Monthly Archives: June 2014

The child-as-clay model

When sperm meets egg, an amazing thing happens. A new organism starts its life, genetically distinct from both parents and, from that moment until death, it has to live its own life. It draws sustinance from its environment, even at this early stage, and uses this energy and matter to grow. Over the next few weeks, all being well, it travels down to its mother’s womb and nestles into the warm uterine lining, where it implants and continues to draw food and oxygen that it needs for itself. Within the womb, the baby grows all by itself, drawing nourishment from its mother, but distinct from her.

For the Christian-inclined, this process of in-utero development is alluded to in the bible. “Abba, Father, you are the potter, we are the clay” is one of the more tender images of God that we see in the bible. It presents God as a mastercraftsman who takes the stuff of creation and forms us, holding us in his ever-loving hands, moulding us into the very image and likeness of himself (God transcends gender rather better than English does: bear with me). Importantly, it is God who forms us in the womb, not our mother. Our mother lovingly provides us with the oxygen, food and warmth we need and graciously takes away all our waste, but the intricate work of building our bodies is left to us/nature/God.

A beauty of God-as-potter, us-as-clay, for me, is that the clay God uses in this act of creation is not perfectly uniform and smooth, it’s full of stripes and lumps and imperfections, but God uses it anyway, his expert fingers crafting a beautiful, complete person, with every detail just-so. Stripes, lumps and bumps and all.

From the moment your child is born and the midwife declares its destiny, parenting begins in earnest. The child-as-clay model works well and can lead us a long way towards being great parents, but only if we remember that “you are the clay” is only half of the biblical image. If we take God-as-potter out of the picture and put ourselves in his place, things can get sketchy. If we do that, we are expressing the belief that it is the parents who mould and shape the growing child, and that the parents can (and should) tweak out the lumps, bumps and imperfections present in the clay. The very lumps, bumps and imperfections that make each child unique. We assume that it is the parents’ role to form the child in a particular way; we assume that the parents have been given a card with a picture on it and told “make one of those”. We assume that the parents have the ability, no, the duty, to push out a formless blob and make it acceptable to society.

This model is hugely prevalent today, and it puts unbearable pressure on parents and children. Our children and our parenting is judged by how well our children fit the moulds.

There are traits that are seen as undesirable by society. Certain behaviours that cause discomfort to others because they don’t fit the simple pattern. If my son wants to wear a dress, for example, he is not conforming to the “boy” mould, and it is my duty as his parent to re-model this trait, to tweak the flaw out of the base clay and persuade the remainder back into the correct shape. If my daughter likes rugby, football, athletics, sport in general, it is my duty to “nip it in the bud”, to gently encourage her in a more artistic direction. If she prefers ripped jeans to frilly skirts, I am expected to smile sweetly and tell her that’s lovely, dear, now put this dress on, we’re going to the shops.

If my young child is showing too much interest in playing with opposite-sex friends, I need to redirect them into more “appropriate” friendships. After a certain age, however, if my child is showing to little interest in playing with opposite-sex friends, I need to redirect them again.

If my child-with-a-penis has told me, all their life, that they are a girl, I am expected to tell them, with ever increasing firmness, that no, that penis means that you are a boy. It doesn’t matter who you are inside, what matters is what your body looks like: you are a boy. Boy boy boy. Now shut up and put on your ripped jeans and go out and play football.

If my child-with-a-vagina has told me, all their life, that they are a boy, I am expected to tell them, with ever increasing firmness, that no, that vagina means that you are a girl. Now shut up and put on your dress. I spent a lot of money on that beautiful dress, now put it on and be grateful.

If my child wants to be a lawyer and I’ve planned on her being a doctor all her life, I can push her towards medical school. If my child wants to be an artist and I’ve planned a football career for him, I can push him to the local club’s academy.

There are all sorts of techniques available to parents (and society in general) whose children don’t fit the acceptable moulds. “Take his dolls away,” is one I’ve heard very often, even from some medical professionals (and the very famous Dr Phil). “Make her wear a dress”: very useful, that. “Take him to the football club,” again, useful. I’ll take him into a testosterone-soaked environment where he can be bullied to within an inch of his life because “it’s probably for the best,” or “it will make a man out of him.”

