Friday, July 18, 2014

A tragedy unfolds and the perils of social media

The Malaysian Airlines plane MH17 being shot down over the Ukraine is such a sad tragedy I don't have the words to quite express how awful it is. I can't even imagine how terrible the family and friends of those on board feel during this dark time, and keep thinking about those that lost their lives. 

Since finding out, I've been obsessively reading about it online, and watching a number of different news channels' rolling coverage. In between feeling shock and horror at what happened, it's also occurred to me how we ought to proceed with caution when relying on social media and news stations for breaking news. 

First, there are the grisly images. I've not seen any myself, but have heard that they're everywhere. I am absolutely shocked and appalled that these are so easy to find for a number of reasons. On a personal level, they are images that, once seen, can't be unseen, and ought to come with warnings. Secondly, these are images of people who have been dead for under 24 hours. Surely they deserve some dignity in their death? 

Second, there are the stories that are reported loudly as fact, but then quietly corrected as more details come to light. Most people don't ever see the quiet corrections, so the initial reports somehow become recognised as fact. Even over the past few hours I've noticed that a few stories have been quietly taken down or rewritten by the news websites, without any corrections formally noted. I don't know at what point in news reporting the rush to be first to break a story somehow became more important than being right, but I think it's a real shame that this has happened. At the end of the day, we are all worse for the misinformation being spread in this way. 

Third, the internet can quickly turn into a giant rumor-mill, where hearsay and educated guesses turn into facts. Sometimes, it's also as if people forget that this is news about real people, not some sort of Hollywood blockbuster. We don't deserve all of the information, at least not until the families of those who have lost their lives have it, especially when it comes to notifying loved ones of someone's passing.  We need to be more patient that this will happen in the fullness of time. 

Don't get me wrong. I love the internet. I also love that I can access screeds of information from various countries with a few clicks of the mouse. I also need to remind myself, though, that when a global tragedy unfolds, there are a few things that I need to bear in mind when reading about it online. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Competitive parenting, or lazy small talk?

It's a truth universally acknowledged that whenever you get a group of parents in a room, they will talk about their children. Some of these parents are so competitive they will use every excuse to tell you why their child is even more talented that Einstein, Usain Bolt and Beethoven combined. Some parents are just tactless, and will say one or more of these things parents should never say to one another. Some are interesting and entertaining. And the rest are probably just making small talk. 

We've all been there: the toddler and baby groups where parents awkwardly stand around watching their progeny play instruments or walk along a beam. On the face of it, the kids are what we have in common, so it's natural that most conversation focuses around them until we get to know each other better. How old are they? we ask. Oh, he's sitting/crawling/walking/ dancing under the limbo stick. Good for them, we say. My child can't sit/crawl/walk/ dance under the limbo stick without whacking his face. Isn't your baby big/small/hairy/bald? Isn't that nice?

I say all of those things with the best of them. Talking about the children is less cliched than talking about the weather, and much easier than talking about many of the things that truly interest me. I don't want to talk about the children all of the time, not really. I'd much rather discuss Thomas Piketty's theory on income inequality, whether you'd rather be a pirate or a ninja, or current events. But, most of the time, what falls out of my mouth is inane small talk. 

There have been times recently when I've realised with horror that my inane small talk could be construed as competitive parenting, especially when talking to mothers of children the same age as mine. I know plenty of women that rally against competitive parenting; blogging and raging about how we need to stop comparing our children to each other and so on. I agree with these women in theory. However, I suspect, that in many cases, a lot of this competitive parenting isn't competitive parenting at all, it's just lazy small talk. 

When your baby who can't crawl is sitting beside mine who can, and I ask how old they are, I'm not comparing the babies. I'm just making small talk. When you tell me that your baby is in fact a full month older than mine, I'm not giving you a judgmental look. I'm just tired. And if I comment on your child's size, I'm not hinting that you're responsible for worsening the obesity epidemic or that you don't feed your child anything except mung beans.  I probably just had a bad night last night with the kids and am not thinking about what I'm saying. I'm not judging you. In fact, to be perfectly honest and at risk of sounding harsh, I probably don't even care. 

I imagine that's the case for many parents that we encounter. I also suspect that if you are getting upset about the sheer number of competitive remarks and judgmental looks coming your way, it may be that you're muddling inane small talk and tired glances with competitive parenting, judgement and scorn. If that isn't the case, it may be that the best solution is to find a new toddler group to attend, where the other parents are less competitive. Or, ask the other women whether they'd rather be a pirate or a ninja, and see how the conversation goes from there. 

