How To Teach A Social Norm

A few stories.

Story #1:

I remember getting on an airplane, headed to Disneyland with my family, full of all the can’t-contain-the-excitement feels that you expect from a kid headed to Disneyland. I was probably about seven years old, and my brothers were younger. (Still are, actually.)

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Cheesin’ with Dopey!

The flight attendant cheerily brought us crayons and coloring books. (That seems strange now. Do flight attendants really give coloring books to kids? Did they back in the day? I don’t even know.) There were three coloring books–one  Barbie, and two dinosaurs. As she held them out for us, I didn’t realize that I’d already been assigned the Barbie coloring book; I innocently thought we were being given options. I had lots of dolls, but Barbies were never my favorite. I loved The Land Before Time though! I watched that movie so many times, I still remember the Pizza Hut commercial that came before it started on the VHS. (See? YouTube remembers it too!) So with the coloring books fanned out in front of us, I quickly claimed a dinosaur book, excited to start filling in the “long necks” and “three horns.”

Then I saw the adults giving each other, and me, The Look.

Let’s describe The Look a bit. It isn’t an angry look. It’s a mix of awkwardness, embarrassment, disappointment. It seems to beg, “Please don’t make us explain why that thing you just did is wrong. It just is, and you should know better.”

It wasn’t until I saw The Look that I realized there had been two boy books, and one girl book. I don’t remember for sure what happened next, but I think I held tight to my chosen dinosaur pages. I’m not sure if one of my brothers ended up with Barbie, or if they complained about it, or if a third dinosaur book was rustled up, or if I folded and took the Barbie book after all…. But I do know that I learned a few things that day– 1) I should play with girl things. 2) Dinosaurs are not girl things. 3) Boys shouldn’t have to play with girl things.

Story #2:

I was in a toy store, looking at dolls. Despite the Barbies vs. dinosaurs mix up, I really did love dolls, and the 90s had so many great dolls. There were Magic Nursery Babies, Kid Sister, Baby Alive, Quints, the doll whose makeup magically appeared when you painted on water, the doll whose hair grew and changed color, the dolls that smelled like cupcakes…. It was a great time for dolls.

The 90s were also all about token racial diversity, so some of the dolls that were white in all the ads, also had a black counterpart on the store shelves. This particular day, it was the black version of a doll that caught my fancy, so I pointed it out and said, “I want that one!” I wasn’t trying to make a statement for social justice or anything; I just thought she was pretty.

The adults gave The Look again. I saw it.

“Are you sure?” I was asked.

“No,” I mumbled.

I don’t think I got a doll that day. I think I escaped the doll aisle and went to look at stuffed unicorns or something. I don’t remember. But I do remember learning that white girls play with white girl toys.

So many rules to remember!

Story #3:

I grew up, and became a teacher. Now I listen to my students define a nurse as, “a girl doctor.” I hear girls say they want to be a doctor when they grow up, and the boys shoot them down with, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” I hear the girl who loves soccer say she’s not allowed to play like her brother can. I hear the boy who doesn’t like sports say he can’t just have a conversation with his dad like his sports-loving brothers can.

Every time, I try to give my version of The Look. I try to express my disapproval of restrictive and nonsensical gender rules. My look does nothing. I can tell nobody even sees it.

So, during the career unit, I invited one nurse to speak with my classes–my RN brother skyped in. Talked all about the work he does in the ER, and the work it’s taken to get there. He didn’t say a word about gender, but the message was clear. Nursing is a great career option for men and women. Both. (Incidentally, his two-year-old daughter kept interrupting, waving her toy dinosaurs in front of the screen, and roaring for us…. Right on, lil’ sister suffragette!)

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My brilliant niece, in the middle, loves princesses, dinosaurs, cooking, doctoring, baby dolls, big trucks, reading, counting, and her family…. She’s not such a fan of the patriarchy. 🙂

A female doctor spoke to some of my classes about her work with natural medicine, and the people she’s been able to help around the world. A female PA talked about her career, and completely won over the kids when she gave them surgical caps and masks to dress up in.

We heard from women who practice law and accounting.

We heard from men who write.

We heard from different kinds of therapists who work with the disabled…. We also heard from disabled people about their careers as a graphic designer, news producer, social media outreach specialist, and software engineer.

