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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Early Learning

Posted by Marc Bousquet on 01/13/09 at 02:35 PM

cross-posted from howtheuniversityworks.com

One of the things that child-rearing has taught H. and myself is that parenting is the new mystical Belief System in Many Flavors.  Like the old belief systems still causing wars around the planet, Parenting Choices (PC) are not really suitable dinner conversation. 

Those whose children are older don’t fight with each other about these issues, but put a wild-eyed First-Time Parent at the table, all hopped up on hormones, sleep deprivation and a bookshelf of contradictory advice and you’re guaranteed a sectarian conflict. The first-timers can’t keep their matches away from the conversational gasoline. 

Best case scenario with a First Time Parent at the table is you’re going to lose half an hour to a food fight among the adults.  That is, a fight about food--when to give solids, how long to breastfeed, using formula, which formula, blah, blah, blah. And what to an outsider might appear to be just an animated conversation is actually high-stakes moral combat. Reputations are going to be ruined. Friendships destroyed. “You gave him solids starting when?”

And food is just the beginning. Committed parents have beliefs with Great and Unshakeable Moral Authority about sleeping, diapering, speaking, playing, music, other caregivers, potty training, and early learning.  Have a little boy? Wait ‘til somebody wants to talk about circumcision over an otherwise charming lunch. (Think I’m making this up? I was that guy.)

Seriously. The big parenting cohort that a parent or couple begins with, say a local moms’ group, birth class, or the like--the choices of the first year or so whittle that huge bunch into a congeries of warring cliques based on compatibility of belief systems: Moms with Formula and Cloth Diapers but No Solid Foods; Dads who Co-Sleep and De-frost Breast-milk, etc.

Later, truces will be declared based on choices about day care and pre-schools, but certain parents will remember your Belief System for Infants years later even while sitting on the same pre-school boards: “I remember him from the parents’ group: they gave little Sophie turkey at six months!” “She thought they’d let Hector decide whether to get circumcised when he was a teenager!”

Einstein had parents, therefore?
Occasionally, you have pre-existing friends who have children at about the same time as you. This is somewhat different. With your birth class and mom’s group, it’s okay to throw people socially overboard for making One Wrong Choice. There are plenty more brand-new acquaintances where they came from.

But with your existing friends you have to ride out their Incredibly Bad Parenting without comment. And they have to do the same with your lousy choices. You wouldn’t rush into your friend’s house of worship and start howling “Idolater!” or “It’s just a wafer!”

But being parents, and having little time for anything except perhaps a guilty hour with Top Chef, and if you are incredibly selfish, an occasional visit to the gym, you have nothing else to talk about anyway. You are driven, absolutely compelled to discuss all the Forbidden Topics and Mysteries of your particular Parenting Religion, even with your friends with whom you have Irreconcilable Differences.

This leads inevitably to recriminations between couples and late-night anxieties, while one’s own Nearly Perfect Child naps on your vomit-stained shoulder.

Take our friends, the parents of A., who fortunately for us would probably more or less belong to our parenting clique anyway. (Thereby averting much strain on a twenty-year friendship.) But since our child is a couple of months older, we are always trying not to say, “oh, wait until [amazing next phase]” or “you absolutely must try [mandatory new belief system to which all Right Thinking Parents subscribe].”

But because we believe in using our child as a developmental-activities crash test dummy, we are always fooling around with “early learning” toys and programs.

You may not have heard of this particular one--it’s more popular in Europe--but we confessed to our friends that we’d ordered a copy of one of the more experimental early introductions to hyper-competition, YOUR CHILD CAN PLAY CHESS AT SIX MONTHS! (or something like that).

Our feelings were mixed, but if our Uniquely Gifted Child wanted to master the intricacies of opening with the queen’s pawn, we wanted to support him in that ambition.

So we shared this particular decision with our mostly parenting-compatible Friends of Many Decades, sparking anxiety and the following email:

Year 1
Emile finishes Remembrance of Things Past
A. can’t stop eating dirt

Year 10
Emile accepted early admission to Yale
A. continues toilet training

Year 20
Emile retires from a successful career as software inventor
A. pokes a dead animal with a sharp stick
reprinted with the permission of Friends of Many Decades

This of course triggered our own mixed feelings about the possible trauma of even one experimental exposure to YOUR CHILD CAN PLAY CHESS AT SIX MONTHS, and Chagrined Spouse sent the following response:

Year 1
A. plants a vegetable garden
Emile screams “you are poopy” to checkout boy

Year 10
A. wins architecture prize for green design house on back of property
Emile smokes weed and plays guitar behind convenience store across from school

Year 20
A.  is elected mayor of home town, wins “best place to live”
Emile playing in garage band in parents garage

I’m sure this seems like small beans to those of you who actually have teenagers. (Hint: if you do have teens at home, absolutely do NOT read the twin Bay area memoirs by the Sheffs, father and son, about the son’s methamphetamine addiction, no matter how many times you pass the books at Starbucks or hear about them on NPR.)

