Posts Tagged ‘Children’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My youngest daughter turned five last October. For her birthday, her aunt and uncle, my sister-in-law and brother, got her a funky pair of pink 578688_10201388189609185_1668997307_nrimmed glasses.  She was extremely excited, and so was her older sister.  The seven year old sis instantly knew what she wanted for her upcoming birthday. ‘I want some glasses just like that!’

When December rolled around, said older daughter got a package in the mail from said aunt and uncle.  Sure enough, inside was a new pair of glasses.  Happy day!

Neither of my girls need glasses to read or to see far away (unlike their parents), and so these glasses are simply fashion accessories. They wear them some days, and not others.  Often, when they want to ‘dress up’ fancy, they will break out their frames.  Wearing them to school, or preschool is all about the image.

I would be remiss to point out how wonderful I find this.   The perception surrounding glasses seems to be evolving from when I was a kid. 715swU1WPgL Back then, there was a stigma to wearing glasses, and that stigma was an American tradition.  It was so common that you can even find the normalization of this stigma in children’s books of my era.   Take for instance Marc Brown’s book Arthur’s Eyes, in which Arthur the Aardvark needs to get glasses.  The first day he shows up at the bus stop with his new eye-wear his friends laugh at him.  His best friend Buster even calls him a  ‘freak’. In 1979, when this book was published, glasses were obviously a symbol of the social outsider that everyone, even children, could recognize. If my daughters’ friends and classmates are any indication, this traditional stigma is dissipating among kids today.

What a revolutionary change  this could be for American culture!  Just look at the twentieth-century outsider terms for those who wore glasses: Nerds, geeks, and eggheads.  These people were outsiders in schools, at parties and within pop-culture because they were intellectuals. Glasses=brainiacs=social outcasts. Perhaps now this stereotype is transforming. Perhaps being smart is becoming, dare I say it, cool?

I hope so, but I want glasses to remain a perceived sign of intelligence, since the psychological process called  ‘enclothed cognition‘ may make this perception into a reality.  Put simply, ‘enclothed cognition’ studies have found wearing certain clothes can have positive or negative effects on cognitive processes.  Wearing a lab coat can make people think more clearly; wearing exercise clothes will make people want to work-out more. As far as I know, studies have never been done regarding the effect of wearing glasses on our cognitive processes. But, it seems only logical that the perception that glasses make you look smarter will make you feel smarter, which, in turn, will actually make you smarter.

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Are glasses going to remain cool, or is this just a fad?  I don’t know. All I know is that I will keep pushing my kids to wear glasses, even if they never need them for medical reasons. They and their friends may or may not think it makes them look smarter; there is no question in my mind it makes them look cute.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

On Thanksgiving morning, my wife, two girls and I headed out on a five hour car trip to Michigan.  Grandmas and Grandpas live up there, so our family makes this trip a good 10 times a year. We are all pretty used to it; or, I might say, we are all pretty sick of it.  Five hours with 2 children under 7 years of age in a car can seem like an eternity.   Keeping them occupied, and away from any sharp objects they could use to stab each other, is the name of the game.

This year, for most of the trip, we continually scanned radio stations, looking for the channels that play nothing but 1406eb94Christmas music during the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas day.  We figured this would keep our girls happy. Happy girls means happy parents.

However, after five hours of listening, we had had enough. The family discovered that there is a limited number of recognizable, pop-radio friendly Christmas tunes.  Though there seems to be endless iterations of these songs, there are only so many different versions of ‘Winter Wonderland’ (reggae, synth pop, smooth jazz) you can listen to before you are ready to jump out a moving car on I-94.

After hearing the same twenty or so songs over and over, I realized that Christmas music falls into a limited number of thematic categories. These are:

  •  Your classic, extremely Christian Christmas carols that have been within the catalog for a couple centuries.  This would include ‘Silent Night’, ‘The First Noel’, ‘O’Holy Night’, ‘We Three Kings’, ‘Joy to The World’, etc.  Generally, I love these songs….as long as Josh Groban or Carrie Underwood don’t get their mitts on them.  If so, I shudder.

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    THIS is not calming.

