Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

Well, how would you describe it?


From Kaia, my six-year-old daughter:

The time is six, dot-high, dot-low, five, three.

I almost don’t want to teach her the names of punctuation marks, just to see what she comes up with.

Do you have any stories of clever names that kids (or others) have given to common orthographic scratchings?

Candy evangelism


I do not worry too much about my kids and religion. I suspect that, if you give kids a good grounding in thinking for themselves, then they are unlikely to gravitate to religious belief. And if they do become religious, it’s less likely to be a toxic, anti-science, anti-equal rights, us-vs-them type of religion.

But there are some things that are off-limits. Basically, any kind of emotional blackmail, fearmongering, or bribery is unacceptable. That means threatening hell, promising heaven, that sort of thing. I know you may believe in these things very sincerely, but you are not entitled to scare my child into believing as you do. Period.*

What I would not have expected, but find equally repugnant, is what this group did, not far from where I grew up. Members of a Christian church in Edmonton approached a 9-year-old in a playground, offering her candy and religious quotes (with promises of more candy in the future).

It’s creepy and disturbing without the religion bit, and it’s just as creepy and disturbing with religion. Don’t do this, people. The kid may or may not be creeped out; their parents are more likely to be (whether or not they’re religious). If the kid is creeped out, your proselytizing has backfired (and you’ve made it more likely the kid will want to stay away from all religion in the future). If the kid’s parents are creeped out, you have at best turned a whole family a little further away from your message. At worst, you’ll get bad publicity that will make a whole community less receptive to your message.

How did the church in this case defend their actions? They say that they believed they had the okay from the city to do this.

Is it just me, or does this sound a lot like the people who argue that guys in elevators should be allowed to hit on lone women in elevators at 4am?**

Short answer: yes, it should be allowed by law, but it’s creepy, and it’s going to backfire (ie, you won’t achieve your goal – a woman in your bed or another soul in your flock). An appropriate response by the person being solicited (the woman in the elevator, or the kid’s parent on the playground) is to publicly criticise the act, and raise awareness in the community at large as to why this is not a behaviour we want to encourage.

I suspect that this particular type of incident – using candy to entice children without okaying it with the parents first – is rare. But it may be worth pointing out to the more evangelical folks out there (do I have evangelical folks reading this blog? If so, welcome!) that, from my perspective, evangelizing my kids with promises of heaven or threats of hell is just like evangelizing them with promises of candy, and for the same reasons. Only more so, because heaven and hell speak to even deeper hopes/fears than candy, and so are more powerful emotional manipulators.

(Thanks to PZ Myers for bringing the candy evangelism story to my attention.)


* I’m happy to say that almost all of the family and friends that will be in a position to influence our children much are well over on the atheist/agnostic/liberal religion end of the spectrum, so I don’t really worry about the issue of religious blackmail or bribery coming up. But I know it happens.

** I would love to produce an eloquent and persuasive post on the whole “Elevatorgate” palaver. But frankly, it’s an open-and-shut case for me. Of course there shouldn’t be a law against guys creeping women out, but of course it is reasonable to ask them not to do it anyway. If you want a more thoughtful, extensive discussion, read this, thisthis, this, or this. Follow the links in them. Think about it.

Some links


I’m afraid I’m too busy right now to write a proper post.  However, other bloggers are doing a great job of providing food for thought.  Here are some I’ve recently come across:

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism answers the question, “What Is Secularism?

Luke at Common Sense Atheism gives a taxonomy of atheism; and Sabio Lantz at Triangulations does the same.  (In an upcoming post, I will report my position on the various dimensions they describe.)

Over at the Meming of Life, Dale and his children learn about death and the amazing healing powers of time.

In the company of woo


I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It’s all about homebirth – planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here’s a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia’s birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the “naturalness” of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh’s Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the “home birth support group” to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I’ve participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people’s eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn’t immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I’d been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That’s something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven’s 16th law, “There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it.” Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I’m determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there’s also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word “church” is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it’s associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I’m tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people’s assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.

Confession of a born essentialist


We have an innate tendency to psychological essentialism. Bruce Hood articulates this tendency well (see his book Supersense). His most vivid example is the serial-killer’s shirt. If you are given a nice shirt – one that fits well and suits your style and wardrobe – and told that it once belonged to a serial killer, how will you react? Most people will avoid the shirt – even avoid touching it. Of course, the shirt contains no “serial-killer essence”, but the association sparks something deep our psychology: we want to avoid objects that are associated with bad things.

