could have used this.

Here’s the good data — from the General Social Survey — in a graph that is at least a lot better: this is good data in a chart that’s easier to read accurately, includes a breakout by strength of opinion, and uses more accessible colors (click to enlarge).

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I think the NYT Magazine graphics violations are not just dumb and annoying — here’s another post all about them — I think they harm the public good. Graphics like this spread ignorance and contribute to the perception that statistics – especially graphic statistics – are just an arbitrary way of manipulating people rather than a set of tools for exploring data and attempting to answer real questions. (If you want awesome real graphics, check out Healy and Moody’s Annual Review of Sociology paper.)

P.S., I wrote more about spanking here.

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Updated age education birth figures

As fertility continues in the news (see last week’s post on rising birth rates for women with higher education), I am preparing for a planned appearance today on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, on the “grandparent deficit” associated with births at advanced parental age. So I updated some old figures I made in 2012.

These come from two posts:

  • Poverty Poses a Bigger Risk to Pregnancy Than Age, which argued that a focus on parental age was distracting us from economic inequality. I concluded: When it comes to parents’ age versus social class, the challenges are not either/or. We should be concerned about both. But addressing the health problems of parents—especially mothers—with less than a college degree and below-average incomes is the more pressing issue—both for potential lives saved or improved and for social equality.
  • Births to mothers in their forties are less common now than in the old days, which explained that, although first births at older ages are more common, the birth rate among older women is lower now than it was during the Baby Boom. That is, women aren’t more likely to have a kid at age 40 now — they’re just more likely to have their first at that age.

Here are three figures I’ve updated.

The first shows the distribution of births by education within each age group of mothers. It shows, for example, 85% of women under 20 who had a birth in 2013 had a high school education or less. The highest levels of education are found among women have babies in their late 30s (note these are not just first births):

work.xlsxThe next one shows the same information, but now arranged as percentages of all births. This shows, for example, that 27% of all births are to women in their late 20s, with the majority of those having some college education or less:

work.xlsxFinally, the odd phenomenon in which, although the percentage of all births to women age 40+ has increased to the point that it surpassed the Baby Boom years, the birth rate for women that age is still much lower than it was:

advanced age trends.xlsxSo the average 40-year-old was more likely to have a baby in 1960 than today (15.5 per 1000 versus 10.5 per 1000), but a baby born today is more likely to have a mother 40 or older (2.3% versus 2.8%). That’s because more people were having births at all ages in 1960. The U-shape here reflects two historical trends: first, the total number of children per woman declined, which meant fewer born at older ages because people stopped earlier. Then, as marriage age increased, along with women’s education, women started delaying their first births, which led to increasing birth rates — and proportions of births — at older ages.

Sources:

The source for the first two figures is my analysis of 2013 ACS data from IPUMS.org. The last one is from National Center for Health Statistics reports: here, here, here, and here; as well as a couple of old Statistical Abstracts, here and here.

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Color and the making of gender in early childhood

Most of today’s readers weren’t following this blog back when I started writing about color preferences. Those posts are listed under the color tag. Now there’s a new paper on the subject that helps me think about how gender works in young children.

It’s called, “Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers,” by Wang Wong and Melissa Hines, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where I published my paper on how adult color preferences are affected by the sex of their children. (Their paper is paywalled, but since we’re personal friends feel free to ask me for a look at my licensed copy.)

The researchers studied 126 children ages 20-40 months in a UK college town. The pertinent parts of their findings, for my purposes are: girls prefer pink over blue more than boys; but the the gap starts out quite small before age two and widens to age 3; the preferences are unstable, that is, the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 24 months are not the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 36 months. (The preferences were measured by asking which color they liked better on a card, and letting them choose between pink and blue gender-neutral toys.)

Whenever there is research showing differences between the sexes, I always like to look for the overlap (see, e.g., this post). That’s because people fixate on the differences to confirm their presumption that the differences are total, fixed, and baked in or genetic. This underlies the whole fixation on the dimorphism question. So when they report girls are more likely to choose pink over blue than boys, I plug the means and standard deviations into my graphing spreadsheet to see the implied distributions (assuming normality). Here is the overall pattern:

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So, you can decide whether you think that’s a big difference, but you should factor in the size of the overlap. The change over about 14 months was pretty impressive, with boys and girls pulling apart. Here are the curves at 20-26 versus 34-40 months:

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One possible interpretation of this pattern is that color preference is learned rather than baked in at birth, and this is a time kids learn it. That interpretation is strengthened by the further finding that, while the gender difference increases from age 2 to age 3, it’s not stable within individuals. That is, whether a kid was pink-positive or -negative at time 1 was not a predictor of their preference at time two. That’s what this figure shows — girls are more likely to be in the top-right, but the time-1–time-2 slopes aren’t significant:

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That’s more evidence against the idea that the sex difference in color preference is determined at birth, which is also consistent with the historical evidence, as Jo Paoletti’s work shows.