On top of that, we load on shame. “Boys don’t cry,” and “girls should be prettier: make an effort.”

What all of these child-moulding techniques are doing is forcing a child into a situation they find acutely uncomfortable, holding them there and telling them that they need to thrive, that they should be grateful for all the effort we are making for their own good. If only the child would learn to conform to expectations, they will magically become happy, and we can be proud of them as parents.

This kind of parenting certainly does produce results. The problem is that it’s the same sort of results as hitting the child across the shins with a cricket bat. You get a bruised child whose only goal in life is to run away from from the people who keep hurting them and never return. It breaks relationships, homes and people. The parents spend their lives frustrated because they keep trying and trying but don’t achieve what they want. The children are frustrated because they are never good enough for their parents, their peers or their community: the very clay they are made from is seen as flawed and wrong. When a child develops in this environment, they learn to see themselves as ugly, worthless and hateful, and find themselves at significant risk of self-harm and suicide.

Having said all that, I’m going to conclude with a hopeful alternative.

We need to ditch the child-as-clay, parents-as-potters model and take another look at how the child develops in the womb (with God/nature as potter). The child draws food and oxygen from the parent, the parent feeds and loves the child, and allows it to grow its own way.

After the child is born, it is the parents’ job to continue this nurturing, to support the child in her own growth, to feed her interests and her body, to provide opportunities to grow and to learn in an environment that feeds the child’s own development, without forcing her to be someone she is not. Pour in the love and watch in wonder as a new creation emerges.

I think that will get better results. Don’t you?

Not All Men

I don’t do Twitter.

I’m not immune to it, though, and sometimes a friend will point me at something that someone has tweeted and/or a hashtag that is trending in an interesting way or something like that.  One thing I keep seeing is #NotAllMen, and it is usually associated with a story where a woman (usually) is reporting sexual harassment, assault or worse.

It’s a pretty simple script.  She says “a man did an unpleasant thing to me, and I am left feeling awful”.  There are two or three replies from her friends, gathering round to empathise and help her to cope with the hurt his behaviour caused to her.  Then a really helpful guy will crop up and say “not all men are like that.”  From that point, the conversation dives rapidly into a man (or men) bitching about how the women shouldn’t be overgeneralising and generally pointing out how the original victim has no right to feel hurt by the original assailant’s behaviour because not all men are like that.

Louis C.K. says it very succinctly here.  To a woman, statistically, a man is the single greatest danger to her safety and bodily integrity.  Of course #NotAllMen, but it doesn’t take all men to make a person feel like she is walking through a hostile environment.  Between home and work, you might walk past a thousand people.  In a busy city, you will share your environment with many thousands of people, just in the hour it takes to get to where you’re going.  If only half of one percent of those people catcall you, comment on your body, try to touch you or generally take the attitude that they have the right to invade your space, you’ve got between five and fifty threats just on your morning commute.  Matt Bors says a similar thing here.

The whole #NotAllMen thing is yet another example of men asserting their dominance over women.  If I am attacked in the street (vebally or physically), and I share my story and my feelings on the internet, I am expressing my experience and my feelings.  When a guy cries foul and tells me that I should stop talking about what happened to me, as I am hurting his feelings because #NotAllMen, he is taking away my platform, he is denying my experience and is denying my right to feel the way I feel about a hateful thing that happened to me.  Why are his feelings more important than mine on my social media account?  Sorry, diva, but straighten your bent tiara and go away.  I never said that all men hurt me.  I said that a man hurt me.  I will be the first to acknowledge that it wasn’t you who hurt me, and that not all men hurt all women, but when you come into a conversation about my hurt and turn it into a conversation about your hurt, that’s just rude.

Taking away a person’s voice because of your glass jaw is person-denying.  It is also a cowardly refusal to face some uncomfortable truths.  When faced with the fact that some men do abuse women, men have the opportunity to man up and confront this behaviour on the street, as it happens; they also have the opportunity to switch on the SEP field.

#NotAllMen is the cry of the pathetic, and it’s time we addressed the underlying problems.

The golden rule

For all of my life, I have been taught the Golden Rule, and that I should use it as a rule governing all aspects of how I interact with others.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it too: it’s the one that says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Sounds like a good way to live life.