This was probably hugely adaptive in our evolutionary history: if you avoid touching things that have been handled by, say, a seriously ill person, you are less likely to become infected yourself. It doesn’t matter if the reason you avoid them is rooted in an accurate knowledge of the germ theory of disease or an improbable metaphysical notion of guilt-by-association – if it saves your life and is affected by your genes, it will give you a selective advantage over people without the trait, or with a weaker version of the same trait.

Essentialist psychology provides a compelling explanation for why people would believe in certain immaterial properties of matter even if the universe is completely material. Which leads some philosophical naturalists (humanists, atheists, etc) to smugly think that we’ve risen above the illusion: we see through the illusory sense that our instincts push us into. We aren’t tricked into god-belief or imagining a life after death.

Well, it’s not that easy.

I was playing with Kaia (my 2-year-old daughter), and she told me that her doll needed a nappy change*. As an expert, I was invited to conduct the procedure. I used a nose tissue to wipe the doll’s bottom.

When I went to put the tissue back in my pocket (for future use), I was momentarily overcome by my inner essentialist. I had a strong sense that the tissue was unclean. All simply because of an act of imagination!

I quickly realized what was happening, and put the tissue in my pocket anyway. In fact, once I became conscious of the illusion, it quickly dissipated. Thank goodness for skepticism. I wonder if I would have recovered as quickly if I had not, a few years ago, attended a talk here in Edinburgh given by Bruce Hood.

Have you ever had a “silly essentialist” moment like this? How did you react? How did you feel once you realized what was going on?

* I feel I should point out that this wasn’t one of those modern imagination-free dolls that actually produce wet nappies.

A new descendent


Just a quick note to point you to this announcement of the birth of our son a week ago.

I have an idea …


At work, I recently came across an amazing resource: CiteULike. It’s a free website where you can build up a list of citations. I use it to manage the long list of papers and books I read and cite as a researcher. I can label citations, like I label blog entries on this site, according to common themes.

It also has social features: sharing citations between users, getting automated recommendations based on common research interests. And there are Groups.

Which gives me an idea.

There are loads of skeptical blogs out there. There are the science-based parenting folks (such as SBP themselves, Rational Moms), the science-based medicine gang (SBM, Ben Goldacre, etc), and of course the general skeptics (Bruce Hood, Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Wiseman, and loads more).

These blogs often bring up new or interesting research that bears on our lives – as parents, as users (and taxpaying supporters) of health care, and just as people trying to navigate the modern world. But finding a particular study that I remember reading about on some skeptical blog can be a real pain.

So it occurs to me – why not set up a group, or a set of groups, on CiteULike, where skeptics could post scientific articles of interest to the community? You can put notes on each article – for example, pointing to reviews on skeptical blogs. You can talk about the articles (and the body of evidence around given topics, like acupuncture or spanking) in forums. You can associate informative tags with articles. Or you can simply hang out and see what other people have dug up. The resource could be used by bloggers who like to check original research, and also by skeptical consumers of new and traditional media claims.

It’s not something I can do on my own. I don’t have the time or the expertise to dig up all the relevant papers.

So this is a call to all you skeptics out there who have a little bit of time or expertise. Are you willing to help get things started?

I’ve taken the first step: I’ve created a CiteULike group, Skeptical Parenting, to pilot this idea. I chose parenting partly because that’s where I am closest to having some substantive expertise, and partly because my second child is due to arrive any day now.

The next step is up to you. Here is what I ask of anyone who is interested:

  • Join me as a member of the group, or start another group. “Paranormal Research”, “Science-Based Medicine Users” – whatever you’re most into as a skeptic. If you start another group, let us know in the comments here. (Do a search on CiteULike before starting the group to make sure someone hasn’t already started one.)
  • Blog about this yourself – not many people read my blog, but some of you have very widely-read blogs. The more people read about this idea, the sooner we’ll reach a sustainable number of participants.
  • Tell your friends. We don’t all have blogs, but we all have skeptical acquaintances on- and off-line that we can share cool new ideas with.
  • Comment here, so I know that I’m not just talking to myself.

I think we could build this into a really valuable resource. What do you think?

Rational parenting on Facebook


There’s a new group on Facebook for skeptics who are also parents. It’s called Rational Moms and Skeptic Dads. Seems like a great place to share freethought parenting tips, resources, and gripes. Check it out.