Children themselves have a strong motivation to perform their gender identity in ways that please adults or perhaps other children, and that tendency exacerbates early sex differences. They can anchor this performance to an arbitrary marker like color. From the paper (references removed):

Gender-related cognitive processes have been implicated in the acquisition of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, gender-typed behaviors may be acquired through self-socialization after children have developed gender identity, and become self-motivated to adopt gender norms.

Unlike critics of this blog, I don’t fear that gender differences will be erased if we don’t continuously reinforce and celebrate them. People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to. And reducing the pressure will help decrease both gender inequality and the stigma experienced by non-conforming people.

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Charter, private, and wealthy schools lead California vaccine exemptions

We need to know who’s driving this epidemic of non-vaccination so we can decide what to do about it. One key element of the pattern is that it’s a practice of groups, not (just) individuals. And one way such groups are organized and maintained may be by interacting in and around schools — hotspots for parenting fads and identity performance, as well as (one hopes) useful information.

Kieran Healy the other day posted some visualizations of California vaccine exemption rates across schools and counties — then dug deeper on school type here. While he was writing his second post I followed his links to the data and did some more descriptive work, adding some more information on school type and now poverty levels.

I used this California Department of Education data source for the free-lunch eligibility rates (2013-2014), and this California Department of Public Health data source for the vaccine exemption rates for kindergartners (2014-2015). The measure of vaccine exemption is the “Personal Belief Exemption (PBE), whereby a parent requests exemption from the immunization requirements for school entry.” Some of them got supposedly got counseling before making the request, while others further requested a religious exemption from the counseling — those two groups are combined here in the PBE rate. I weighted the analyses by the number of kindergartners enrolled in each school, so the rates shown are for students, not schools (this also helps with the outliers, which are mostly very small schools).

1. Runaway vaccine exemptions are problems of the private and charter schools

I don’t know what percentage of kids need to be immunized, for which diseases, for the proper level of community protection. But these distributions are very skewed, so it makes sense to look at the extremes. Here are three measures, for just under 7,000 schools: the mean percent PBE (the average percent exempt among each kids’ classmates), the percentage of kids in a school with no exempt kindergartners, and the percentage of kids attending schools with more than 5% exempt.

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The average charter school kindergartner goes to school with classmates almost 5-times more likely to be non-vaccinated; and charter school kids are more than 3-times as likely to be in class with 5% or more kids exempt.

2. Schools with lots of poor kids have much lower exemption rates

The relationship between exemption rates and percentage of children eligible for free lunch is negative and very strong. Because there are so many schools with no PBEs, I used a tobit regression to predict exemption rates (I also excluded the top 1% outliers). Note the private schools are excluded here because the free lunch data was missing for them. Here is the output:

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Just in case the zeros are data errors, I reran the regression excluding the zero cases (logged and not logged), and got weaker but still very strong results.

I illustrate the relationship in the next section.

3. The poverty-exemption relationship is stronger in charter schools

Charter schools have fewer kids eligible for free-lunch than regular public schools (43% versus 55%). However, although the relationship between poverty and exemptions is strong in both charter and regular public schools, it is stronger in the charter schools (the interaction term is almost 7-times its standard error). Here they are, showing the steeper free-lunch slope for charter schools (with a logged y-axis):

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Rich charter schools on average have the highest exemption rates, while poor schools — charter or not — are heavily clustered around zero (note it’s jittered so you can see how many cases are at zero).

Update: Here is the same data, for all public schools, presented more simply:

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One interpretation of this pattern goes like this: Charter schools do not per se promote vaccine exemption. But because they are more parent-driven, or targeted at certain types of parents, charter schools are more ideologically homogeneous. And because anti-vaccine ideology is concentrated among richer parents, charter schools provide them with a fertile breeding ground in which to generate and transmit anti-vaccine ideas. That’s why, although richer parents in general are driving vaccine denial, it’s especially concentrated in charter schools. This seems consistent with the general echo-chamber nature of information sharing in cultural niches, and the clusering/contagious nature of parenting fads. (The same may or may not hold for private schools.) This could be totally wrong — I’m open to other interpretations.

I’m also happy to share my data on request, but I’m not posting it yet because when I tinker with it more I might make corrections.

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Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.

Science

From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:

PR_14.12.15_Christmas-05

So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.

whatchildrenthink

We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:

elfwarning

So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.

Inequality

What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?

santaclass

Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:

santapoormeme

Conclusion

I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?

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