Since I realised that most of the other parents are probably just making small talk and that tired looks aren't judgment and scorn, I haven't actually bumped into a truly competitive parent in months, just other parents chatting about the one thing we have the most obviously in common. Unless the parent in question is bragging that their toddler is a sprinter with crazy hair who plays Moonlight Sonata on the piano with their feet. In that case, they probably are bragging, to which the obvious reply is "I'm Team Ninja, what about you?"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Boys" toys and "girls" toys - has anything moved on from 1945?

I always assumed that toys had changed since the parenting guide Modern Mothercraft was published in 1945. They've certainly got more buttons, lights, and the ability to make more noise. They're much cheaper comparatively due to parallel importing, and often more poorly made. After looking at the below chart from Mothercraft, though, I was surprised to find most of my son's favourite toys making an appearance. Toys may be shinier now, but it seems that my son and the Baby Boomers enjoyed banging, building, biking, and vrooming just as much as each other.


Something else hasn't changed since 1945: the gender segregation of toys. The 1945 publication isn't very subtle about boys' toys and girls' toys. For example, it says: "We watch two year-old Tommy busily filling his little cart or bucket with gravel, or hammering two blocks together, and three-year old Jane gravely bathing her doll, and feel we have a preview of their future adult life." Nice.




It's a shame that we haven't come very far since 1945. Toys today are clearly divided into boys' and girls' sections, with children getting told by society and marketers very early on that they are only supposed to play with certain things depending on their gender. While campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys have made some progress in raising awareness and changing how sections of toys stores are signposted, we still have a long way to go.

Maybe in some ways things were even better in 1945. At least then toys like blocks, tricycles and art supplies weren't separated by gender: blocks were blocks, not blocks for girls and blocks for boys. There was no way my Depression-era grandparents would have spent money on something only marketed for children of one gender, as these toys were expected to last for a number of kids, irrespective of whether they were boys or girls. What we have today seems to be a bit of a catch-22: because toys are comparatively cheaper, they are aggressively marketed in ways to make us buy more.

Now I'm not saying that girls and boys don't have different play preferences, because many do. My son is obsessed with diggers and bulldozers, interests which have been completely driven by him. What I object to is dividing toys by gender that really don't need it: bikes, blocks, toy phones, and scissors; toys that function exactly the same, regardless of whether they are pink or blue. Or, sending the message to our children that only boys play with cars, and only girls play with dolls. My son's favourite toy is a doll, and it makes me sad to think that one day he might learn that boys aren't supposed to play with them.

After all, if this continues, what are we really telling our children about what their future adult life ought to be like? That all of their hobbies and interests they may yet develop are all somehow predetermined and limited by whether or not they have a "Y" chromosome? Almost 70 years after Mothercraft's initial publication, when it comes to gender and toys, maybe it is finally time to move on.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Let's stop being judgmental about what other people call their kids

Imagine a world where people who liked chocolate icecream assumed that all of the people who preferred strawberry were more likely to be criminals, or a world where people who liked mint were considered more likely to fail at school. Where butterscotch icecream shouldn't be eaten because it was common, and choosing vanilla means you'd make a good politician. No? That sounds silly, right? Most of us simply accept that different people have different tastes, and move on. Why, then, do we throw judgement like that around when it comes to naming our children? 

I used to have so many secret judgmental thoughts about what other people called their kids, I'm lucky the judgy-pants didn't give me a permanent wedgie. "You called them what?" I'd think. "You used what spelling? Isn't that far too modern/trendy/weird/popular/boring? What are you thinking?" At some point, though, it dawned on me that I was at the receiving end of as much judgement as I dished out. My daughter has a top-10 name that is often called too "popular", and my son's name is so unusual 95% of people we meet have never heard it before. If I'm to believe everything people say on the subject, my daughter will go through life resenting that she is one of a dozen girls in her year with her name, and my son will never get job interviews. Apparently I've also committed a cardinal sin by using alliteration, and a middle name that is technically a "nickname" rather than a "real name". I realised that I was the judgee as much as the judge, saw how ridiculous it all was, and decided to discard my judgy-pants for good. 

