The balancing act: Keeping them safe

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As a parent, I know that delicate balance between letting kids explore and keeping them safe. It can be a dangerous world. A responsible parent can’t disregard the hazards, even as we gradually expand kids’ boundaries.

Playing in nature definitely presents a list of potential hazards, from sunburn to tick-borne illnesses (a particularly knotty problem this year!), animal bites, falls . . . a worried parent could go mad. I believe it’s important to remember that our primary job as parents is to render ourselves unnecessary–to rear independent persons who are as healthy and well-adjusted as possible, equipped with the skills and judgment needed to succeed as fully-functioning adults.

But achieving that goal requires that they stay alive long enough to become adults.

So, where do we draw the line? And how do we adjust appropriately–because that line always keeps changing! Developmental stages flash by so fast, we have to work, to stay on top of “what’s developmentally appropriate today?” I managed (with a lot of help) to shepherd two reasonably-functional human beings into adulthood, and for me the key always seemed to be information.

I have yet to meet the child who responds positively to “because I say so!” And they’re RIGHT. That’s an extremely unhelpful answer.

As appropriate for the developmental level, I always tried to take the time to explain to the child why certain restrictions had to apply, if I possibly could. Granted, sometimes there’s no time. But that meant we needed a follow-up conversation. I discovered even the youngest child has the capability to be a rational human being (to the extent that someone can be, at any given stage of development). If we want them to grow into that capability as adults, we must treat them accordingly when they’re kids.

As appropriate for their age, that means teaching kids how to prevent their own bad outcomes (wear sunscreen and bug repellent; know basic safety principles about approaching animals or walking on rotten branches or uneven terrain). They may ignore it, but at least they’ll know why it happened, if they do.

It helps to remember the favorite saying of a friend of mine: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Giving them wide enough boundaries to explore and “push their envelope” means sometimes there’ll be unfortunate results. That’s why it’s just as important to teach them what do do if something does happen. There’s no emergency situation that can’t be made worse by the victim’s panic! The goal is not to terrify them, but to empower them.

It isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

IMAGE: Many thanks to Citypages (Minneapolis, MN) for this image! (no info available, on who’s the photographer).

Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

4 Powerful benefits from a simple nature walk

The Artdog Image of Interest

Some folks will look at this photo and see nothing but weeds, potential sunburn, probable bug bites, an annoying tick-check later, and dirty feet in the making. Grab the sunscreen and the bug repellent! They’ve let the kids loose in the the woods again!

Others will realize that these kids are receiving many more benefits than they are facing potential hazards. What are the benefits of taking a walk in nature? Let me count out a few for you!

1. Walking in nature improves emotional well-being. Children today suffer from higher rates of depression and anxiety than past generations–yet walking in nature has been shown to counter “morbid rumination” (brooding on anxious or negative thoughts).

2. Walking anywhere promotes better fitness, but walking in nature is intrinsically satisfying. This makes it a more attractive activity than, say, walking on a treadmill or a track. The variations in terrain also can help foster greater agility.

3. The endless variety and movement in nature provokes a child’s natural curiosity. Some experts suggest it may help foster greater focus and improve kids’ attention span, while other folks have pointed out it can help improve listening and other cognitive skills. It’s also true that things a child personally experiences in nature can make academic studies of topics such as biology, ecology and other sciences more relevant and understandable.

4. Exposure to nature can also improve the body’s ability to function. While overexposure to the sun is a hazard, sunlight is essential to the production of Vitamin D in the body–a vital component for robust immune health. And speaking of the immune system, did you actually know that a little dirt is actually a good thing? A too-sanitized environment for children can actually backfire if the child’s body has no chance to build up natural immunities. It’s the same principle that applies to the immune-system benefits of household pets. Finally, being in nature can even improve kids’ eyesight, if they spend sufficient time outdoors!

Nature walks provide so many powerful benefits, it’s hard to overstate their value. So what are you waiting for? Grab the kids and get out there!

IMAGE: Many thanks to the writer/blogger Angela Amman for permission to use her photo “Walking in the Woods,” posted on her Playing With Words blog.