The year before, we wrapped up a unit of study about the brain with another guest speaker–a neurosurgeon, and a woman.

Conclusions:

It’s easy to teach traditional social norms. You don’t even have to try; a slight and momentary facial expression will do the job. But unteaching those norms? Teaching kids to think beyond social norms? Takes a lot more work. A simple Look isn’t going to cut it. Occasionally repeating a throwaway line, “Everybody’s equal,” isn’t enough. You have to be really intentional about what they’re seeing, hearing, and doing. They have to see behavior that falls within the traditional norm, and outside of the norm, and somewhere in the middle, and feel that it’s all worthy of approval.

And you have to mean it!

After tragedy…

I joked on Facebook that my next blog post would be something light and fluffy, like a tribute to Lisa Frank pandas. And you have no idea how badly I want to just sit back and write about Lisa Frank pandas! Why can’t the world stop being terrible for two seconds, and let me write about Lisa Frank pandas??

But here we are, staring at another senseless tragedy. And, predictably, the internet is splitting into its usual camps, all pointing fingers, promoting causes, trying to outshout each other. I completely agree with some of those fingers and causes; others, I find reprehensible.

One that hurts in a unique way, though, is the rallying cry to stop praying, and take action.

I hate a false dichotomy. One doesn’t have to choose between prayers and action; they’re stronger together. I don’t appreciate my faith being characterized as weakness, as turning a blind eye to the real problems in the world.

I do believe in prayer, and I have good reason to believe in that power. I do believe in God. And as hard as it is to believe right now, I believe that God still believes in us too.

So I will pray.

I’ll pray for comfort, healing, and eventually peace, for the families and friends of the victims.

I’ll pray for the shooter’s family. I don’t know what their story is, or what they need right now, but God knows.

I’ll pray for my LGBT friends, family, acquaintances, and fellow humans, that they’ll be safe and supported, physically and emotionally.

I’ll pray for my Muslim friends, acquaintances, and fellow humans, that they won’t suffer more social punishment for this man’s actions.

I’ll pray for our lawmakers to worry more about our safety, and less about their highest paying lobbyists.

I’ll pray for the refugee families throughout our nation and world, that they can have support dealing with trauma, before it gets passed down through generations.

I’ll pray for all of us to have help speaking and acting from a place of love and compassion, not a place of anger and fear.

I’ll use my voice and actions to do as much good as I can within my tiny sphere of influence. But you’d better believe I’m praying for all the help I can get.

You know who else has been doing a lot of praying lately? My Muslim students. They’re celebrating Ramadan, and to watch their dedication to fasting–no food or water, from sunup to sundown, even in the billion degree heat we suffered last week–has been pretty inspiring. The other students are curious about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, so they’re asking questions and getting answers. The conversations have been full of nothing but interest and respect. (You see that, fellow adults? Interfaith dialogue and respect isn’t so hard!)

We have our cultural traditions for dealing with tragedy. Lately they seem to involve lighting candles, wearing ribbons, putting a filter over our profile photo, or wearing an assigned color on a predetermined day. But you know what I think would be really cool?

What if this time, we united after tragedy through a day of fasting? Our Muslim friends and neighbors are already in the middle of fasting. What if, instead of labeling them as enemies, we joined with them for a day? Fasting can mean many things to many people. But regardless of our religious affiliation, what if for a day, we recognized that we’re all spiritual beings? What if we all came together and fed our spirits instead of our bodies for a day? A unified effort to bring a little more peace, understanding, and good into the world?

How I Became A Liberal…

Sometimes people ask how I turned out to be (mostly) liberal, given the (mostly) conservative world I grew up in. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. There are many, many answers–enough so that if anyone had been paying attention, they’d have known from day one that I’d end up a registered Democrat. It was inevitable. But today I’m going to trace my political leanings–and, more importantly, a large chunk of my value system–back to three literary moments that have stayed in my head since childhood.

Starting with Bruce Coville. Somewhere around 3rd grade, Bruce Coville became my favorite author, and held that spot for as long as it was age-appropriate. His books were so full of magic, mystery, silliness, and scariness, all wrapped up into the perfect package for my already overactive imagination. I’d love to get copies to share with the children in my life, but they’ll have to be old copies, because I resent all the new cover art. The originals were so much better…

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I mean, come on. The rainbow book is so much more enticing.

