Anger is toxic, and it has no place in ordinary political disputes. I’m very reluctant to add to it.
And yet, it is less with anger and more with a sense of bone-deep bewilderment that I–reluctantly–read a few articles about Alfie Evans.
Aflie is a baby with a severe neurological affliction that–according to doctors–has left him in a vegetative state with no conceivable chance of recovery. This is tragic, and no one is to blame for Alfie’s condition.
The UK courts have decided that no further care should be given to Alfie because there’s no hope of his recovery. This is tragic, but also defensible. It’s not possible to expend unlimited resources on every tragic case, and hard calls have to be made.
But where things stop making sense to me is where the UK government has refused to allow Alfie to be transported to Italy for additional care. Alfie has been granted Italian citizenship, the Italian military sent a plane to UK to fly him to a hospital in Italy, and all of this was done–one guesses–largely in response to the Pope’s public support for Alfie.
The UK government’s response is, essentially, that Alfie’s parents don’t know what they’re doing. The doctors know better. That may be true. Even the Italian hospital admits it can do no more than keep Alfie alive while doctors study his case. No one things there is a miracle cure.
But here’s the thing: why does the UK government, or any group of doctors, get to decide?
It gets more baffling still. Now Alfie’s parents, haven given up on the Italian option, just want to take him home. But even that they cannot do unless the doctors say so. In what universe is that a morally defensible position to take? Quoting an anonymous British father:
When my son was born nearly 16 months ago, I found to my amazement that I could not take him home until a paediatrician had signed a small slip of paper, to be handed in at the exit, authorising his release. I joked to my wife that we were only parenting under licence from the State. It seems less of a joke now.
The last straw–and the cause of the anger I can’t deny I feel about this–is the insufferable arrogance of the UK politicians and medical experts. For example:
Lord Justice McFarlane said parents, like those of Alfie Evans, could be vulnerable to receiving bad medical advice, adding that there was evidence that the parents made decisions based on incorrect guidance.
Hospital officials at Alder Hey say they have received “unprecedented personal abuse” from the global backlash to Alfie’s case. The Liverpool hospital has faced several protests in recent weeks, organized by a group calling itself “Alfie’s Army.”
“Having to carry on our usual day-to-day work in a hospital that has required a significant police presence just to keep our patients, staff and visitors safe is completely unacceptable,” the hospital’s chairman, Sir David Henshaw, and chief executive Louise Shepherd said.
Oh, is it “completely unacceptable” for people to protest what is essentially government-sanctioned kidnapping? I’m so sorry! I come from this crazy moral universe where parents–and not the government–are the guardians of their own children.
Or here’s another one:
Sometimes, the sad fact is that parents do not know what is best for their child,” Wilkinson said. “They are led by their grief and their sadness, their understandable desire to hold on to their child, to request treatment that will not and cannot help.
The UK was, in many ways, the birthplace of our political heritage of individual liberty and rights. It’s mystifying–and tragic–to see the sorry state of decay it has fallen into today.
So tell me, folks, am I missing some really vital aspects to this story that make it something other than a micro-dystopia?
A recent post at the IFS’s Family Studies blog has a nice summary of the individual and social benefits of healthy marriages. For those who have kept up with me over the years, this is a subject I spend quite a bit of time researching. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have it all in one spot. Here’s the list:
“[T]he presence or absence of marriage impacts economic well-being, particularly for women and children. Children raised by married parents are significantly less likely to experience poverty, whereas single-mother families are over five times as likely to be poor. Additionally, the majority of homeless families are headed by unmarried mothers.”
“A study by IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, Robert Lerman, and Joseph Price found that larger shares of married-parent families at the state level are linked to greater economic mobility, higher family incomes, and less child poverty.”
“[M]arried-parent families boost the academic prospects of students, especially boys. Research has consistently confirmed that a child’s home environment (family structure, parental education, and family income) is more closely associated with student success than school resources and spending. And a new study by Wilcox and Nicholas Zill found that “the share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida.””
“Married-parent families also improve the safety of women and children and communities. In general, unmarried women, including those in cohabiting relationships, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than married women. And hands down, the safest place for a child to grow up is with his or her own married mother and father, while a child living with an unmarried mother and live-in boyfriend is the most vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. In addition to safer families, violent crime is significantly less common in communities and states with larger shares of married-parent families.”
