Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Helping with hairballs

cat brushI had a tenet from Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept illustrated in a charming way for me the other day.

Our poor cat is going through her spring shedding season, so she is always itchy, and frequently vomiting. Mrs. Pim has taken to rubbing against us more than usual, and selecting even Mikko for her stropping target, when usually she stays a careful tail-grabbing-arm's length away. I've been trying to brush her more to get all the dead hair out and away from her GI tract.

Apparently, Mikko noticed. He has a new way of telling us that he wants something. It's a combination of a guttural whine and a lurch toward the object in question. It's not all that attractive a communication style, but I'm pleased that he's beginning his march toward speaking.

So he did the whine-lurch toward the brush, and I finished up a few swipes on our poor shedding cat, quickly cleaned out as many of the hairs as I could before the grunts escalated into screams, and handed off the brush to Mikko. (Yes, I usually find it easier to give in to exploration than to distract or discourage.)

I thought that's all he wanted, but instead of just sticking the juicy rubber handle into his mouth as he usually does (where squeak, squeak, squeak go his teeth), he immediately reached out and clumsily patted Mrs. Pim with it. Granted, he used the backside of the brush instead of the bristles, and he simultaneously used his other hand -- either to hold her in place or to clear off the fur as he sees me do, I'm not certain. The really incredible thing was that Mrs. Pim didn't take a swipe at him as she has recently been wont to do. She must really be itchy!

She kept circling around, and Mikko kept butt scootching after. He began to look exhausted but remained determined. It's hard to bum scootch and keep up with a cat! (He really should learn from her about crawling on all fours!) Anytime she was in range, he reached out with his two-handed brush/finger combo, and didn't even yank her fur.

It made me think of this section from The Continuum Concept, which captured my interest in particular as we run a home business and have dreams of Mikko entering into it with us one day (one day soon!):

"I was present at the first moments of one little girl's working life. She was about two years old. I had seen her with the women and girls, playing as they grated manioc into a trough. Now she was taking a piece of manioc from the pile and rubbing in against the grater of a girl near her. The chunk was too big; she dropped it several times trying to draw it across the rough boards. An affectionate smile and a smaller piece of manioc came from her neighbor, and her mother, ready for the inevitable impulse to show itself, handed her a tiny grating board of her own. The little girl had seen the women grating as long as she could remember and immediately rubbed the nubbin up and down her board like the others.

She lost interest in less than a minute and ran off, leaving her little grater in the trough and no noticeable inroads on the manioc. No one made her feel her gesture was funny or a 'surprise'; the women did, indeed, expect it sooner or later, as they are all familiar with the fact that children do join in the culture, though their approach and pace are dictated by individual forces within themselves. That the end result will be social, cooperative, and entirely voluntary is not in question."
(p. 83 in my copy)

When Mikko started brushing Mrs. Pim, this little grater girl leapt to mind, and I tried so hard not to act surprised -- and soon gave up in glee. I just thought it was so dang cute! I called Sam over to watch and kept exclaiming, "See, he's doing it again!" So, yes, I failed at being a tribal continuum mama, but the wonderful thing is my baby is being a perfectly successful continuum baby!

I've been thinking of this whole issue of innate sociality/innate cooperativeness as I have had several recent conversations with teachers and parents about "setting limits" and not letting children walk all over you and how discipline needs to begin early.

It all can be summed up under the heading: "Assume the worst."

Here the quote above continues:

"That the end result will be social, cooperative, and entirely voluntary is not in question.

[...] Above all, the child's persona is respected as a good thing in all respects. There is no concept of a 'bad child,' nor, conversely, any distinction made about 'good children.' It is assumed that the child is social, not antisocial, in his motives. What he does is accepted as the act of an innately 'right' creature.

[...] The assumption of innate sociality is at direct odds with the fairly universal civilized belief that a child's impulses need to be curbed in order to make him social."

I have a lot more to say about this subject, but I'll leave it at the cat-brushing story for now. I'll just say outright that my parenting goal is to assume the best instead. It makes life so much more pleasant, even if it does still surprise cynical me when it works.