Let the children play

The Artdog Image of Interest 

There’s a special magic that happens when kids play outdoors in an unstructured way. Last week’s Image of Interest discussed NPAs, or Natural Play Areas in parks, and their value. But lower-case natural play areas don’t just have to be in parks.

Lucky are the children with access to a farm or a big back yard that consists of something other than manicured grass and a plastic swing set–although kids tend to make do with whatever they’ve got. More varied terrain does tend to help get the creative imagination going.

Creative adults, especially those who grew up with access to interesting natural play areas, almost invariably get a smile on their faces when they think about kids playing outdoors–but in fact that’s getting harder for children to do as years pass.

There’s a record number of kids in developed nations–kids who seemingly have all possible advantages going for them–who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. As Peter Gray has written in Psychology Today, “Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today.”

Gray and many others point to the decreasing amount of play time children are allowed, these days–especially unstructured play time–as a source of the trouble. Running wind sprints or practicing your pitching skills on a flat field–while possibly enjoyable and valuable–are WAY different from unstructured play in a natural play area.

But all too often we see parents or other caregivers worry more over the potential dangers of outdoor play–from overexposure to the sun to air pollution–than about the ill effects of too little outdoor play. “Supervise your child carefully,” parents are warned. Supervise, certainly–and not all areas are equally safe for all ages. A little common sense, especially where toddlers are concerned, is well-advised.

But when they grow out of the toddler stage, don’t forget that appropriate developmental needs change. And, believe it or not, there actually are physical and psychological benefits to doing things such as sledding, walking barefoot in the woods, or rolling down a hill. Even simply getting dirty can be good for the immune system. Of course, kids have known this for eons.

We adults should relax a bit, and let them do it.

IMAGE: Many thanks to CafeMom for this image. It’s taken from the excellent article by Jacqueline Burt Cote, 6 Reasons Your Kid Should Play Outside, According to Science.

Authors, reading

I attended DemiCon 28 last weekend. It’s a science fiction convention in the DesMoines, IA area (technically, Urbandale), where they had an art show, masquerade, panel discussions, parties–the full gamut of things I have learned to anticipate at sf conventions in my decades-long career of attending them.

Mark Van Name does a reading from his novel No Going Back at Balticon in 2012.

And they had author readings.

In my experience, author readings at large conventions by “big name” authors can be standing-room-only events. Author readings by mid-list or relatively unknown authors tend to be the orphan stepchildren of convention programming. If anyone shows up for one, that counts as “wildly successful.”

Some promoting, arm-twisting, and recruitment of friends and family to fill the audience may be required, for newbie writers. We may have loved listening to people read us stories in grade school, or be passionately attached to our audio books and podcasts as adults, but somehow getting people to attend readings at sf conventions continues to be kind of a heavy lift.

As some of my more persistent blog-readers may have noticed, I’m a writer who’s poised on the brink of having a novel to release into the wild. It’s gone through multiple drafts, been professionally edited, and I’ve done all I can to make it the best novel it can be. The time has come to start making people aware it’s coming.

I asked for a reading at DemiCon. Better yet, I got one–although I wasn’t scheduled for many other programming events where I could promote it. I made fliers (with advice from my son about copy writing), and invited everyone I could.

P. C. Haring read several interesting excerpts from his novel Slipspace: Harbinger.

I also was able to connect with a couple of other authors, who also had readings. One of them was P.C. Haring, who’d been scheduled for a reading that morning at 9:00 a.m.

Now, in the normal world, 9:00 a.m., even on a Saturday, is a fairly reasonable hour. At a science fiction convention–especially one with as many lively room parties as DemiCon 28 has, a 9:00 a.m. panel on Saturday might count as cruel and unusual punishment.

I’d noticed this scheduling earlier, and commiserated with him. Then, on an impulse, I offered him the second half of my scheduled hour from 4-5:00 p.m. This was not entirely altruistic on my part: my voice tends to give out after half an hour or so of reading. In any case, he accepted the opportunity. We had a nice attendance–the room was about half-full. I read my first chapter, then he read excerpts from his book. Before we knew it, the hour was over and we’d all had a pleasant listen.

