Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

The School Drop-Off And Social Trust

Three or four times every week, I drop my daughter off at our local public school. We leave, on almost every occasion, in a bit of a rush. My daughter’s school is close by, a mere ten minutes walk, but the window for her to eat breakfast school is quite narrow–thirty minutes–so I’m keen to leave on time to give her enough time to eat a bit before she heads off for her classes. On the way to school, as we walk, we talk about any topic that happens to catch our fancy. (Besides conversation with me, my daughter also has to put up with my angry rants at drivers who do not give us the right of way on pedestrian crosswalks.) On occasion, we stop to climb a rocky wall of a local yeshiva that lies en-route. And then, all too soon, we are at school, at the door through which my daughter will walk into a large hall packed with noisy children, in the midst of which she will locate her teacher and her class, en-route to her classroom, her home for the day.

As we approach the door, my pace slows; I want to say goodbye ‘properly to my daughter, who I can sense is already straining at the leash and wants to move on, to get on with meeting her friends. So we stop; I pull my daughter to me and ask her a few questions–the same ones every day–and then, after planting a few kisses on her cheeks, and giving her one last hug, I let her go. She walks on, and as she walks through the door, I yell out some variant of “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you in the evening” (alternatively, “Bye, sweetheart, mommy will be picking you up in the evening.”) I blow her a kiss, and as I do so, my daughter turns to look at me, waves, and is gone.

All around me, other parents are enacting variations on this ritual.

As I walk off, to the subway station to catch a train to my gym, or onwards to Brooklyn College to begin teaching the first of my three classes of day, I am struck, yet again, by the sheer incongruity of it all. My daughter is only five years old, a mere child, one whose welfare and safety and well-being is quite plausibly understood as a preoccupation of mine, and I’ve entrusted her, left her alone, in the company of ‘strangers.’ I’ve put my faith in other people to protect my child, feed her, teach her, give her company, entertain her after school; I’ve entrusted to them, my most ‘precious possession.’ I always feel, as I walk away, a slight tinge of panic and fear. We don’t leave her alone at home; why am I letting her walk off like that? But I’ve placed trust in many to help me out; and indeed, this is just continuation of many acts of trust like this that have helped me raise my child. I live in this world, in this society, an individual sure, but also one reliant on others to help me live my life. And those of the ones I love. This little act, of dropping my daughter off to school, is a daily, acute reminder of my social indebtedness, my social being.

Space Exploration And The Invisible Women

Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.

As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.

It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.

As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.

‘Reciprocity’ As Organizing Principle For The Moral Instruction Of Young Women

I’ve often wondered how best to provide moral instruction to my daughter as she grows up, what principles and duties to keep front and center in the course of my conversations with her as she begins to grow into an age where her interactions with other human beings start to grow more complex. Over the past year or so, I’ve strived to organize this ‘instruction’ around the concept of ‘reciprocity,’ around a variation of the Golden Rule and the altruism it implies: do good unto others; but only continue with the good if it is reciprocated; do not feel obligated to respond to unkindness with kindness; indeed, you shouldn’t respond to unkindness with kindness; if good is done to you, then you must reciprocate with good. There is one conditional duty in here: that of doing good to others, whose obligations continue to hold only if your acts are met with good done to you in turn. There is no duty to do good in response to bad being done unto you; and there is an absolute duty of doing good to others when they do good unto you.

I’ve tried to provide this instruction by way of simple examples: we should not litter because in doing so we would make our neighborhoods dirty for ourselves and our neighbors; they should do the same for us; if some kid in school is nice to you, you should be nice back to them; if someone in school is not nice to you when you have been so to them, then don’t feel the need to continue being nice with them; acknowledge people’s generosity and kindness in some fashion, even if with a simple ‘thanks’; and so on. I’ve tried to make the claim that society ‘hangs together,’ so to speak, because of reciprocity. Without it, our social arrangements would fall apart.

Reciprocity is not as generous and self-sacrificing as pure altruism. I chose reciprocity as an organizing principle because I believe a commitment to altruism can hurt people, and moreover, in our society and culture, altruism has proved to be largely harmful to women. I was, and am, especially worried about a girl growing up–as too many in the past have–to believe that her primary duty is to make others happy, to do good to others even if good is not being done to her in turn. I believed that stressing reciprocity as an organizing moral principle would point in the direction of some positive obligations to make others happy but it would also place some limitations on those obligations. Aristotle wrote of the need to maintain a mean of sorts as we ‘practiced’ the virtue of generosity, between wastefulness and stinginess–the altruist gives too much in this reckoning. A moral agent guided by the principle of reciprocity aims to find a mean in the generosity of their benevolent or good actions: by all means be generous, but pick the targets of your generosity wisely.