Except it contains an inherent, abusive, power relationship.

I will talk about privilege and power relationships in the future, and this topic is laced with it, but I will approach from a different angle for now.  Start by trying to see the basic assumptions in the rule and see if any of those might be person-denying.

Do unto others, so far so good, as you would have them do unto you… again, still looks fine.  Still can’t see the problem?  Put on your diversity glasses and have another look.

Take a trivial example.  Some people like sprouts.  I have no idea why some people like sprouts: I utterly hate them myself.  I only ever eat them at Christmas, and I try to get away with eating only three.  I find them to be utterly horrible.  The thing is, as I mentioned, some people like them.  In fact, some people go out of their way to eat as many sprouts as possible.  There is clearly sprout diversity in our nations.  Imagine a family of sprout-lovers.  In that family, the highest honour is to be given first pick of the sprout bowl at meal times.  Imagine me visiting this imaginary family as an honoured guest.  The Golden Rule kicks in and they treat me as they would wish to be treated, so I get a plateful of sprouts.


The assumption inherent in the Golden Rule is that we are all the same.  Put another way, I assume that you are the same as me.  This is very easy for me, because I am spared the hassle of getting to know who you are, what you like, what you want and what you need — in short, all the things that make you a person — and can proceed to do the things I want to do and go home that night with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling.  Whether or not I treated you with respect is irrelevant: I treated you how I would have wanted to be treated and you’d better be happy with that.

An example for which I have lost the URL but which is stuck in my head seems relevant here.  A woman was driving her rather beaten-up old car towards a busy and dangerous junction.  Just near the junction, the car died.  There was a parking area within pushing distance, and she wanted to get the car there so it wouldn’t be obstructing the junction, where it could sit until she got paid later in the month and had the money to do something about it.  She was very low on money at the time.  A Good Samaritan rolled up and got out of his car. “Hello.  You look like you could use some help.  I’ll call a tow truck for you,” he said.  She would have preferred if he’d asked her how he could help her, but she tried anyway, “I can’t afford a tow truck, but I’d really appreciate some help pushing the car to that parking area over there.”  Happy that he was doing the right thing, he pulled out his phone and started to dial.  “No, don’t worry: I’ll just call for a tow.  It’s no problem.”  Exasperated now, she tried again, “I cannot afford a tow truck.  If you want to help me, push my car, if not, go away.” (actually, the words she used in her version of the story were a little more Anglo Saxon).  He took umbrage, told her why she should have been grateful for his generous offer to help, got in his car and drove away.  She carried on pushing her car on her own.  Eventually, a friend saw her and, together, they pushed her car to the parking place.

The man was genuinely trying to help.  He was following the Golden Rule.  He was truly confused when she didn’t accept the help he was offering and felt justified in shouting at her (remember, she was already having a Bad Day before he did) and storming off when she persistently refused to let him help her.  Looked at from his perspective, we can understand his actions.  Looked at from her perspective, however, we can see that he simply didn’t bother to listen to her.  He didn’t allow her to tell him how she needed to be helped and, in fact, when she did, he ignored her completely.

He was treating her exactly how he would have wished to be treated, which involved making all sorts of assumptions about her needs, her financial position and her probable reaction to his offer.  As a result, he was putting her in a worse position (having to pay for a tow she couldn’t afford) than she was already in, and making her day even worse by lecturing her on how she should be reacting to his generosity before driving off in a huff, leaving her stuck in the middle of a junction.  I speculate that he had a great story to tell to his mates when he got to wherever he was going about the stupid woman who wouldn’t take help when it was offered.

Much more useful to society, yet much harder to live by, is the Platinum RuleTreat others as they want to be treated.  The difficulty is that this requires the effort to find out from them how they want me to treat them.  This, in turn, requires that I acknowledge that they have a better idea of who they are and what they need than I do.

I’ll leave you with a joke.  The first one is particularly relevant here.


The power of crowds

We are social animals.  I spoke about tribalism last week, and this week, I find myself on mostly the same subject.