“We know…that girls who grow up in single-mother families are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and to experience a teen pregnancy. Conversely, children who grow up in a married-parent family are more likely to form lasting marriages as adults and to raise their own children within a married union.”
“We also know that family fragmentation, including divorce, is especially harmful to children. Although the suffering sometimes manifests itself in less visible ways, it deserves to be acknowledged. Importantly, the harms of divorce are not just seen in lower income families; research shows that even privileged kids suffer when families break down.”
“Finally, the growing marriage divide between the college-educated and the poor and working class is at least part of what’s driving economic and social inequality in our nation. Because the college-educated are more likely to get married and less likely to divorce than less-educated Americans, they are more likely to reap the benefits of marriage, including better education, higher incomes, and family stability for their kids. Meanwhile, marriage is in retreat among the less educated and working class, who are more likely to be raising children outside of marriage, and to suffer the negative effects of family instability, including poverty. Bridging the marriage divide is an important part of efforts to boost economic mobility for all Americans.”
This is why marriage is still the gold standard. Check out the rest to see their pro-family policy proposals.
The talk that struck me the most this week was Elder A. Theodore Tuttle’s The Things that Matter Most. He began his talk with an excerpt from a Deseret News article about how racing greyhounds, which are trained to chase a fake rabbit around the track, don’t even know what a real rabbit looks like. According to the editorial Elder Tuttle quoted:
We chase social pleasures on a glittering noisy treadmill—and ignore the privilege of a quiet hour telling bedtime stories to an innocent-eyed child. We chase prestige and wealth, and don’t recognize the real opportunities for joy that cross our paths.
This immediately reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis. In the book, Haidt—a social psychologist we often cite here at Difficult Run because of his work on Moral Foundations Theory—distills important lessons from a variety of world philosophies through the lens of psychology. According to Haidt (writing in a followup book), “One of the greatest truths in psychology is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict.”
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt talks about the rider (the conscious, deliberate, rational side of our minds) and the elephant (the intuitive and emotional side of our minds). As an intuitionist, Haidt puts a lot of emphasis on the intuitive sides of our nature (the elephant). He underscores how important our intuition is (even to logical, analytical thinking) and also highlights how sophisticated our intuitive natures are. However, there are drawbacks, one of the most important of which is this:
The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness, and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere.
The elephant is the product of evolution and natural selection. It cares about prestige because status—in primates—is what provides access to reproduction. It doesn’t care about happiness or fulfillment because happiness and fulfillment are, from a genetic perspective, kind of beside the point. This is why the pursuit of prestige—nice job, nice car, nice house—is so irresistible. It’s embedded in our biological natures. And it’s a treacherous trap, as Haidt points out, because pursuit of prestige is always a zero-sum game.
If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige, then all are stuck in a zero-sum game, an eternal arms race, a world in which rising wealth does not bring rising happiness. The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap; it is a dead end that people raced toward the mistaken belief that it will make them happy.
Elder Tuttle then points out that the people who are most vulnerable to being trampled when our inner elephant charges off in search of status and prestige are the people we care about the most:
Our most flagrant violations, perhaps, occur in our own homes. We chase worldly pleasures and neglect our own innocent children. When did you tell stories to your children?
Every single night I pray for help in resisting this. When you’re a parent, the days crawl and the years fly. Children are miracles from God, but—like many of God’s greatest miracles—they are in danger of being overlooked and neglected.
On Sunday I taught Gospel Doctrine and we focused on the murmurings of Laman and Lemuel in chapters 16 – 18. For the first time, I noticed a very definite pattern in the slow hardening of the hearts. At first, in chapter 16, all it took was a lecture from Nephi to bring them to repentance. Later, when Nephi’s bow broke, it took the indirect voice of the Lord (through the Liahona) to bring them to their sesnse. Later, when Ishmael died, the voice of the Lord directly was required. Finally, when Nephi started to build a ship, it took a threat of physical violence to humble them. The problem wasn’t that Laman and Lemuel murmured. Everyone murmurs. It’s that their hearts grew harder with every passing trial.