I realize that the injunction to only do good if it is reciprocated in some way sounds vaguely unforgiving or unkind and perhaps self-defensive; but again, as I noted above, some such measure of protection is necessary for women, who for too long have been crushed by the burden of unfair or unrealistic expectations of their conduct, to the detriment of their well-being. I want my daughter to do good unto others, but I also want good to be done to her.

My daughter, to her credit, seems to have listened; she can now use the word ‘reciprocity’ in conversation and sometimes to describe a plan of ac; I wait to see how well she will internalize the ‘lessons’ it forms the core of. (She likes the rhyming with ‘gravity’; as I say to her, gravity makes the world of things work, reciprocity makes the world of people work!)

Note: ‘reciprocity’ enjoys two entries in Wikipedia. One drawn from social psychology  and the other from social and political philosophy.

 

 

 

 

A Complex Act Of Crying

I’ve written before, unapologetically, on this blog, about my lachrymose tendencies: I cry a lot, and I dig it. One person who has noticed this tendency and commented on it is my daughter. She’s seen ‘the good and the bad’: once, overcome by shame and guilt for having reprimanded her a little too harshly, I broke down in tears as I apologized to her; my daughter, bemused, accepted my apology in silence. Sometimes, my daughter has noticed my voice quiver and break as I’ve tried to read her something which moved me deeply; the most recent occurrence came when I read to her a children’s book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–as I began to tell my daughter about the first time I, as a teenager, had experienced the King legend in a televised documentary. I had to stop reading, hand over those duties to my wife, and watch as my daughter heard the rest the book read to her. And, of course, because my daughter and I often listen to music together, my daughter has seen me respond to music with tears. On these occasions, she is convinced that I’m crying because I’m ‘so happy!’

In recent times the song that has served to induce tears in me almost immediately is Chrissie Hynde‘s cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘I Shall Be Released‘ at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1997. (Here is a music video of the  performance; the audio can be found, among other places on Spotify.) No matter what, whenever my daughter and I have sat down some evening–in between dinner and bath and story time–to watch and listen to Chrissie Hynde put her unique and distinctive touch on Dylan’s classic (ably backed up by one of the best house bands of all time – GE Smith and Booker T and the MGs among others), tears spring to my eyes. I’m not sure why; the lyrics are powerful and speak to release, redemption, deliverance, and salvation; it is almost impossible for me to not, at this stage, read so much of the song’s message into a promise of kind directed at my way, at my particular ‘prison’–of the self and its seemingly perennial, unresolvable, crises and challenges. Something in those lyrics–and their singing by Hynde–seemed to offer reassurance, kindly and gently, and with, dare I say it, an existential love for all fellow human sufferers.

So I cry. And my daughter notices. She is both delighted and ever so slightly perplexed; this is her father, a fount of both affection and discipline, a man who struggles at the best of times to find the right balance between gentleness and firmness. She is curious, and so lately, when we play the song, she takes her eyes off the screen to look at me instead; she is waiting for me to cry; and on every occasion, I have ‘come through.’ Now, the song has acquired another dimension for my daughter; she wants to play it so she can see her father cry because he is ‘so happy.’ I don’t have the heart to tell her that my feelings are a little more complicated, and besides, it is true, I’m almost ecstatic as I begin to cry, to feel a little more, and to see my daughter break out in a huge smile.

And so now, if I listen to this song by myself, either on video or audio, I cry again, but something has been added to the song: my daughter’s reaction to it, to my crying. Its emotional texture is richer, more meaningful now; now when I listen to it, I see her turn to gaze into my eyes, looking for the first hint of moisture that will tell her that Papa’s reserve is no more. And I know that years from now, when I listen to this song again, I will cry again, because its lyrics will not just carry their original emotional resonance but also the memory of those days when I used to watch and listen to it with a five-year old girl, now grown older, wiser, and perhaps less inclined to spend such time with her father. That knowledge makes these moments even more powerfully emotionally informed; and yes, even more tear-inducing. A welcome situation.

My Conception Story

As the month of March drew to a close in 1993, I traveled to India to spend some time with my terminally ill mother. I arrived ‘home’ on March 30th; my mother passed away on April 25. In those four weeks or so, all spent in the close proximity of my mother, I talked and listened a great deal; I sought to elicit stories and tales about the past that I knew would soon be lost with her passing. In particular, I urged my mother to tell me stories about my father, who had passed away fourteen years earlier; she had borne adequate witness to an important part of his life; she had been his friend and companion. I asked for a recounting of the years following their wedding, the years before I was born–my prehistory. Among the stories my mother told me was how I came to be.