Most of us like to think that we are, basically, good people (although, last week, we learnt that more than half of us would be willing make a decision that will result in someone’s death as long as we can’t see them), and that if we saw someone who needed our help, we’d put down our busy lives for a little while to help them.

It’s a nice theory, certainly, and most of us would do it.  As long as there was nobody else around.

It seems that, on a deep level, we are (and I hesitate to use this word) programmed to behave in certain ways, to have certain priorities guiding our every decision.  We like to think that altruism is quite high up the list, as it is a trait we admire in others, and even give out medals to people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help those who need it.  Annoyingly, altruism doesn’t seem to be a survival skill that serves a species scratching out a living as hunter-gatherers, using caves for shelter.  We might, conceivably, take a risk to help the tribe’s leader, but any other individual is expendable: the tribe cannot risk catastrophic losses just because one member is in trouble.  Evolution looks harshly on such decisions.  Taking the whole tribe out risks everyone; taking one or two tribesmen out risks defeat in detail.  Either way, it’s not going to happen.

With this in mind, it can be seen that the tribe, as a whole, will not benefit from risk-taking behaviour by individuals.  As such, the tribe will have certain standards of behaviour, certain traditions, certain rules (usually unwritten) that can be boiled down to this: nobody takes action on their own; nobody breaks ranks; we all do what everyone else is doing; only the leader has the authority to permit individuals to act on their own.

So, how does this translate into our modern, cosmopolitan society?  We’re over all that rubbish now, aren’t we?  Well, last week we saw that a man in a white coat (leader) can persuade Joe Public (tribesman) to kill.

This week, it gets even stranger.  This video shows what happens when a man in a business suit (leader) is apparently in need of help on a the steps outside a busy railway station.  Within seconds, people drop their routines to help.  This is contrasted with an apparently homeless person (outcast), who is ignored utterly (we’ve all seen and probably done this ourselves).  More surprising to me is the situation where the same person we saw earlier in the business suit is in less formal clothes — he’s a tribesman now — and still needs help.  He’s ignored for four and a half minutes.  One person stops and looks and is clearly wondering if she should stop to help or not and starts to walk off until someone else comes up and offers help: at this tiny prompting, she decides that it is OK to help and, within a minute, there is a crowd of people offering assistance.

To me, this illustrates a few rules that we hold deep inside ourselves that we don’t like to admit.  We will help a leader in a heartbeat, but will face uncomfortable internal conflict if we see a tribesperson in need.  Part of us knows that it is good to help, another part of us knows that disturbing the uniformity of tribal behaviour will get us thrown out and we will be turfed out onto the Serengeti alone and face certain death.  Sadly, it seems, that conformity-to-tribe is in-built as having a higher priority than helping a compatriot, and it is beneath contempt to assist someone already outside the tribe.  All is not lost, though: as we saw, as soon as one person breaks the taboo, it becomes acceptable to help, and a new rule of tribal behaviour is established: we are helping this person.

Concerning though it is that we are reluctant to be altruistic in the face of tribal behaviour that demands indifference, we can sort-of understand.  I am not in any danger, and I will place myself at risk of exile if I take this action.  Powerful stuff.  What happens when I am in danger?

This video is painful to watch.  First, remove the leader from the room.  Next, set fire to the building (or, at least, pour stage smoke in through a door).  Watch and learn.

The situation is set up carefully to examine a specific sort of behaviour.  A tribe is formed by putting a group of people in a room doing a common task (filling in a survey).  There is a clearly identified leader (the person running the survey), and she is not in the room.  The leaderless tribe is then stressed to see what will happen.  The situation is skewed by the fact that most of the tribe have been told to sit tight as the room fills with (hypothetically) toxic fumes.

If our tribesperson is alone in the room, they will leave within seconds of noticing the smoke and, if they don’t notice the smoke at first, there’s a handy smoke alarm that ensures that they do.  If the tribe has at least four people, things change, with pretty much every Joe Public staying in the room, even as smoke pours in through the door, and the smoke alarm beeps.  On average, it takes 20 minutes for people to get up, break with the tribe and leave on their own.  On average, it takes 10 minutes for a person to be overcome by noxious fumes and pass out.

It seems that, even in the face of death, we will stick with the tribal norm.

Think about that as you go about your day.