Anyway, that’s a tangent, and not the book I’m talking about. Coville also wrote the “My Teacher Is An Alien” series, ending with the only one I still vividly recall, My Teacher Flunked The Planet.

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Original cover. Because duh.

In this book, a group of aliens are filing a report on the planet Earth, determining whether they should destroy it. At one point, the aliens take our team of child-heroes to witness world hunger up close and personal. They see the vacant look in people’s eyes as they’re told there will be no food again today. They watch a baby die in its milkless mother’s arms. The shocked kids demand of the aliens, “Why don’t you fix this?! Why don’t you feed these people??” The aliens respond, “Why should we, when you can fix it yourselves?” They then take the kids on a quick trip around the world, showing them all the food that’s going to waste.

That scene must have pierced my little heart, because it’s never left my head. I was thinking about it again just last week, when I attended TEDx in Portland, and one of the talks was all about hunger. The speaker kept repeating that we don’t have a food supply problem; we have a distribution problem.

A cynical adult might side-eye the book for brainwashing kids or simplifying a complex issue. And sure, it is a simplification. But you know what? I don’t care if you call it brainwashing. I’m in favor of teaching values like, “we should feed people,” “sharing is good,” “waste is bad,” and “we should feed people.” (Yes, I repeated that on purpose.) We can argue over the details of how to carry out these ideas. But I remain convinced that humanity could totally solve the whole hunger problem if we all agreed to make it a priority.

So, sorry-not-sorry, but since that scene etched itself into my brain, I’ve firmly believed this…

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(The version with a family is probably a stronger image. But I feel weird about posting photos of people who probably didn’t consent to being spread around the Internet…)

As I outgrew Bruce Coville, I remained an unashamed book nerd. Anther gem that helped solidify my liberal leanings was in The Once and Future King by T. H. White.

Once and Future King

There was a chapter where the Wart was transformed into a goose, and he migrates with the flock. At some point, he asks one of the geese if they’re at war with other geese, and the response is shock and disgust. The goose can’t imagine what wretched species would intentionally kill its own. The Wart insists that they must fight over territory. The goose responds, “There are no boundaries among the geese.” The Wart, still a child, asks what boundaries are. “Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose,” the goose answers, but “How can you have boundaries if you fly?”

Again, I remember almost nothing about the rest of the book, but this scene still pops into my head all the time. Sometimes because of the war and violence issue. We all seem to accept war as a natural part of life, but when you stop and think about it, it’s mindblowing that a supposedly civilized species deals with problems by killing each other. We teach toddlers to use their words and not hit, but then somewhere along the line, that lesson goes out the window.

But more often, I think about the boundaries between countries being “imaginary lines.” Ever since reading that book as a kid, I can’t see borders as anything more than imaginary lines. We place so much importance on those lines. Everything about your circumstances–your access to wealth, resources, opportunities, and likelihood to live another day–depends so much on which side of a line you were born on. But pull yourself up into the air a bit, and look at the world from a goose’s level, and you can’t even see those lines. They’re imaginary. Pretend. Make-believe.

Simplification of complex issues again? Sure. But regardless, I’ll never be able to view my fellow humans as being less “one of my own” just because they were born on a different side of an imaginary line. I’ll certainly never be able to use the common slur of calling anyone “illegal” because they crossed an imaginary line. I can’t and I won’t.

Ok, my third example is a major stretch of the word “literature.” It isn’t a book; even a book nerd like me watched plenty of 90s Nickelodeon. But TV shows have scripts and stories, or at least they did pre-reality TV, so it’s kind of like literature, right?

Whatever, my third scene-in-my-head-forever came from an episode of “Hey Dude.”

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90s kids, you know you remember the killer cacti!

In this episode, Ted was putting together some stereotypical movie portrayals of Native Americans, and Danny called him out on it. The argument led to Ted accepting a dare to go an entire week without using anything that originated with the American Indians.

Throughout the episode, Danny kept taking food and other things away from Ted, telling him about the ingredients that were first used by Indians. The challenge ends with Ted in a towel, all of his clothes off limits, and after explaining the influence of Indian government in the founding of the US government, Danny tells Ted that even his towel violates the terms of the dare. Danny admits he was wrong, and together they recreate Ted’s original presentation with more accurate and respectful portrayals of Native American history.