But when the penultimate confrontation came it wasn’t a result of trial or tribulation. The argument that prompted Laman and Lemuel to tie Nephi to the mast of their ship for days wasn’t the result of hardship. The spark that started that fire happened when things were going well. The ship was built, the supplies were loaded, the journey was easy, and there was no hard work to do. And that was when the greatest crisis erupted. Which explains why Elder Tuttle writes:
The trials through which today’s young people are passing—ease and luxury—may be the most severe test of any age. Brothers and sisters, stay close to your own! Guide them safely! These are perilous times. Give increased attention. Give increased effort.
You want a simple example of this? Screen-time is the easiest. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not one of those families with no TV and no screens. My wife is getting her PhD in computer science and my job is in software development. My kids are expert Minecraft players and I enjoy playing Castle Crashers with them. We’ve watched Avatar: The Last Airbender all the way through twice and started it a third time. So screens can be—and are—a part of this family. But they’re also perilous. The older your kids get, the easier it is to tell them to leave you alone and have them actually do it. An infant can’t leave you alone. A toddler can sometimes, but only for a few minutes. But a 9-year old is perfectly capable of entertaining him or herself for a few hours or more. Throw in a TV or a video game console or an iPhone and you could—if you wanted—basically live in the same house as your children and never really interact with them.
That is the peril—for them and for you—of “ease and luxury.” As a parent, I have learned that the greatest tragedy is not that your kids don’t listen to you. It’s that they do. If they hear “I’m busy” often enough, or “Daddy doesn’t have time” frequently enough, the message does sink in, and then there’s no way to take it back.
These are indeed perilous times. Growth is always risky. It is always perilous as your children grow more independent and begin to take on more and more freedom for themselves. But that ordinary course of getting older is even more perilous in our society, which makes it so easy to curate digital connections and so easy to forget the flesh-and-blood variety.
And finally there is this:
The responsibility rests on the family to solve our social problems. Youth search for security. They search for answers to be found only in a good home. No national or international treaty can bring peace. Not in legislative halls nor judicial courts will our problems be solved. From the hearthstones of the homes will come the answers to our problems. On the principles taught by the Savior, happiness and peace will come to families. In the home youth will receive strength to find happiness.
As I wrote about last week, I believe this to be entirely literal. Laws and governments are a superficial veneer on society. They are important, but they are not essential. What matters more than formal institutions are the informal ones: friendships, associations, churches, clubs and—far, far and away the most important—families. This is born out be reams of social science research (another topic we cover at Difficult Run, especially Walker Wright) which underscores the empirically validated truth that stable families are the most important ingredient for stable, prosperous, safe, flourishing, happy societies. It’s not rhetoric and it’s not exaggeration. It’s the truth: the family is the one and only solution to our deepest social problems.
The world doesn’t believe this. “The world is full of foolish schemes.” Many of these schemes are attempts to root a stable society in some foundation other than families. They will not work, and—to the extent that they lead people to turn their attention away from the life-long endeavor of nurturing families—they will lead to unhappiness and suffering.
What is wanted, first and foremost, is true motherhood and true fatherhood. And, as Elder Tuttle writes, we must “face the fact that true fatherhood and true motherhood are fast disappearing.”
He doesn’t spend as much time talking about what those concepts mean. I think the world continues to have a relatively robust account of what true motherhood is about. We continue to understand, to a greater degree than with fatherhood, the dignity and importance of mothers who nourish, protect and care for their children. But fathers—especially if you judge by the bungling, incompetent depictions in popular television—are viewed more and more as auxiliary and disposable. In contrast, Elder Tuttle describes true fatherhood this way:
Fatherhood is a relationship of love and understanding. It is strength and manliness and honor. It is power and action. It is counsel and instruction. Fatherhood is to be one with your own. It is authority and example.
The line that speaks the most to me there is that “Fatherhood is to be one with your own.” I haven’t finished processing it, but it continues to resonate long after I first read it, a bell reverberating on and on in my heart, and calling attention to a message I haven’t fully received yet.
I have learned, in my marriage and in my parenting, that the messages I’ve been taught by the world about being a husband and a father range from irrelevant to insidious. I’m still learning to sift the true meaning of fatherhood from the surrounding chaff. I don’t have it all figured out, but talks like this encourage me to keep going and help guide me along my way.