  • You also have your Santa Claus songs.  Usually not very religious, but obviously written specifically for one day of the year.  Most of these are from the twentieth century, and can be performed by artists from almost any genre. Think ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’, ‘Rudolph,’ etc.
  • Don’t forget the hybrid of the previous two. Christmas songs more serious than the Santa songs, but not as revered or religious as the classic ballads/choir pieces.  You could put ‘Silver Bells’, ‘A Christmas Song’, ‘White Christmas’ under this heading.
  • Lastly, you have the songs that are associated with Christmas, but are more about the season than the holiday.  Songs such as ‘Sleigh Ride’, ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Let It Snow!’

But, wait! There is one more genre of Christmas music; the weirdest kind.  You might call this ‘adult’ Christmas music, as it usually deals with love and romance.  Some are sad, such as ‘Blue Christmas’, and some are just pop songs, such as ‘Christmastime is the Time to Say I Love You’.  Most are pretty innocuous.  But then….

We come to the sexualized Christmas song.  That’s right, sexualized. A small number of regular rotation Christmas tunes are filled with adult situations, and double entendres.  Look at ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’.  Here is a song about a guy trying to talk a woman into staying the night at his house. Why is this song a holiday classic?  I mean, the dude tries to spike her drink, for goodness sake! Maybe it is my 21st century jadedness, but all I can think of is ‘ruffies’ when I hear that lyric.  

But, the most inappropriate Christmas song has to be ‘Santa Baby’.   The language, the singing style, the message, the music; double entredre on top of double entredre, with ‘strip tease’ beats.  It is so out of place to hear this tune squeezed between “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.  If you think I am overstating things, or reading too much into an innocent song, have a listen to Eartha Kitt’s classic version.

Remember, this song was recorded in 1953.  1953! In 1950′s America, this song must have been inappropriate, comparable in the 1990′s to a ’2 Live Crew’ recording of ‘Frosty the Snowman’.

Okay, with that mental, and aural image in your head, I will just stop.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

“When was your family’s tradition invented?,” I asked my student.  She was dumbfounded by my query.  “What do you mean?” she replied.  It was the first class in my food history course a couple years ago when this conversation took place.  The class had been discussing the meaning of food, and how food is central to our traditions.  When I asked my student about her family’s Thanksgiving tradition, and when it was invented, the question didn’t register.  For her, the tradition went back long before her birth, and was timeless.  There was no beginning; there would not be an end. After reminding her that it must have been created at some point, I could see her mind was just a little bit blown, for better or worse.

The idea that traditions are ‘invented’ does seem odd.  Traditions often feel as though their creation is organic; a natural occurrence.  In his essay titled “The Invention of Tradition”, the late, great British historian Eric Hobsbawm 28005218343illustrated that they are actually social constructions that have a definitive purpose.  His contention was that traditions shared by citizens of a state are a much needed ingredient in the formation of national consciousness, and that since the French Revolution, when our notions of the modern nation took form, the invention of national traditions has taken off. Shared national traditions help transform disparate individuals into a connected community.

Hobsbawm was concerned with the macro view. At the individual, micro level, traditions are just as important. If they didn’t exist, we would need to invent them; and, we do. We, as humans, simply love tradition.  No matter our political stances, we are inherently drawn to our traditions.  We depend upon them.  When traditions fall away in time, we mourn them.  As a parent, I have seen this love of tradition develop.

My girls are now 6 and a half, and almost 5 years old.  Both love tradition, though the older one is definitely more concerned with it.  During the last couple years, she has latched onto traditions that, in her mind, must be upheld.  Now, you may think this is crazy.  How could a girl love tradition if she only has been alive for some six years, and really only remembers about 2 to 3 years of her life?  Perhaps it is my influence; perhaps she is a wistful soul; perhaps it is biological?  I don’t know, but her need for tradition is obvious.

5409238621_bdc3493eb7Last month, my wife took the two girls camping for a couple weeks at her family’s traditional vacation spot in Michigan.  As my wife’s family has been going to this spot to camp for 50 odd years, the two weeks spent there are all about tradition.  My daughter senses this, and eats it up.  She has quickly become one of the enforcers of upholding certain traditions.  The whole family must, and I mean must, go to House of Flavors for food and ice cream a couple times during the vacation.  We must watch the big ships come in from the lake, playing on the large playground as we wait for their arrival.  We must run down the big sand dune outside the ranger station immediately after we enter the park.  Events, foods, and experiences will inevitably be repeated each year, and my girls already realize this.