Then we gathered up as many of the audience up as possible, and trooped across the hall to listen to Lettie Prell read from two of her short works. The first, “Emergency Protocol,” is a flash fiction (very short) piece that will be published by Analog Science Fiction and Fact at a future date. It is wonderful: watch for it.

Prell then read excerpts from The Three Lives of Sonata James, a thought-provoking story that’s been reprinted in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2016, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Neil Clarke. Good stuff.

Did I gain anything by encouraging my audience to also listen to P.C. and Lettie?

Could/should I have filled my entire hour, all by myself? Well, certainly I had enough material to read (assuming my voice held up). And from comments I got later, the audience would have been game for listening to me. So maybe I made the wrong call. If you look at it from the point of view that all authors are in competition with each other, then I definitely did. Nice guys finish last, and all that.

But I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game, and I especially don’t look at writing that way.  I cannot possibly write fast enough to be the only author someone reads (unless they read ver-r-r-r-r-ry slo-o-o-o-o-o-owly, indeed!). Even much more prolific authors ultimately can’t. Everyone’s readers are also going to read other authors’ work.

Therefore, I’d rather be a resource, a connector, a person who introduces people to others they may also like, in any given network. I fundamentally do not believe that any given group of writers (or artists) are competing, so much as conducting parallel enterprises. If we conduct our careers in friendly, cooperative ways, as far as I’m concerned, we all gain, and actually might expand our own networks a bit in the process.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Balticon Podcast, for the photo of author Mark Van Name giving a reading from his novel No Going Back. There aren’t very many photos of that particular activity (author readings at sf cons), so I was relieved to find a good one! The promo card for my novel, Going to the XK9s, is a combination of my copywriting and design, much improved by comments from my son Tyrell Gephardt, and an illustration I commissioned for promotional purposes, by Jeff Porter. The cover art for P. C. Haring’s novel Slipspace: Harbinger is from his website. The illustration for The Three Lives of Sonata James is by Kevin Hong. It is posted here courtesy of Goodreads. Many thanks to all!

A place for kids “gleefully doing their worst”

The Artdog Image of Interest

Welcome to Imagination Grove in McLean, IL, a place where more unsupervised play is allowed.

What if kids were allowed to pick flowers, build forts, break off branches, and carry away rocks from public parks? To make extra trails through the undergrowth, to dig holes? What’s the worst that could happen?

If you’re like a lot of grownups, you’re probably envisioning hard-compacted soil, hillsides denuded of flowers, and desolation. In some settings, particularly the more fragile, endangered areas, you’d be right.

But a lot of the current kid-generation’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have memories of being at large and creatively free, in wild or semi-wild places, where they did all of those things and came back from largely-undamaged natural places with a new and deeper appreciation for the natural world we live in.

Matthew Browning, a former Park Ranger, sought out an area in Sweden where he cold study natural play zones where kids were bound by very few rules. And no, these places did not escape unmarked. But Browning found that “after millions of kid-hours of use by children gleefully doing their worst, these play zones remain functioning natural areas. The damage wrought by kids was comparable to that from hiking or camping.”

Grownups being grownups, they’ve now created an acronym for areas reserved in public parks for such use: NPAs, or Natural Play Areas. But it’s a positive movement all the same. As Katherine Martinko of Treehugger writes, “It’s time we let the children play, let them cultivate relationships on their own terms with the beautiful forests around us.”

We won’t save what we don’t value. A few beaten paths and play-forts are surely worth the fate of the planet, wouldn’t you say?

IMAGE: Many thanks to Slate’s article Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods, by Emma Marris, for the photo from Sugar Grove Nature Center in McLean, Illinois

Kindred

The Artdog Images of Interest

Mothers, 1919, by Käthe Kollwitz
Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorothea Lange 
Syrian Refugee Mother and Child, 2015, by Tara Todras-Whitehall, for the IRC

IMAGES: Many thanks to Gerry in Art’s wonderful post on Kollwitz, for the 1919 image Mothers, to the indispensable Wikipedia, for Dorothea Lange’s 1936 masterpiece, and to the “Uprooted” blog of the International Rescue Committee on Medium.