An article in Psychology Today by Peter Gray, a leading researcher in educational psychology, spends a lot of time lamenting the fragile state of college kids, which I am happy to say does not seem to be happening among my students (crosses fingers that this is not as much of a problem in the sciences, sorry humanities). But I believe it may be a general trend, and I think anyone concerned about the amount of play kids get and the policing of American parents will be interested in the final takeaways:
In previous posts … I have described the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults. Among the consequences, I have argued, are well-documented increases in anxiety and depression, and decreases in the sense of control of their own lives. We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. So now, here’s what we have: Young people,18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it…
In my next post I’ll examine the research evidence suggesting that so-called “helicopter parenting” really is at the core of the problem. But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents. Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in society—victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”
The only other thing I’ll add is that letting kids not only play, but also experience hard work (sometimes we have to do things that are not fun but are necessary, like the dishes) will help them get through those (not rare) times in life that require hard work.
Readers of Difficult Run likely know that family structure and child well-being is a subject that I have spent quite a bit of time studying and reporting. It is this reason that I was excited to see this very subject revisited by the Princeton-Brookings collaboration The Future of Children in their October 2015 issue. According to the introduction article, this issue has a number of interesting points:
While many of marriage’s mechanisms “could be bolstered by public programs that substitute for parental resources—greater cash assistance, more generous health insurance, better housing, more help for caregivers, etc.—studies of child wellbeing that attempt to control for the indirect effects of these mechanisms typically find that a direct positive association remains between child wellbeing and marriage, strongly suggesting that marriage is more than the sum of these particular parts. Thus…the advantages of marriage for children are likely to be hard to replicate through policy interventions other than those that bolster marriage itself” (pg. 6).
“Cohabitation…is associated with several factors that have the potential to reduce children’s wellbeing, including lower levels of parental education and fewer legal protections. Most importantly, cohabitation is often a marker of family instability, which is strongly associated with poorer outcomes for children. Children born to cohabiting parents see their parents break up more often than do children born to married parents; in this way, being born into a cohabiting parent family sets the stage for later instability. On the other hand, stable cohabiting families with two biological parents seem to offer many of the same health, cognitive, and behavioral benefits that stable married biological parent families provide” (pg. 6).
Social science evidence indicates that “same-sex couples are as good at parenting as their different-sex counterparts. Any differences in the wellbeing of children raised in same-sex and different-sex families can be explained not by their parents’ gender composition but by the fact that children being raised by same-sex couples have, on average, experienced more family instability, because most children being raised by same-sex couples were born to heterosexual parents, one of whom is now in a same-sex relationship” (pg. 6-7).
“Race continues to be associated with economic disadvantage, and thus as economic factors have become more relevant to marriage and marital stability, the racial gap in marriage has grown” (pg. 7).
Causes of the retreat of marriage “include growing individualism and the waning of a family-oriented ethos, the rise of a “capstone” model of marriage, and the decline of civil society. The authors argue that these cultural and civic trends have been especially consequential for poor and working-class American families. Yet if we take into account cultural factors like adolescent attitudes toward single parenthood and the structure of the family in which they grew up, the authors find, the class divide in nonmarital childbearing among U.S. young women is reduced by about one-fifth” (pg. 7).
Amy Chua is the infamous author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which is one of those books I suspect everyone hates but no one has actually read. I’m a little guilty of that, in that I haven’t read the book but–based on articles by Chua and her daughter–I’m deeply suspicious of the basic premise. Which is that Asian-style parenting (i.e. remote and harsh) makes for better kids. Some of Chua’s stories about her domineering and cruel parenting techniques were downright alarming.
Now Chua is back with a new book, cowritten with her husband, about cultural superiority. As the New York Post covers it, the new book (The Triple Package) outlines 8 enviable cultures who get it right and contrasts them with basically everyone else. (If you’re curious, and I was, the list includes: Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese-Americans, Nigerians, Cuban exiles, and Mormons.) As with Battle Hymn, I haven’t read this one yet. But the vociferous and angry reaction is making me curious.
A friend happened to send me an old essay (from 2004) about What You Can’t Say the other day. It’s all about techniques for finding our own unquestioned assumptions and taboos (because, like fashion, culture is invisible when you’re in the thick of it). Well, no one doubts that Chua has put her finger right on a raw American nerve and, like What You Can’t Say argues, I can’t help but believe part of the reason the nerve is so raw is that her argument isn’t as ridiculous as everyone wants to believe.