My 11-month-old has seen me brush the cat a handful of times in his short life, and already he wants to do the same. The tendency is to fit in, as I mentioned already. And even our cat thinks that's a good thing.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Group think

I've been thinking recently about how we respond to group situations. It came to mind because I was remembering how when Mikko was 5 weeks old, we took him on a sailboat ride that had me seriously fearing we would fall into the bay. The boat was tipped at a 40-degree angle at least, we weren't wearing life jackets, I was holding a fifteen-pound weight, I had no hands free to hold on to a line, and then Mikko wanted to nurse! I braced myself as best I could with my feet and just hoped I didn't kill myself or my new baby. I kept looking around at the other 20 passengers and the 2 men of the crew and marveling that they didn't look like they were just this side of death. I was not at all certain I wouldn't fall into the water.

I was repondering this event and musing that I might have said something to the crew about how scared I was if I had been the only passenger or one of only a few. I might have requested a life jacket or asked for a suggestion for a better seat -- on the way back, our backs were leaning against the hull since the boat was now tipped the other way, and that felt very cozy, looking up at the sky, as opposed to leaning forward staring down into the waves.

It reminded me of that oft-told story of the woman who was stabbed in a hallway and a dozen witnesses over the half hour did nothing or little to stop it. It's told in terms of bystander apathy or diffused responsibility, where at a certain critical group size, no one in the group will take responsibility for a situation. Everyone looks to the others for cues about how to act, and even if that is inaction, that's what the group will do.

Here's a quote about the effect from wikipedia:

"A common explanation of this phenomenon is that, with others present, observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so they each individually refrain from doing so and feel less responsible. ... People may also assume that other bystanders may be more qualified to help, such as being a doctor or police officer, and their intervention would thus be unneeded. People may also fear losing face in front of the other bystanders, being superseded by a superior helper, or offering unwanted assistance. Another explanation is that bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since others are doing exactly the same, everyone concludes from the inaction of others that other people do not think that help is needed. ... An alternative to explanations of rational motivation is that emotional cues to action can be as powerful as irrational ones, and the presence of a group of inactive others is a pre-rational emotional cue to inaction that must be overcome."

I think the lines "People may also fear losing face in front of the other bystanders," and "the presence of a group of inactive others is a pre-rational emotional cue to inaction that must be overcome," explain perfectly my reaction on the sailboat. Thinking of it now, I wonder why I didn't put my and my baby's safety over my trying to fit into a crowd -- but fitting into a crowd is a powerful motivator.

The better side of this picture is that there's a good spin to put on the same issue. This is what Jean Liedloff means when she writes in The Continuum Concept about humans being "innately social." We want to cooperate with our group; we want to fit in with those around us.

That's why it's unnecessary to "teach" babies to share or talk or eat food instead of poop or whatever it is -- they pick up these cues naturally, and some things take longer than others to sink in and some depend on physical and mental readiness, but usually a relaxed approach to educating babies works as well or better than an intensive campaign to "train" them. The natural method is not a hands-off approach -- in fact, it's very hands-on, a modeling for and a communication with the child, but it's much less stressful to expect that a child wants to and will learn what you and your tribe do.

Whenever I read comments like, "If you don't teach him how to use a regular cup now, he'll always be using a sippy cup" (often from child-development experts as well as other parents), I snicker at the image of a 50-year-old sighing at a restaurant and resignedly asking the waiter for his water to be poured into a sippy cup instead: "My mother just never taught me how to drink from one of these regular glasses." There's a lot of advice to consciously encourage babies to crawl, or walk, or speak, all operating under the ludicrously false assumption that children don't want to do these things and perversely will not unless coerced.

I always wonder if these concerned parents and pediatricians and psychologists think we should use flash cards to teach our babies to say "mama" or PowerPoint to present the fundamentals of crawling. Maybe some sort of workshop on clapping or a lecture on blowing spit bubbles?

The motivation to be just like those around us is powerful. As parents our biggest role is just to continue being human and expect our children to grow up in the way they were going to in the first place.