(Thanks to the Rational Moms blog for pointing it out.)

The high point


Yesterday was a real milestone for me – a culmination of five years of thinking and working and writing and rethinking and reworking and rewriting. To have it declared worthy of the honour of a PhD degree was probably the most satisfying moment of my academic career so far.

But I think the high point of the day was later. After the three hours of the viva, after an afternoon of congratulations from friends and colleagues, after an evening in the pub recounting the events of the day and sharing stories with fellow students and academics.

The high point came when I was home again, and I was putting Kaia to bed, and she fell asleep on my chest.

Ahh, perspective.

Big Girls, You Are Beautiful!


When our daughter, Kaia, was born, she was a little big. And she got bigger so fast that before she was a month old she had grown out of the lovely purple tam I had knitted her. At six months old, she has bigger feet than her ten-month-old cousin.

And she is beautiful enough to stop time. (Empirical fact – I’ve experienced it many times.)

Everyone – medical professionals, family members, complete strangers – sees her size as a sign of good health, and praises her for it. She is a big girl, and it’s a good thing.

Her mom is also bigger than average, and also time-stoppingly beautiful. But people, especially doctors, rarely take her size as a sign of good health. Doctors worried about it when we were trying to conceive; they worried about it when we succeeded and started planning for a minimum-intervention birth; they worry about it almost every time she has an appointment with them, whether her complaint is size-related or not.

When does being a big girl go from a sign of good health to a sign of bad health? Why?

This is not just a modern question about human development. It is also an interesting historical question. For much of human prehistory, the most worrying medical problems were malnutrition and starvation – being big was a sign that you were healthy, had a reliable diet, and (probably) that you were well-off. And of course, fertility and sexuality were positively associated with good padding, as figures like the Venus of Willendorf attest. When did being a big girl go from a sign of good health to a sign of bad health? What changed?

Perhaps the health risks of being big were just obscured by all the other difficulties ancient people faced. Today, we’ve all heard that being big puts you at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, and various other causes of early death. We all know these are established facts. Don’t we?

Fortunately, Deena has a great interest in her health, not just her size, and has done a good deal of research. She has discovered, through a combination of reading and personal experience, that weight-loss diets almost always fail, or provide only a temporary fix and anyway the health risks connected with size are (except at the high and low extremes) almost entirely imaginary. These conclusions are also drawn by Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth. He was interviewed (mp3) on the Truth-Driven Thinking podcast by Steven Gibson. In the interview (and in the book itself, which I haven’t read), he explodes most of the common beliefs about obesity and health. The facts are well-summed up in this quote:

Even if it were true that thin people had better health than fat people which on the whole, except at its extremes, they don’t; and even if it were true that you could show that there was a strong dose response between weight loss and improved health which, again, is not true; it still wouldn’t make sense to be focusing on weight loss as a public health intervention unless you could actually produce it, but here’s the thing: we can’t!”

And he’s not the only one to debunk popular myths about weight. So where does that leave me? I have a big, beautiful, cheerful daughter, who is growing up in a culture where big becomes a liability at some stage in the process of growing up, despite the absence of empirical support for the prejudice.

Will the ignorant assumptions of people around her give her feelings of inadequacy and shame? Will she be driven to try unhealthy diets in a desperate attempt to fit into the insanely limited idea of beauty promoted by media?

Fortunately, Kaia has several things going for her. She has her own natural love of being. She has family who love her as she is. She has parents determined to arm her with the critical thinking skills to combat the culturally-biased spin that the media (and many scientists) put on legitimate scientific research into human health. She is growing up in a world where many people are determinedly combating the irrational preconceptions of the wider society – the size acceptance movement, as well as a quietly successful fact-based, government-sponsored health sector focusing on a balanced diet and a sensible amount of exercise.

And there are plenty of people who celebrate the diversity of the human form. Kathryn of A Mindful Life posted not only this exuberant and sexy video of Mika’s song “Big Girl, You Are Beautiful”

(it’s now one of my favorite songs), but also a photo of her lovely, swimsuit-clad, pregnant self – a charming celebratory affirmation of big beauty. And when it comes to big affirmations, she’s not the only one. Not by a long shot.

So finally, here’s a picture of the two most important, stupendous, heart-flutteringly delightful women in my life.

Big girls, you are beautiful!


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