And that was the day I started thinking about the vast overrepresentation of white people in the media, the entertainment industry, and the history books. I realized how little I actually knew about any other group’s stories, and yet how much those stories probably influenced my own life in a million ways I wasn’t even aware of. I was too young to eloquently talk about those thoughts, but they were taking shape. By high school I was complaining about how my education had consisted of eleventy billion courses on American history, a little dabbling in western Europe, and then crammed the rest of the planet into a single year of “world history.” I was seeing the token diversity in everything I watched on TV through the non-white friend of the white main characters, and it wasn’t good enough for me. I knew there were still Indian reservations around because that’s where people bought their fireworks for the 4th of July, and they’d show up on the news occasionally to debate whale hunting. But other than that, my education would leave me believing they’d all died off a hundred years ago, so I wondered what else I didn’t know.

Thanks, Nickelodeon, for making me think and ask questions that I wouldn’t be able to put into words until many years later.

I’m usually terrible to discuss books and other entertainment with, because I forget the details so quickly. When I’m enjoying a story, I tear through it as fast as possible, eager to know what happens next. After finishing quickly, the details don’t stay in my head. I think it’s significant that these three scenes have stayed strongly rooted in my mind for decades.

I’m afraid that publicly expressing my beliefs via children’s books and TV makes them seem childish. I really do understand that the world is more complicated. But none of those complications can change my core value, and I think it’s important to  reflect now and then on what those values are and where they came from. This is the soil that my more nuanced adult beliefs are planted in. It anchors me through the storms and ugliness of the “real world.” I’m not apologizing for any of it! And then I wonder, does the world even have to be as complicated as we make it?

I’m Very, Very, Very Intelligent

When terrorist attacks and mass shootings start blending together in your memory because there are just so many, something is wrong. (Biggest understatement to ever be understated.) So we start to ask questions, and look for patterns. Where is all this violence coming from? I see one consistent factor: men. And by men, I don’t mean humankind in general. I mean the humans with the Y chromosome.

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Before I go any further, I have an announcement to make. I’m officially declaring my candidacy for President of the United States of America.

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Our country is in danger. Our world is in danger. We’ve allowed men to roam freely around our planet, taking things over, blowing things up, for far too long. As a world power, it’s the job of the US to set the example, and stand up to this threat on our humanity.

It’s time to make America great again. And I plan to do this by putting a stop to the men.

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First, they must be contained and controlled. We have to have a wall. I’ll put all the men in those northern, middle states that nobody’s using–Minnesota, the Dakotas, most of Montana, etc. And then I’ll build a great wall. Nobody builds a better wall than me. And I’ll make the men pay for it. Mark my words.

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There will be a door in the wall, where we can access the men and harvest them for sperm. We recognize the role men play in making more women. But not just any men can contribute to the Continuation Of Species Project. They’ll have to fill out the paperwork and wait in line. They’ll have to be great. So they, too, can help me make American great again. We’ll continue to raise the young boys until they hit puberty, and then behind the wall they go. So America can be great.

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Kristine M. Napper is calling for a total and complete shutdown of men entering the United States until the women can figure out what is going on. We need time to clean up the mess the men have made. I can’t risk more men getting in the way, and communicating with the men in other countries, opening the door to more violence and chaos.

I don’t hate all men. The thing is, the men aren’t giving us their best. They’re giving us lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

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I have a great relationship with the men. I’ve always had a great relationship with the men. My brother’s a man, and he’s a good person. Family man. If he weren’t a happily married guy, and, you know, my brother, perhaps I’d be dating him.

But you know who else is a man? Hitler. Stalin. Bin Laden. Saddam. Franco. Pinochet. Trujillo. I rest my case.

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43 male US commanders in chief, not to mention the mostly male leaders of the rest of the world, haven’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying the planet.

It’s time to take our country back. A vote for Napper is a vote for a great America. I do not wear a wig.

You’re all invited to start shamelessly sucking up to me, in hopes for the VP bid or other spot in my cabinet. Once we lock up the men, there will be a lot of seats to fill.

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