In the 1960s, my father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, his life spent at various bases scattered all over the country. Before my parents’ wedding my father had served time in what were termed ‘non-family’ bases; no wives or children allowed. My mother had joined him on a ‘family base’ after their wedding; when the Air Force ordered him to move–hopefully to a ‘family base’–she moved too. The logic behind designating some bases ‘family’ and others ‘non-family’ is not immediately clear to me; you might imagine it had something to do with proximity to the border, or their use in combat missions. But amazingly enough, during the 1965 war with Pakistan, while my father flew combat missions out of an air base at Adampur in the Indian Punjab, my mother, along with her seven-month son (my elder brother) stayed at their normal family residence during operations. Indeed, she witnessed a raid by the Pakistan Air Force on the base, and spent time in a trench as bombs exploded not so far away. My mother might have imagined that with my father now married with children, the time was over for him to spend time on the dreaded ‘non-family’ base. But the ways of the military are indeed mysterious.

In the summer of 1966, my father returned home from his flying duties one day and told my mother the bad news: the air force was assigning to him a ‘non-family’ base in the north-east for an indefinite time. It would hopefully be a short posting, a stop-gap measure, but he was needed. My mother could join him later, when accommodations had been arranged, but for the time being, the family would be separated. On hearing this, my mother flew into a rage. How dare the air force do this to her? She had a year-old son to take care of; she would now have to move back home with her parents or with her in-laws, neither of which seemed like palatable alternatives. (She was always a proud and independent woman.) My father for his part, grew increasingly defensive and irate: There was nothing he could do about this state of affairs; protests were futile; this was the military and he had to follow orders. My parents squabbled furiously for a while, a conversation that finally came to an end as my mother tearfully stormed off to her bedroom while my father retired to the living room to read and to calm down in his own way.

Then, as my mother told the story, she thought and thought for a while, and then finally, she strode into the living room, and said to my father, “If you’re going to go away and leave me alone, I want another baby.” As she told me this, my mother leaned over, squeezed my hand tightly and said, “Samir, that’s the night we made you.”

I was born nine months later in March 1967, at my grandfather’s residence in Central India.

Talking About Natural Law With Children

Last Thursday, thanks to New York City public schools taking a ‘mid-winter break,’ my daughter accompanied me to Brooklyn College and sat in on two classes. My students, as might be expected, were friendly and welcoming; my daughter, for her part, conducted herself exceedingly well by taking a seat and occupying herself by drawing on a piece of paper and often, just paying attention to the class discussion. She did not interrupt me even once; and I only had to ask her to pipe down a bit when she began humming a little ditty to herself. After the second class–philosophy of law, which featured a discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas and natural law theory–had ended, I asked her what she thought the class was about. She replied, “it was about good and bad.” This was a pretty good answer, but things got better the next day.

On Friday, as we drove to gym for my workout and my daughter’s climbing session, I picked up the conversation again, asking my daughter what she made of the class discussion and whether she had found it interesting. She said she did; so I pressed on and the following conversation resulted:

“Let me ask you something. Would you always obey the law?”

“Yes”

“What if the law told you to do something bad?”

“I would do it.”

“Why? Why would you do something bad?”

“Because I don’t want to go to jail.”

“You know, I’ve been to jail twice. For breaking the law.”

“Why?”

“Well, one time, I was angry with one country for attacking people and dropping bombs on them, so I went to their embassy and protested by lying down on the street. When the police told me to move, I didn’t, and so they arrested me and put me in jail for a day. Another time, I protested our university not paying the teachers enough money for their work, and I was arrested again for protesting in the same way.” [Strictly speaking this is a bad example of civil disobedience; I wasn’t breaking a law I thought unjust, rather, I was breaking a law to make a point about the unjustness of other actions.]

“Did they feed you in jail?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Well, so what do you think? Would you break the law if it told you to do something bad?”

“No.”

“Why not? The law is asking you to do something bad.”

“What if I was wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if I was wrong, and it wasn’t bad, and the policeman put me in jail?”

“What if you were sure that you were being asked to do something bad?”

“Then I wouldn’t do it.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want do bad things.”

“But isn’t breaking the law a bad thing?”

“Yes.”

“So, why are you breaking the law?”

“Because it’s asking me to do a bad thing.”

At this point, we were close to our turn-off for the gym and our parking spot, and so our conversation ended. A couple of interesting takeaways from it:

1. We see the social construction of a legal order here in the making; at the age of five, my daughter has already internalized the idea that breaking the law is a ‘bad thing’ and that bad things happen to those who break the law. She can also identify the enforcers of the law.  This has already created a normative hold on her; she was inclined to obey the law even if it asked her to do something bad because she was worried about the consequences.

2. My daughter displayed an interesting humility about her moral intuitions; she wasn’t sure of whether her thinking of some act as ‘bad’ was infallible. What if she was wrong about that judgment?

Note: My reporting of the conversation above might be a little off; I’m reproducing it from memory.