Consider Maureen Callahan’s takedown in the New York Post. She claims that Chua leaves Muslims alone because they are “too controversial to warrant a mention.” Whenever you see a combination of high vitriol and low common sense, you should be suspicious. Chua doesn’t address Muslims because “Muslim” is not a cultural group, just as “Christian” is not a cultural group. The criticism makes no sense, especially when you observe that Iranians (one of the 8 elite cultures) are predominantly Muslim.
In the United States we a have a deep and abiding fear of anything that looks like racism, but we’re not always really clear about what exactly “racism” entails, or why it’s wrong. Our paranoid avoidance of the topic doesn’t actually promote tolerance. Just silence. Ever since my sophomore English teacher had the class read and analyze an article defending The Bell Curve, I’ve believed that the best way to handle sensitive topics like this is openly and honestly. But everyone I see rushing to condemn Chua seems to be interested in shouting her down as opposed to countering her ideas, which is why you get arguments as bad as Callahan’s. (Did she even read the book? I suspect not.)
The problem with Battle Hymn, for me, is not that it in asserting Asian superiority it violates a taboo, but rather that I’m skeptical of the evidence. I’ve read a little bit about Asian success in the United States, and one of the observations is that while Asians as a group tend to stand out academically they are curiously absent from the top (like CEOs). Some have attributed this to a culture that emphasizes conformity and obedience over leadership qualities. Maybe Chua’s parenting style is great for raising engineers who can spend their time working for WASP CEOs? Similarly, I’ve read many critiques of Triple Package that question the validity of using immigrants because of selection problems, and that’s a great response, but are we so afraid of the mere idea that some cultures may be better at certain things than others that we’re not actually willing to even have the conversation?
Ultimately it doesn’t make sense to ask if culture A is better than culture B in general because “in general” is too broad a category. But if you identify specific variables (say, college graduation or median income) and are careful with the statistical analysis there’s no reason, in principle, that you wouldn’t be able to identify cultures that stood out and even try to learn what allowed for their success. I’ve got no idea if Chua is just pushing buttons for fun and profit or if she has a legitimate case to be made (no reason it couldn’t be both), but I do think that the rapidity with which her book has been trashed because it violates our current social taboos is both sad and silly.
I try very hard to do two things in my day to day life:
1. Be on time.
2. Protect my kids’ childhood by not constantly rushing them from Appointment A to Appointment B.
As you can imagine, these two goals are often in conflict. My general approach is to build in lots of extra time. I try to get to my kids’ school with enough time before gymnastics class that when Caleb wants to check out all the dandelions or Sophie wants to finish her drawing, I can say “yes”. Better still: I can stand back, smile, and just watch my children being children. I treasure those moments, and there are never enough of them.
Sometimes it doesn’t work.
We were on track for an 8:20 departure this morning despite the kids deciding to have breakfast twice. They have weirdly erratic appetites, and sometimes I can’t get them to eat a single bowl of cereal in the morning. Even if it has marshmallows. Today, they had an entire bowl of cereal, said they were done, and then decided they needed oatmeal as well. They ate all the oatmeal, too, so I’m glad we had the time. (Hungry kids = unhappy, poorly behaved kids.)
Anyway, 8:30 is the real deadline if I want to be sure they get to school on time, but heading to the car at 8:20 means that I have time to calmly mediate any disputes about who gets to sit on which side of the car, that I have time for them to buckle themselves in at young-child pace, and that I don’t have to worry about getting stuck behind a school bus or something. But just before I say “Let’s get in the car,” Caleb decides he needs to go to the bathroom right now. No big deal, I think, but then it ends up being one of those #2s where he just sort of hangs out on the toilet indefinitely. Even with all the gentle cajoling I can muster while keeping a smile on my face it’s a full 10 minutes before he’s finally ready to go again.
But when we get downstairs, Sophie is nowhere to be found. “Where’s Sophie?” I ask. “I’m in the bathroom,” she responds. It’s 8:27, and she has also decided that right before we leave for school is the optimal time for a #2.
How do you plan for synchronized poo? You don’t. There is no planning for synchronized poo.
Do you feel awkward around a breastfeeding mom? No worries! Our society has conditioned us to think of the breast as a sex object. Sex object + innocent baby + dinner time = weirdness!
In that moment of awkwardness, just remind yourself: this is in no way about sex. This is just a mom caring for her baby. It’s natural and beautiful. Eventually, your neural pathways will reroute and maybe you won’t feel even a twinge of awkwardness.