Thursday, September 8, 2011

Philosophy for Children: A Pocket for Corduroy

My son read A Pocket for Corduroy to me recently. It isn’t listed on the Philosophy for Children website that I mentioned last time, but I noticed a couple of philosophical themes and my son and I discussed them.
The story is a sequel to the story of Corduroy’s purchase by Lisa. Lisa and her mother go to a Laundromat along with her bear. Corduroy gets lost when he goes looking for a pocket, and through a series of events he ends up trapped for the night in a “cage” (a laundry basket). Corduroy assumes it is a zoo cage, and he says he doesn’t like it. The next morning Lisa comes looking for her bear, and when she finds him she tells him that she would have given him a pocket had he just asked.
The two topics that my son and I discussed were the nature of freedom and the nature of friendship. Regarding the former, I asked my son about Corduroy getting caught in the cage. I asked him why he didn’t like it. He said it was because he was trapped. I asked him why being trapped was bad. He said it was because it is a zoo and the animals smelled bad. I asked if the cage was actually in the zoo and if there were other animals. Hesaid there were no other animals. I then asked again why Corduroy didn’t like the cage. He said once again that it was because he was trapped. I asked if he’d like being trapped. He said no, and he said that no one likes to be trapped.
The next topic we discussed was friendship. I asked him why Lisa said she’d give the bear a pocket if he asked, and my son said that Lisa and Corduroy are friends, and that a friend would give Corduroy a pocket if he wanted one. I asked him why he thought that, and he said because it was nice. I asked if friends should do nice things for each other, and he said yes. It was bedtime at this point, so we called it a night at this point.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Teaching Young Children About Race

I have a number of  friends who think that it is important to explicitly avoid topics of race. They believe that they treat people the same no matter their race, and they don’t think their children will perceive race as significant if no one “makes a big deal about it.” I’ve even been told that the common children’s song, “Jesus loves the little children,” is bad because it wrongly teaches kids to consider race with its verse about how Jesus loves all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white.
I take a different approach. Based on what I’ve read and seen, color-blindness is never really color-blind (at least in our culture); and attempts to be color-blind in such a situation merely reinforce racial prejudice albeit unintentionally. There are two recent books that have affected my thinking on the subject: Linda Alcoff’s Visible Identities and Nurtue Shock.
Alcoff argues for the ways in which our bodies – particularly how they are visibly marked and determined play an important role in shaping our experience of ourselves, others, and the world. In particular, she argues that race and gender fundamentally shape our identities, and that any position that intends to be neutral or blind to race or gender can never accomplish what it purports to accomplish. Race and gender are not fixed identities but hermeneutical standpoints that change and develop with its culture. One particular story struck me about a mother of a child in a preschool environment whose teacher wanted a color blind classroom. The child was the only person of a different color in the classroom, and the children reacted and treated the child differently than the other children. They would even ask questions that denigrated the child’s race and identity. The color-blindness of the teacher actually helped produce this sort of environment, and it caused the teacher to ignore the specific racial dynamics within the classroom.
This basic problem in teaching about race has been reproduced in study after study. Nurture Shock does a nice job of describing how well-meaning parents who harbor no apparent racial prejudice and would be appalled by their children holding racial prejudices, and yet adopting a color-blind approach in such an environment often produces children who pay explicit attention to race and try to identify with their own races. One set of parents like these were appalled that their child rooted for white basketball players because they were like him. One study (using different colored T-shirts) shows that children identify groups and will often take seemingly innocuous items and portray their group as positive and good and the other group as negative and bad. Another study showed that these tendencies were able to be addressed and corrected for when parents played explicit attention to the perceived differences and explained how people who are different in such and such a respect are not bad, mean, etc. In short, it seems that educational approach that favor color-blindness in our environment contributes to racism, while paying explicit attention to racial differences and explaining why people are different races are just as good, nice, etc. as one’s own race can actually combat prejudice.
I’ve been trying to pay attention to these features of group identification when I am interacting with my own children. I’ll often talk about how differences between people are not bad things. This conversation with my boys has most often come up when I’m reading Thomas the Tank Engine stories (the originals and the new Thomas and Friends versions). Remarks are often made in the stories about how Diesel engines are bad because they aren’t Steam engines, and about how they want to take all the work from the “Steamies.” I realize that Reverend Awdry, given that he’s British, was probably dealing primarily with class rather than race; but I can’t help but see this as an example of unjustified prejudice based on irrelevant characteristics like race. I’ll always point out how this is a bad attitude and we’ll stop and talk about it explicitly. I initially thought it might be wise to choose different stories that didn’t portray these things, but I’ve embraced it now and use it as an opportunity to talk with my children about differences like race and gender. I tend to come across as preachy and my spouse often laughs at how awkward the “lesson” goes. But I do it anyway.
What about you? Am I wrong about color-blindness? How do you handle teaching your children about race and gender differences?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Giving Tree: Philosophy for Children

I came across this website a while ago, and I was intrigued. My children regularly ask me very tough theological questions which I encourage and dutifully answer. But I had my first attempt at teaching philosophy to children with my 5 year old (he just turned 5 recently). We read The Giving Tree by Silverstein. It really is a beautiful and sad little book. My son read it to me, and he grasped the content of the story. He knew that the boy and the tree loved each other, that the teenage boy took all of the apples for his own profit and that the tree gave willingly and lovingly, that the middle-aged “boy” took the wood from the trees branches which were given freely so that the boy could build himself a house. That the elderly “boy” took the trunk of the tree to make for himself a boat which the tree gave freely again (although the tree was not so happy this time). Finally, the tree (or really merely a stump), which my son knew she would be before we turned the page, willingly and lovingly became a seat for the decrepit “boy.”
We talked about love. I asked him if the tree loved the boy, and he said that she did. I asked him how he knew that the tree loved the boy, and he said it was because she gave him everything and she liked giving to him. I asked him if the tree was happy to give the boy her trunk for a boat, and he said that she was and then changed his mind and said that she wasn’t. I asked him why she wasn’t happy, and he said that it was because she didn’t have anything left. I wished I had asked him: “She didn’t have anything left for herself? Or she didn’t have anything left to give the boy?” But I didn’t. In any case, I asked him if the boy loved the tree. He said yes until he took the trunk of the tree, and then the boy didn’t love the tree. I asked him why he didn’t love the tree, and he said he didn’t act like he loved the tree. Then I asked him if he loved the tree when he took her apples not to eat for himself but to sell to make money? And what about taking all the branches from her for his house? He said that the boy didn’t really love her then either. I asked him if love had to be shown, and he said yes. (Love shall be known by its fruits.) We called it a night at that question.
It was an interesting experiment, and I thought it went very well. Sometimes I’m amazed by the minds of little ones.