I hear parenting is a lifelong journey--like recovery--in which you get over the idea that the choices of parents Absolutely Determine a child’s Prospects for Future Happiness and Success. 

I’m definitely going to work on relaxing about parenting later today. When I have a minute.

First I have to go talk to Emile, who’s just pushed his king’s bishop to queen’s knight six.

In our next installment: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagoyevich survives impeachment by quoting Tennyson, thereby confirming all of the conclusions of the MLA/Teagle report, “Reading Books Certified as Literary Masterpieces by College Presidents and State Legislators Has Both Scientific and Magical Benefits Superior to Reading Absolutely Anything Else.” In other news, Eliot Spitzer issues a statement apologizing for not quoting Henry James more often during his governorship.


The absolute best parenting book I read was The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris.  This book, by someone who has read through the studies to some degree, basically says that: 1) how your children turn out, personality-wise, is probably half genetics and half environment; 2) the part that’s half environment seems to mostly be determined by their unpredictable and uncontrollable interactions with their peers, not with their parents; 3) as long as you provide them any kind of non-abusive environment, what you do as a parent doesn’t much matter; 4) except insofar as it determines your future relationship with your child.

For demystifying the importance of parental choices, I thought it worked pretty well.

By on 01/14/09 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The “nurture assumption” is the bee’s knees.  I have been unable to convince my wife of the book’s full implications, however.

By on 01/14/09 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for this--a couple of folks mentioned this book, and I thought about getting a copy. (Our parenting anxiety is, I hope obviously, exaggerated for purposes of storytelling!)

Then I read around a bit and came across some thoughtful reviews, like this one:

Ultimately I felt we didn’t need that much reassurance!

More interesting to me would be reflecting on the intersection of assumptions about parenting and education more generally and questions of reproducing the class relation.

To what extent, that is, are our feelings (H and mine specifically) an expression of our version of the PMC drive to reproduce itself, walking the tightrope between our (visceral, highly simplified & untheorized in the gut) feelings about labor as victim and capital as criminal? Of course that’s all vanity and illusion anyway--we intellectually “know” that labor is not a victim but the historical agent even of its own exploitation and that professionals or intellectual proletarians regardless, we’re labor.  For that matter, we are complicit in plenty of the criminal profiteering of the owning class.

And our fragile balance in that respect is hardly possible to imagine reproducing, much less recommending.

Did I mention that NYU Press has a new Marxism for children anthology out (by Nels and Mickenberg, whose superb Learning from the Left is an absolute must-read). I’m gonna order my copy now.

By Marc Bousquet on 01/14/09 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t think that review was all that great, really.  One of the strengths of the book was that she summarized studies, e.g. twin studies, in order to try to illuminate what we actually did know.  That means that her book is susceptible to being dismissed when the studies themselves are, but at least she’s doing more than just dressing up whatever folk beliefs are floating around as immutable truth.  The review uses uncertainty in order to reassert traditional folk belief, saying that since we don’t know, things could be as everyone always expected.  It’s not a bad review, but it’s significantly less straightforward than the book itself is.

By on 01/14/09 at 08:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I learned a lot from Mickenberg, but her prose style is a bit of a slog, and there are some interpretations that defy credulity, such as the bit about chickens and dialectical materialism:  Nels’s Dr. Seuss book goes down much easier.  Their new tales for little rebels is delightful, but again, Mickenberg sets forth some really weird ideas about Sneetches.

By on 01/14/09 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’m sorry for sounding as if to diss the Judith Harris book (especially without reading it myself). I didn’t mean to give that impression.

It’s just that thinking about buying it, and the reviews I read made me realize that my feeling _was_ more relaxed than many--that while I certainly have had my moments of, “Oh My God, He Saw 5 Minutes of the Game on TV--His Brain is Ruined!” on the whole, I can detach a bit and wonder at just how fanatical other people can get…

you should see a couple of the fanatical responses I got at Brainstorm: “It’s All Fun and Games, Pal, until Someone’s Child Injects Themselves with Autism!” and “How dare you JOKE about Penises!”

Thanks for bearing with me. Solidarity, M

By Marc Bousquet on 01/14/09 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I read The Iliad (in translation) and Plato (in Greek) to my child while she was still in the womb. After she was born, I read Dr. Seuss and Pooh to her. Now that she’s 10 she’s reading Potter. Clearly before birth she was a prodigy; I don’t know what happened ;(

(She also liked Mozart while in the womb, but nowadays she prefers some teen pop sensation. Obviously I suck at fatherhood.)

By on 01/14/09 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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