On the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.


And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.



On cooperation in gaming.

On cooperation in gaming.

vowminiatureAt a buddy’s house recently, I played a cooperative board game.  In Vanguard of War, each player controls a character defending a church from an army of demons.  Many games of this ilk have been produced recently – Pandemic and Ghost Stories are among the most popular.

But my impression is that these games are best with a single player.  You’re attempting to solve a (typically randomized) puzzle created by the designer.  Maybe you’re the sort of person who enjoyed doing math homework with friends – if so, this type of game would probably be fun to play with a team.

Perhaps it’s a failure of my own education that I rarely worked through chemistry or physics problems in groups.  After all, few really big puzzles are solved alone.  To the best of my knowledge, no tech company of one is going to stop climate change or start a colony on Mars.

But something I look for in games – in any group project, really – is for the identity of the participants to matter.  There’s an increasing awareness that people from different backgrounds will often come up with different approaches to even highly technical problems.  A world in which only white males hold management positions at tech companies doesn’t just produce economic and social inequality – it also makes crappier technologies.

themindSome cooperative games have an element of this.  I played The Mind recently, in which players are dealt random cards from a numbered deck of a hundred, and without communicating (other than wait times) are supposed to dole out their cards in ascending order.  Any set of players should converge toward the game’s simple solution (waiting a constant duration per card number before tossing down your next), but it was still fun to play.  I imagine that a kid could enjoy ten or more games, especially with different teammates.  Will you reach a rhythm soon enough?

But in many of other cooperative games, the identities of the actual humans sitting around the table don’t matter.  If you’re talking through decisions with your teammates, each player’s personality is subsumed by the game.  In something like Vanguard of War, where each player is the primary controller of a single character, that game character’s personality matters more than your own.

And let’s say you play a game several times: with many cooperative board games, the way to maintain an interesting challenge as you improve is for your teammates to play worse.  Otherwise the game becomes easier precisely when you need it to be more difficult.  When a game is a pre-set puzzle, you and your friends can’t keep having fun by growing in experience together.

This is unfortunate, because I’d wanted to introduce cooperative games to my kids.  Isn’t that what all parents want?  For their kids to get along, to be the sort of friendly, helpful ally that people are happy to work with later on in life?

hiveBut then I realized that the best thing for me to do is simply change how I think about playing games.  A two-player “competitive” game like Go or chess (or Hive, a recent household favorite) doesn’t need to seem adversarial.

In chess, each person is given an objective, and, yes, those objectives are mutually exclusive.  But completing the objective isn’t really the point.  The purpose of the game is to have fun solving puzzles, and the person you’re playing with creates the puzzles for you.  The players in chess actually are cooperating, because they’re both setting aside reality in favor of an arbitrary set of rules that both follow for the duration of the game – and the game is only interesting if both players work together to create it.  If anyone doesn’t follow the expected rules, it wrecks the puzzle.

Go_boardPart of what makes “competitive” games interesting is that both players are striving to win – to capture the king, control the most territory, what have you.  A human consciousness is manipulating the puzzle that you’re trying to solve in real time.  Of course, this works best when both players have a fair chance of completing their objectives, which is a reason why I like Go better than chess.  There’s a built-in mechanism to accommodate less-experienced players.  And until the players have “solved” the game (like knowing the exact best strategy in tic-tac-toe or checkers), they’ll continue to have a fun challenge as they grow in experience together.

So I shouldn’t have been worried about introducing competitive games to my children.  I just needed to change the way I think about them.  If only I’d paid more attention to ecologist Mark Bekoff!

Bekoff has studied play for years.  In The Emotional Lives of Animals, he writes:

bekoffI was surprised to learn that [dogs’] bows are used not only right at the beginning of play to tell another dog “I want to play with you,” but also right before biting, accompanied by rapid side-to-side head shaking, as if to say, “I’m going to bite you hard but it’s still in play.”  Bows are also used right after vigorous biting, as if to say, “I’m sorry I just bit you so hard, but it was play.”  Bows serve as punctuation, an exclamation point, to call attention to what the dog wants. 

Infant dogs and their wild relatives learn how to play fairly using play markers such as the bow, and their response to play bows seems to be innate.  Pigs use play markers such as bouncy running and head twisting to communicate their intentions to play.  Jessica Flack and her colleagues discovered that juvenile chimpanzees will increase the use of signals to prevent the termination of play by the mothers of their younger play partners.  Researchers who study the activity always note that play is highly cooperative.  I can’t stress enough how important it is that play is carefully negotiated, that it is fine-tuned on the run so that the play mood is maintained.  There are social rules that must be followed.

Just the other day, my kid asked if we could play a game of “chest.”  I momentarily demurred.  But now that I’ve had time to reflect, I know – I don’t want to play against her, but I will happily play many games of chess with her.

And probably with this guy, too.