Traditions form during the special times of our lives.  If my daughters ran down a sand hill every day, it would no longer be tradition; it would be habit, or routine. It is the rarity and repetitiveness that sanctifies the annually  repeated vacation moments. Similarly, this is why holiday traditions are so endearing and necessary. My daughters already have created their own holiday traditions. For instance, my older girl has made it clear that her birthday party must be at grandma and grandpa’s house, since this has been our tradition since she was two years old.  Likewise, since that first party, we have ordered pizza from the same restaurant, so that must continue.  And don’t forget that grandma must make a strawberry birthday cake.  If her mom or I mention having a different type of party for her birthday, she is fine with that….as long as we have her real party at grandma and grandpa’s.

The Sandhill - My Girls are going up.

The Sandhill – My Girls are going up.

As I have mused on my daughters’ love of traditions, I wonder if the eventual death of our traditions is what leads to that odd feeling known as nostalgia.  Nostalgia is bittersweet. It is melancholic and, yet, heartwarming. Nostalgia does not form when we have a memory of the random past events of our lives.  We only feel nostalgia when we look back, and feel a strong reminiscence for something recognizable, repeated and safe. I think my girls are going to feel this most for their inevitably lost traditions.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

So much has changed in my life since I became the father of two girls.  Though it is definitely not the most radical, or life-changing transformation, one of the most notably obvious is my lack of control when it comes to entertainment. My television is no longer my own. Instead of Mad Men, I am forced to watch Wild Kratts.  Instead of The Sopranos, I must listen to Curious George.  Instead of Powerpuff Girls….well, okay, we both enjoy the Powerpuff Girls.

Like TV programs, the film choices for our family movie nights are always made by the two girls. Luckily, as the girls age, movie night is becoming more tolerable. Now we get to watch The Muppets, or Hugo, or the first three Harry Potter films.  I enjoy these flix, but even well-made children’s films are still children’s films.

During the last six years,  the world of film has passed me by, but I think I am finally ready, willing and able to do something about it. So, this summer, I have begun to watch some of the critically and commercially acclaimed films of the last couple years. But, to my surprise, I have found big blockbusters  such as The Avengers, or Skyfall, or Avatar generally disappointing.  Before children, I was able to lose myself in such films. It is not as easy now. I think the problem is that I get an overabundance of simplistic scripts, prat falls, and predictable plot twists from most of the movies my daughters watch.  Many Hollywood movies are similar to these children’s films, with the exception of the “ intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking” that marks serious cinema.

I’m looking for a little something more.

Thus, several weeks ago I began to explore those famous, sometimes infamous, always influential films that ‘everyone should see at least once.’  I am talking about the classics. The problem is, I am not sure what I should watch.  Maybe you, dear reader, can help.  Here is what I have viewed so far:

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Scene from ‘Mishima’

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) – an artistic, highly stylized biopic of the great Japanese writer who committed seppuku at the age of 45.  Incredible film.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Sergio Leone’s epic tale of Jewish-American gangsters living, fighting, and dying in 20th century New York.  Honestly, I felt this film has not held up over the years. It seemed dated.

Seven Samarai (1954) – One of the most influential films by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.  I found the plot strangely familiar, and then I realized it was because there have been roughly 200 movies since Kurasawa’s film that have copied it.

The Seventh Seal (1957) – Probably Ingmar Bergman’s most famous film, largely because of the scenes of a Medieval knight playing chess against a personified death. I was very pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable this seventh-seal-chessclassic was.  The film is interesting, funny, intelligent and full of life.

Gary Cooper in 'High Noon'

Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’life. A must see!

High Noon (1952) – This American Western is not your average shoot-em up cowboy flick. The movie deals with a sheriff’s inevitable upcoming gun battle with a psychotic criminal, and the sheriff’s attempt to answer why he is not running away from likely death. I really wished the film ended before the gunfight began, since I felt the cerebral nature of the first 9/10th of the film was much better than the ‘climatic’ show-down.

This is what I have seen so far, but I have a couple films in my queue for the next week.  Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita are on the docket.  But, what then? What are some other films that everyone should see at least once?  Let me know what you think.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

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Noah and Lane

I met Jen when we were both twenty years old.  We were half-way through college, and had plans to go to graduate school. We were instantly inseparable.  We wanted to move to the big city, experience independence and live our lives. In other words, we had no thought of having children.

In our early twenties, Chicago was the place to be and graduate school took up all our energy.  After graduation, Jen and I were both lucky enough to find jobs at Robert Morris.  Economically stable, we figured we might as well get married. We were 26, and we were Chicagoans through and through. Each weekend we hung out with friends, disposing all of our disposable income. Still, no plans for children.

At 29, things changed. Jen and I made a decision. We wanted a child.

Our first daughter, Noah, was born when we were 30 years old. Though both Jen and I had advanced degrees, and full time careers, we never knew hard-work until Noah arrived.  From Noah’s first three months, when she inconsolably cried every night from 6-9pm, to today when she has the attitude of a 16 year old in a 6 year old’s body, every day was, and has been a new challenge that continuously tests us physically and psychologically. We have come to the realization that our 9-5 jobs are relaxing in comparison to our grueling occupations as mom and dad.

But, we were not done.  Since one offspring didn’t break us, why not sire a second child?  Lane was born when we were 32 years of age, making us parents twice over.  The second is definitely easier than the first. However, the problem was Jen and I no longer had numerical superiority. It was 2 against 2 on the best days.  1 against 2 when Jen or I had an evening class. On those nights,mom or dad was outnumbered and outgunned.

I sometimes wonder: What would have happened if Jen and I had had these two kids when we first met? I shudder at the thought. At 20, both of us were still children ourselves.  We were self-centered and immature. Everything revolved around our needs and desires, and there is no doubt that emotionally and mentally we would not have been prepared for children. For us, the correct decision was to wait until our thirties. We needed the extra decade for psychological stability.

Yet, biologically, and physically, the opposite is true.  Women reach their peak of fertility at 19. Men around the same age. 19!  That is when nature intended for us to have Noah and Lane. At 19, my wife and I were in college, living on 4 hours of sleep, eating terrible food, and, yet, feeling indestructible. At that age, we would have physically been prepared for children much more than our 30 something selves.

The only thing I can figure is that Mother Nature must love a paradox.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

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Socrates

I love Socrates.  It is hard not to.  In an age when physical beauty was all-important, Socrates was notoriously unattractive.  Big head, bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, pot-belly and dirty feet were his physical attributes.  When we say ‘true beauty is on the inside’, Socrates helps us prove the cliche is more than just talk.  It was his brain that made the man beautiful.  Of course, that beautiful brain would earn Socrates a death sentence.

In 399 BC Socrates drank a small cup of hemlock and died in seconds. Infamously, the reason he was put to death was for ‘corrupting’ the youth of Athens, and for introducing new divinities into the polis.  But, the real problem was twofold.  First, he kept company with men who would become enemies of the Athenian city-state.  These men admired and loved Socrates, and so, the philosopher was painted with the brush of disloyal collaboration.  Second, and more importantly, he simply asked too many damn questions that ticked off powerful people.

The questions Socrates asked were difficult to answer, and his dialogue partners often found themselves in the embarrassing situation of realizing that they were not quite as wise as they thought. Granted, Socrates asked some toughies. He wanted to know: What is virtue?  Why should people be good?  What is beauty? What is truth?  As he walked the streets, he understandably looked for those that society proclaimed as wise, powerful, and virtuous to get his answers. But, as he would frame his broad questions to chosen Athenians, he found (and so did they), that they had little idea how to respond. This embarrassment led to anger; anger led to punishment.

I always get excited to introduce (or reintroduce) Socrates to my students in Western Civilization and Comparative Worldviews.  In comparison to other great philosophers, his arguments are quite accessible and his hypothetical situations are made for classroom discussions.  (I find the Ring of Gyges is the best for heated debate.)  But, I realized there is something else that makes Socrates so understandable and easy to empathize with: Every student has known a Socrates. Every student has even been a Socrates themselves.  Then they grew out of it.

Raising my own children has provided me with a perfect, recognizable analogy for Socrates.  At about three, our girls both turned into mini-Socratic thinkers. They grasped the wisdom that the only thing they knew was that they knew nothing. And so, what do little 3 and 4 year olds do?  They ask ‘why’?  “Why this, and why that”; why everything.  “Why do you go to work, daddy”?  “Why do you garden, mommy”? “Why are we Americans?” “Why do I need to go to bed”?  “Why do people die”?

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Nemesis

How do parents respond?  We usually get frustrated.  “Stop asking”!  “Why? Because it just is”!  “I said so, that’s why”! Or, we buy them off. “Wouldn’t you like some ice cream”?  Such responses are based upon more than simple annoyed exhaustion.  Parents realize that once three or four consecutive “whys” are thrown our way, we don’t really have an answer anymore.  Parental frustration stops being simply about answering questions, and soon becomes self-examination of our lack of wisdom. We stop children dead in their tracks with logical fallacies, and the changing of subjects because we want to keep living within our caves.  We find that our children’s  questions can make us squirm with discomfort.

We are able to buy children off with some frozen treats, or scare them with raised voices.  For those in Ancient Athens, Socrates was not so easily disabused of his questions.  Ice cream wouldn’t do it.  Anger wouldn’t do it.  Socrates argued that he was the only thing keeping Athens awake and aware, and would never stop buzzing around them with questions.  So they killed him.

Athenian democrats silenced a voice that made them feel uncomfortable, frustrated, and frightened.  They never had to hear those “why” questions from the old man again.  Ah, but fate is fickle. Nemesis, the Greek goddess of divine retribution brought comeuppance. Though Athenians killed him off, a new Socrates was born in Athens everyday.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My oldest daughter started Kindergarten about a month ago. Since then, she has been on a mission to inform her mother and me all about the world.  She has taught us what fiction and nonfiction means.  We now realize that people ACTUALLY LIVE in Africa!  Evidently, she also has been taking some gymnastic courses when we weren’t looking, because she looks like Gabby Douglas on the monkey bars.  What she is most proud of though is her developing ability to read, spell and write.

Watching her struggle through Dr. Seuss, ‘popcorn words’ and homework has made me realize a few things.  First, the English language is ridiculously confusing.  Second, vowels are a pain in the a–.  Third, and most importantly, reading is not the natural state of being.  What do I mean by that third statement, you may ask?  Well, let me explain.

During the past few decades, genetic research and psychological studies have discredited the idea that the human mind is a ‘blank slate’ at birth.  Babies are born with a brain ready to be structured and ‘programmed’ by its

Little Albert Einstein

environment.  The findings of the last thirty years have proven that babies have an incredible amount of ‘folk- knowledge’ that surprises even the most loving parent.  I think the most interesting of these is the ability babies seem to have to understand rudimentary physics.  Now, this doesn’t mean that babies are little Albert Einstein clones. This means that babies understand that things usually fall to the earth, and not levitate toward the heavens.  They intuitively grasp that if a big object bumps into a smaller object, that smaller object should usually react.  Isaac Newton, eat your heart out.

Though parents may not have realized their babies have a rudimentary knowledge of physics, they undoubtedly have noticed that babies are ready from the first moment to communicate.  Babies immediately cry for food; within the first couple months they make and hold eye contact; within a half a year, most babies coo for their parents, often copying adult sounds.  As babies turn into toddlers, they begin to read the emotions of those around them, they make more recognizable noises, and they will use hand gestures, such as pointing.  Of course, this leads to the most important communication development for humanity; speech.  Kids say ‘mamma’; then ‘mamma uppy’; then ‘momma I want uppy’; then ‘mom please pick me up’; then ‘mom, please do not touch me in front of my friends.’

What is amazing is that children don’t need to be purposely taught such syntax development. It just happens by them listening to the people around them.  Children growing up in France speak French.  Children in Japan, speak Japanese. Etc, etc.  Nature and nurture work together for language development.  Some kids get a leg up, and some start in a crater. It has been estimated that children who have parents that read books to them  will have heard 30 million more words in their lives by the time they start school than those that have non-reading parents. No amount of ‘nature’ can overcome this ‘nurture’.

Now back to my daughter in Kindergarten.  As a baby, she had precocious verbal skills. All I had to do was talk to her. Her brain did the rest, and did it quite simply it seemed.  Therefore it was a bit of a surprise that reading and writing does not come as simply.  I have had to remind myself that all kids find reading an incredible challenge, and my daughter is no different. She needs to concentrate like she never has before.  She needs to deliberately and gruelingly sound out each letter of every new word.  As she gains memory of how each word sounds by just glancing at it, she reads more smoothly, but it is no easy task.

Her slow development of skills helps me realize how recent reading became a human skill. It has only been around for about 5000 years.  There is no brain ‘program’ for reading.  It is not picked up by watching others.  It takes hours and hours of deep thought.  What strikes me about this is just how natural we as Americans often think reading is. Words are everywhere, and why not, since 99% of Americans are literate.  Unfortunately, this means that the 1% illiterate is often seen as unnatural outliers.  But, watching my little girl try to work her way through “Fox in Socks”, I get a sense for the freakishness of this ability.  Now we need to make sure all children can become literate freaks.