Since seeing the light and reforming my judgmental ways, I've become even more aware of how downright mean people can be about names. When we judge other people's naming choices, what we're really saying is "everyone should be like me!" Or, we see other, different naming choices as some sort of criticism of our own decisions.  Which is silly, really. If you like strawberry icecream and I like chocolate, it isn't personal. It just means we have different tastes. 

There are also nasty undercurrents to the judgement which is often thinly-veiled racism or class-ism in action.  If my son's curriculum vitae is rejected when he's older because of his name, that's saying more about whoever is reading it than him as he has a Maori name, in recognition of his heritage. If people who aren't English are made to feel scared to give their children names in their native languages because they may not get jobs one day, that's only the tip of the iceberg of a wider problem. 

When we meet new adults, we don't usually give much thought to their names. It's not like when I'm introduced to a Marlene, my first thought is "I don't think we can be friends, because I know what all Marlenes are like. That's a naughty name.  If your name was Magda, on the other hand, I'd totally give you the time of day. That's a good name for a lawyer or doctor." Why, then, do we make these judgments about children? All children are different, and have many different facets to their personalities and identities. It's unfair to make a set of assumptions about a person's being based on a few syllables, and we as the adults ought to take the lead here. So, let's stop the judgement, and respect other people's naming decisions a little bit more. Or, at the very least, be more consistent with the judgement and start getting into a tizzy about people who chose a different flavour of ice cream to you. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

5 ways we should be more like toddlers

Ah, toddlers. Those little beings given to us to keep us on our toes. Like many other parents, I spend a lot of time scratching my head in wonder at the seemingly random things my toddler does and says. It just makes no sense. For example, why did a particular song on the radio make him tear off his clothes and run to fetch a maraca? I am still in the dark on that one.  Upon closer observation, though, I've started to think that instead of regarding my toddler with a quizzical expression, there are some behaviours I should emulate.  Namely:

1. Enjoy things with every fibre of your being. The other day I was at a playground with my son. We were both having a great time going down the slide together. I smiled and thought 'this is fun'. He, on the other hand, laughed so hard he couldn't even stand up. It's as if at some point around our adolescent years, we learnt that it isn't "cool" to be too enthusiastic about things. We adults laugh, but not so hard we shake. The only time you really see adults literally falling about laughing is when they're drunk.  This is a shame, and I think toddlers have a thing or two to teach us when it comes to truly enjoying the world around us. 

2. Forgive other people. Toddlers don't hold grudges. At a recent play date, another wee boy took my son's favourite toy and threw it. Another girl tried to steal his doll. My son forgave them both instantly: no passive-aggressive Facebook status updates, no bitching to third parties, no grudge-holding for the next decade. If only we adults were as forgiving. 

3. Cry. Of course, I don't mean crying of the flailing-limbs-in-the-supermarket while yelling "I want chocolate" variety. But, I like the way that when something makes my son sad, he'll cry. Yesterday, it was a scene in Frozen that made him so sad he shed a tear. Last month, it was when Grandma went home. Like the laughing I mentioned above, it's a shame we regulate our emotions as much as we do. Maybe it would have been cathartic to have cried in Frozen as well. 

4. Be assertive. Think about what you want, and go for it. Even if that thing is completely irrational, like for your broken bit of bread to magic itself back into one piece. I know there are plenty of times in my life I would benefit from being more assertive, and for adopting a toddler's negotiation tactics.

5. Ask questions. Some days I hear the word "why" so often even when I'm alone I feel that I can hear it. But, some days, my toddler asks questions, and I realise I don't actually know the answer. Like, what's the difference between a bison and a buffalo? I had to resort to Google for that, wondering all the while why I didn't know, and why I'd never thought to look it up. Intellectual curiosity is never a bad thing, and I wonder at what stage I stopped asking why quite so often myself. 

Of course, there are plenty of toddler behaviours which would lose you friends and probably get you fired. No-one would want to sit beside the person at work who throws a tantrum when their pasta has too  much sauce on it, or does a wee on the middle of the floor. But, still, I think we have a lot to learn from toddlers. And eventually, maybe I'll start to understand mine a little bit better. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

True gender equality: letting my son wear pink if he wants to

The other day, I gave my little girl pigtails. I used pink elastic bands, and topped the look off with a bow clip. Stepping back to admire my handiwork, I heard a little voice beside me. "What about me?" my son said. "I want that too!" It was then that I realised that I've been thinking so much about my girl growing up feeling equal to boys, I'd totally neglected giving the same message to my son.

All of the evidence says that my son is likely to earn more than my daughter, achieve more seniority in the workplace, and do fewer chores in the home. If they both want to be actors, my daughter will be playing mothers while my son is still cast as a romantic lead. If they both write books about coming-of-age that include a romance, his is more likely to be called "literature" and given a serious cover. Hers is more likely to be given a pink cover with shoes on it. If they both become politicians, her looks are more likely to be poked fun of. It's completely natural that given all of these potential obstacles she'll face, parents of daughters the World over go the extra mile to reinforce Girl Power.

But, still. Where does this leave our sons? Parents give their daughters trucks as a point of principle, but don't give their sons dolls. Girls are dressed in pink and blue and all of the colours in between, but dressing boys in pink still seems to have a taboo around it. Which is silly, really, as the pink/blue gender divide is 100% nurture, not nature. Girls wear trousers, but the same people who dress their girls in trousers will look askance when they see a boy in a skirt. Especially a pink skirt.  With frills.

The thing is, if we are sending the signal to our sons that skirts, pink and dolls are wrong, won't we also be sending the signal to our daughters that her many of her things - her girl things - are somehow inferior? Especially if she's given "boy" toys and wears blue, when he's never given "girl" toys or wears pink. And if that's the case, how can our daughters ever grow up feeling truly equal?

We also have to ask ourselves why we as a society aren't more embracing of pink for boys and them playing with dolls. Some people say they don't mind, they just don't want their sons to be bullied. This is said without the self-awareness that if they say such things in their children's earshot, they have become part of the problem. Others are scared their sons will look 'gay', without realising how disgustingly prejudiced and homophobic that sounds. Not to mention ridiculous. It's not as if a young boy will go from being heterosexual to homosexual after a few hours wearing a tutu, or getting a doll for their birthday. Many more point to nature, saying things like "my son has never liked pink, it's in his genes", or "my son has never shown an interest in dolls." Never mind that he has never been dressed in pink, and never given a girls' toy.

So, with those thoughts in mind, I did my son's hair. I gave him two pigtails, which he declared to be just like "giraffe ears", and wore them proudly around the house for the next hour. He also enjoyed admiring his bow clip in the mirror, before throwing it to the ground. As he grows up he may want to wear pink, or he may not. He may play with his dolls and toy pram, or he may choose his trucks. But just like my daughter, I want him, too, to have a choice. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why we need to stop judging other people on how they spend their money

One of the problems with money is how much people judge each other on how they choose to spend it. Obviously there are other problems with money. Such as, for many people, not having enough of it. Or, in the case of Scrooge McDuck, the ever-present risk of giving himself concussion after diving into a pit of coins. While those topics would be interesting issues to cover (especially poor McDuck's injuries), though, it's the issue of judgy-ness that I wish to address today. Maybe this isn't relevant to you as you never judge people on how they spend their money. In which case, you deserve a medal. Or perhaps, no-one ever judges you either. If that's the case, all your friends and family deserve medals. But, if you're like many people I know who either get judged or are judged, here are my top tips on why you should never judge other people on how they spend .

As I touched on here, it's far too easy to judge other people by how they spend their money. Everyone has different priorities. Just because you choose to spend thousands on a diamond-encrusted chastity belt, doesn't mean that your friend who spent the same amount on a learning the ancient arts of Gorilla massage is in the wrong. It's just different.

Moreover, when you spend money, you've been through the process of rationalising it to yourself. Through this process you've convinced yourself of one of four things:

1. You WANT it! You've decided that whatever you're buying or spending money on is something you really want and will bring you joy. Or, at the very least, that little buzz you get from spending money on something nice.

2. You NEED it! It's something you need to pay for or buy, like tax and bills and food. After all, no-one wants to live in a house with no water or electricity while waiting for the tax-man to come knocking, with nothing but the sound of your rumbling stomach for company.

3. You *cough* NEED it *cough* kinda ... This is the category of stuff that you actually want, but have managed to convince yourself that you need it. Most of what I buy probably fits here. I *cough* need *cough* a new Tablet. Or some new jeans. Or a TV that connects to the internet.

4. You can afford it. Technically. Even if it comes at the expense of something else, or has been put on your credit card with no plan of how to pay it back. At least, by whatever means, you can walk out of the shop with your purchase having paid in some shape or form.

When other people watch you spend that money, though, they haven't been through that process. The judgement comes when people watch others spend and think one of four things instead: