Caillou Has Terrible Parents

Tonight my daughter was watching the cartoon, Caillou, so I was watching Caillou too.  Children’s shows are an occupational hazard of parenting.  I suppose it’s possible to avoid them–huzzah for the parents who do–but I find that sometimes I need my children to sit still for 20 minutes.  Cartoons are more humane than a full body cast, which is about the only other thing that might accomplish the goal.  (I haven’t tried the cast for the record.  I’m not a monster.)

If you’ve never watched Caillou, it’s a cartoon about a four year old, his family, their many mild adventures, and the lessons Caillou is supposed to learn from them.  I think it was originally French–the name Caillou is French for “pebble,” I think–but for more than a decade it’s been on television where I live too.  (I haven’t been watching it for a decade.  I’m not a monster.)

Either way, important to this story is the fact that Caillou has a younger sister named Rosie.  Clearly, when they were devising names, Caillou’s parents loved his sister more than they did him.  My best guess is that she’s supposed to be about one and a half years old.  At most she’s two.  For the sake of generosity, I’m going to go ahead and assume she’s two years old.

Tonight’s episode began with Caillou and Rosie playing in their room, fighting over toys as children are wont to do.  Finally Caillou plotted to distract his sister with a fort made out of pillows, but being two she got distracted early and ran off while he was building it.  When he turned around, she was gone.

Of course the audience was privy to a bit more information.  We saw her chase a toy car into the hallway, fumble with it while toddling around at the top of a staircase, and finally run away into one of the many other rooms upstairs.  Her parents were nowhere in sight.  This is when I started to get a little bit disturbed.  I’ve had a toddler by the top of stairs; I paid very careful attention at that moment.

Meanwhile, Caillou believed (not unreasonably, given his age) that his sister must have decided to play hide-and-seek.  He began his search.  This is when we discovered what his parents were doing while their young kids played alone upstairs.  His father was baking cookies in the kitchen.  The kitchen didn’t seem to have line-of-sight to the stairs, and anyway his father was singing and not really paying attention to much.  His mother was sitting on a couch and reading a book.  The room she was in didn’t have line of sight to the stairs either.

I don’t want to harp on this too much–it’s actually fairly minor in the grand scheme of things–but Caillou’s parents were completely ignoring their children, who were playing (and fighting) in an environment that likely included dangers in addition to stairs.  We’ll come back to this, though.

After searching upstairs without success, Caillou ran into the kitchen and told his father that he and Rosie were playing hide and seek.  His father responded that Rosie had run off into a different room.  Then Caillou ran to his mother and said that he and Rosie were playing hide and seek.  His mother responded that Rosie had run into a different room.  It’s possible that his mother actually pointed outside, since that’s where Caillou searched next, but I’ll give his mother the benefit of the doubt and assume that searching outside was an act of Caillou’s own initiative.

Now at this point I think his parents ought to have been somewhat suspicious, even for people inclined to be relaxed as parents.  Two year old children don’t play hide-and-seek.  They have no patience for seeking.  They have no patience for hiding.  It’s really just elaborate peek-a-boo to them.  In my experience every two year old who hides will promptly announce where he or she is.  Two year old children want to be found; they don’t want to hide well.  Also, they are not particularly inventive, so most of them couldn’t hide well if they tried.

Even if they assumed Caillou was lieing, his parents ought to have wondered where their daughter was, since she was now alone.  If they assumed Caillou was telling the truth (from his own perspective), they ought to have wondered how such a simple game could have gone so catastrophically wrong as to keep an eager two year old from being immediately found.  Or, since they had both apparently seen Rosie running through the house, they could have told Caillou that obviously Rosie had gotten bored with hiding and was doing something else.

Then they should have explored what that something else was.

They should not have assumed that Rosie was actually hiding, and hiding so well as to avoid the notice of her brother.  They certainly shouldn’t have returned to their previous activities without some sort of cursory investigation.

But of course they did, so that their four year old could advance outside unsupervised.  Presumably they were also sanguine enough with the idea of a two year old alone in the neighborhood that they didn’t think it strange for Caillou to look outside.  Why would he have done that if Rosie was still in the house?  (Again, toddlers are not hard to find.)

At this point, it would have been reasonable for them to assume that both of their children were outside, that their toddler was outside by herself, and that nobody knew where she was.  Naturally it was very important that they finish the cookies and the book.  In any event Caillou finally got frustrated and returned to his parents to ask for help, otherwise they might have continued baking and reading for years.  This is about the time that his father was putting the cookies into the oven.

The timing here is actually important.  Assuming that Caillou was quick when searching all of the places he was shown searching, their toddler had been missing for about ten minutes. She was likely not in the house.  She may not have been in the immediate vicinity of the house.  Naturally they began leisurely to search the house.

As a frame of reference, I once lost track of my daughter for about twenty seconds.  She was playing in the yard.  I was working in our garden.  I looked down at some weeds, and when I looked up she was gone.  (She had run off behind some building and down the street.  I think she saw a cat and wanted to pet it.)  I did not continue weeding; I found her.  Also, there was so much adrenaline in my system that I could have punched an elephant through a bank vault.

To give them some sort of credit however, the first place Caillou and his parents looked was behind the closed door to the bathroom, to make sure that Rosie hadn’t drowned herself while they were mixing ingredients and enjoying a good novel.  They didn’t seem particularly worried by the closed door however, which seemed to suggest that it wasn’t unusual for their toddler to go into the bathroom and shut them out.  I guess they might just have been preparing early for life when she’s a grumpy teenager.

Either way, let me fast forward.  They finally found Rosie back upstairs in the kids’ bedroom.  (The audience got to see her climbing back upstairs after her otherwise undocumented adventure.)  They found her as the cookies were finished baking.  As a rough estimate based on my own experience with cookies, that’s something like an additional ten minutes.  By the time they found Rosie, she’d been missing for probably twenty minutes, maybe more.

And yet they didn’t seem to care.  Maybe they exhausted all of their love after straining to give her a name not destined to produce long-term emotional scars.  (The other kids have names like Leo, Emma, Billy, and Sarah.  His name is Caillou, pronounced “Ky-oo,” and it means pebble.)

(If your name is Caillou, I apologize for insulting your name.)

Finally, as a fitting end to the episode, Caillou’s father took a tray of cookies out of the oven and gave it to the kids.  He was wearing oven mitts.  They were not.

I suppose if you don’t care when your kids get lost, and you’re fine with any injuries that might result from a total lack of supervision, a few carelessly inflicted burns won’t sting your conscience too much.

And yes, I realize I’ve spent too much time thinking about a cartoon.  My kids are safely asleep though, and I know where both of them are.

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The Call of the Natural, Part 2 (An Inconsistency)

I’ve suggested that we use the word “Natural” to mean more than one thing.  Sometimes we mean it in what I’ve called the normative sense, to describe something that conforms to Nature, other times we mean it in what I’ve called the native sense, to describe what happens when nobody interferes.  The two senses often conflict–I provided examples like gardens, fitness, and education–but when they do we have a surprisingly regular response.

In general if there is a conflict between what is normatively “Natural” and what is natively “Natural,” we act according to the following four claims:

  1. What is normatively “Natural” is superior to what is natively “Natural.”
  2. What is normatively “Natural” is superior even to Nature.
  3. If we are able to pursue what is normatively “Natural,” it is wrong not to pursue it.
  4. Even if we are unable to pursue what is normatively “Natural,” it is wrong to pursue what is natively “Natural” if doing so comes at the expense of the normatively “Natural.”

We respond this way so consistently that we have no practical method for questioning these claims.  They function almost like our senses or our memory, things so common and reliable that we don’t think about how often we employ them.

I’ll discuss later what metaphysical assumptions are needed to make sense of this behavior, but first I want to look at one particular topic with regard to which our response is entirely different: human sexuality.  (For the sake of clear distinctions, I’m going to limit the discussion to one aspect of sexuality–orientation–but the critique applies just as fairly to almost every aspect of the modern approach to sex, and I am not singling out any group for special criticism.)

In terms of human sexuality, heterosexuality is the normatively “Natural” approach.  Male and Female exist and go together.  The anatomical expression of Male and Female form an obvious pair.  The union of Male and Female performs an indisputable biological function, with a sociological corollary that’s  only slightly less certain.  Male and Female go together so obviously that we even refer to inanimate objects like wiring by those terms.

As a society we might want to dismiss this as prejudice, but it’s difficult to conceive of a way for homosexuality to be included in the normatively “Natural” without changing the subject.  That is to say, attempts to express it as part of the normatively “Natural” have to step away from anatomy, biology, and sociology, which are clearly unhelpful to the endeavor, into an arena such as love, freedom, or self-expression.  We can’t include any of the various alternative sexualities in the normatively “Natural” without artificially excluding the most obvious criteria for determining what is normatively “Natural,” but we have no reason for excluding those criteria except that we happen not to like what they suggest.

It’s far more common to argue that homosexuality is natively “Natural,” that people are “born this way” or have certain preferences as an innate part of their identity.  People who reveal alternative sexualities frequently suggest that these are a part of their unaffected selves, who they are when they’re not hiding or trying to be something fake.  If they don’t interfere in their sexual identity by trying to be something they’re not, they will be homosexual.  This is “Natural” in the second sense.  While the claim that heterosexuality is normatively “Natural” might be contentious, I suspect few would argue that alternative sexualities aren’t in some sense natively “Natural.”  In fact the suggestion that alternative lifestyles are natively “Natural” has featured prominently in defense of those lifestyles for some time.

What’s interesting is that our societal approach to this natively “Natural” phenomenon is entirely the reverse of the usual described above.  We demand that what is natively “Natural” be equal to what is normatively “Natural.”  We use claims about causes within Nature as sufficient evidence that homosexuality ought to be accepted as normatively “Natural.”  We object to the notion that those with homosexual inclinations might yet be held to a heterosexual standard, nor will we describe homosexuality as an illness, injury, or disability: the usual situations that might excuse someone from normatively “Natural” behavior.  Most importantly, granting that homosexual orientation acts as an obstacle to pursuing heterosexual relationships, we think it right for those thus obstructed to pursue the natively “Natural” instead.

To explain the contrast by parallel, we wouldn’t argue that being out of shape should be seen in all respects as being as equally good and acceptable as being in shape.  Evidence that genetics influence fitness hasn’t caused us to change fitness standards.  If someone is inclined (temperamentally, genetically, or however) towards being out of shape, we don’t think it rude to encourage them to be fit regardless, and we’re more than willing to discuss their inclinations either as handicaps or moral failures.  Finally, we don’t tell those who are disinclined to pursue fitness that they ought instead indulge in the sort of unfitness toward which they are inclined.

It isn’t my point here to attack homosexual behavior (or any of the other modern sexual practices).  My point is merely to suggest that about the topic of sexuality our response to the “Natural” is at odds with our response in every other situation.  We are being inconsistent; those claims which we unwavering apply in every other instance are abandoned in favor of claims almost entirely opposite when we discuss sexuality, yet we have no clear justification for the switch.

We don’t question the claims themselves, not only because they are overwhelmingly reliable in our experience but because applying the nearly opposite claims in other arenas would result in absurdity (e.g. freezing to death in winter, never teaching our children to speak, adding cholesterol to vegetables instead of seasoning).  Nor do we question the identification of certain things as natively “Natural;” that they are natively “Natural” is one of the most popular things to say about them.  We might question the identification of other things as normatively “Natural,” but the move can only be described as counter-intuitive, almost forced, and largely unsupportable.

It’s entirely possible that our resistance to defining what is normatively “Natural” with respect to sexuality is at least partially inspired by an attempt (perhaps unconscious) to avoid the implications our normal response would generate.  That is to say, if we stop resisting what seems to be obvious, we would then impugn behaviors we don’t want to abandon.  To continue the above parallel, I might argue against certain aspects of fitness as being normatively “Natural” because if I accept them, through the process we consistently apply, I would have to recognize that my stubbornly sedentary lifestyle is a fault.  Not wanting to be at fault, but not wanting to behave differently, I cast doubt on the judgment of what is normatively “Natural.”

The Call of the Natural, Part 1 (A Distinction)

We generally mean the word “Natural” in one of two ways.  We might mean that something is “Natural” because it conforms to Nature.  (Let’s call this first sense the “normative” sense.)  We might mean that something is “Natural” because it occurs if nothing interferes.  (Let’s call this second sense the “native” sense.) It’s important that we not confuse the two though.  Sometimes the two sorts of “Natural” overlap, but other times they’re practically opposites.

For example, my daughter likes to play.  This is “Natural” in both senses.  If we look around the world we discover that a lot of young animals play, that it seems to be how young animals develop the skills they need as mature animals.  It makes sense that young humans would play too.  Anyone who remembers being a child though, or who has been around children, knows that it isn’t something that requires coercion.  I don’t have to goad my daughter into playing.  She will play unless I actively try to stop her.  (And frequently she will play in spite of my actively trying to stop her.)  Playing both conforms to Nature and occurs if nothing interferes; it’s both kinds of “Natural.”

What about physical fitness?  I think it’s clearly “Natural” in the normative sense.  When we’re physically fit our bodies seem to operate better; they do all the things they need to do better than they would otherwise.  Even more, looking at other animals again, we discover that most animals are pretty fit.  Actually, this almost seems too obvious to argue; would anyone argue that physical fitness doesn’t conform to nature?  Oddly though, it’s thoroughly not “Natural” in the native sense.  If we don’t interfere in the trend our bodies follow on their own, we simply won’t be physically fit.  In fact the two senses of “Natural” are opposed:  we can either be “Natural” in one sense or the other, not both.

Gardens are another good example.  They’re clearly “Natural” in the normative sense.  Soil, seeds, water and sunlight–all pieces of nature–combine to produce plants according to the same process we see all around us.  Sometimes we muck about with the pattern by replacing one of the natural things, like with hydroponics and “grow lights;” sometimes we throw in things that are not pieces of nature, like genetic modifications and chemicals.  Mostly though gardens are “Natural,” albeit only in the that normative sense.  They don’t occur naturally.  If I don’t interfere in my yard, I simply can’t expect tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and broccoli.  Like physical fitness above, gardens aren’t natively “Natural,” natural in the second sense.  Also again the two senses are opposed.  If I don’t interfere, I won’t have a garden.  If I want a garden, I have to interfere.

There are a couple of interesting things to notice.  Most obviously, if you think about the various “Natural” things of your experience, you’ll probably discover that in almost every case it’s better to be “Natural” in the normative sense than in the native sense.  It’s better to be in shape than out of shape, better to have vegetables than weeds.  I could provide other examples:

  • We wash things even though dirt is natively “Natural,” because cleanliness is normatively “Natural.”
  • We educate our children even though ignorance is natively “Natural,” because skills and knowledge are normatively “Natural.”
  • We perfect corrective lenses even though practical blindness is natively “Natural,” because seeing is normatively “Natural.”
  • We put on winter coats even though frostbite is natively “Natural,” because survival is normatively “Natural.”

In almost every case, we recognize the inferiority of that which is merely naturally occurring.  Our loyalties seem to lie with “Natural” in the normative sense.

The second thing to Notice is that often Nature itself produces what is simultaneously natively  “Natural” and opposed to what is normatively “Natural.”  Nature grows the weeds in my garden; Nature causes my muscles to weaken if I don’t use them; Nature spreads dirt and disease; Nature kills me if I go out naked in Winter.  That is to say, Nature often produces that which we might call “Unnatural,” and being natively “Natural” does not in any way prevent us from disliking something that is normatively “Unnatural.”  Again, our loyalties seem to lie with “Natural” in the normative sense, even when that means we are more loyal to what is “Natural” than we are to Nature.

A third thing to notice is that, especially with regards to human beings, when a conflict arises between the normative and native senses, we don’t just prefer the normative, we think human beings ought to prefer it and ought to pursue it when possible.  We tend to understand that the only reason to settle for something natively “Natural” at the expense of something normatively “Natural” is the presence of an obstacle: an external limit, an illness, an injury, or a disability.  If there is no obstacle, settling for something natively “Natural” is a character flaw.

To make what I mean clear, consider the example of physical fitness.  An astronaut in space for an extended period might not be able to pursue physical fitness; someone with pneumonia probably shouldn’t pursue it; someone in the hospital after an automobile accident probably can’t; Stephen Hawking certainly can’t.  Someone who faces no such obstacle but prefers being out of shape to being in shape, we would probably call that person lazy.

This seems to hold in most cases.  There are lots of reasons why a person may not grow vegetables, but if that person lives on a farm, has the ability and resources either to work it or have it worked, and doesn’t grow anything, that person is irresponsible.  There are lots of reasons why things might get dirty, but someone who can clean themselves and clean up after themselves but does neither, that person is a slob.  There are lots of reasons why children might not have the opportunity to learn, but a parent who can easily send his children to good schools but doesn’t, that parent is neglectful.

“Natural” in the normative sense has a kind of moral force.  We generally understand that human beings acting rightfully will pursue it.  We make allowances for those who have difficulty pursuing it, we generally don’t condemn people for difficulties they can’t overcome, but we recognize that not pursuing it is somehow wrong.

There’s one last thing to notice: obstacles which prevent a person from achieving what is normatively  “Natural” don’t justify that person pursuing what is natively “Natural.”.  The goal doesn’t change, even if it’s unattainable.  It doesn’t become rightful for sick people to try to be as out of shape as possible just because they can’t try to be in shape.  It doesn’t become rightful for people to let their yards become overgrown wilderness because they don’t know how to garden.  It doesn’t become rightful to refuse to educate children just because those children are born with severe learning difficulties.  What is normatively “Natural” may be out of reach, but we still admit that it’s what we wish we could reach, and what we should try to reach as best we can.

Parenting With Grammar

My wife is a sort of language super-villain, and she’s trapped my inner language-superhero in a rather tough predicament.

Let me back up a bit.

My infant son is progressing my leaps and bounds, although thankfully he has not yet reached leaping and bounding.  After some significant struggle–he’s big and has a lot of weight to move around– he finally learned to crawl this past weekend.

He started awkwardly; I suspect grace is never going to be his forte.  He’s basically ready to go professional with it now though, which prompted one of my more amusing visuals today.  I was sitting in my daughter’s room, trying to get her ready for bed. Suddenly, an eager little streak crawled by the doorway and headed back the hallway, a fairly significant distance from where he was supposed to be playing.  He looked so happy, like he was going on an adventure.

One of his other growing skills is his ability to understand what we’re telling him, combined with a charming gentleness of spirit sufficient to make him mostly listen when he understands what we’re saying.  This is particularly useful when we have to change his diaper.  He’s large; we need his cooperation.

Herein lies the villainy, and note that I did not say, “Herein lays the villainy.”

My wife has taught my son to obey the command, “Lay down.”  He’ll happily lie down and let her change his diaper.  That is to say, he will happily LIE DOWN and let her change his diaper.  Naturally however, he won’t lie down for me, because I ask him to “lie down,” which isn’t the word he knows.

I tried to fix things by telling him, “Lay yourself down,” but I think that just confused him.  Needless reflexivity will do that to the best of us.

Needless Reflexivity

Either way, if I want him to listen, I have to stab mercilessly and repeatedly at the pure, hopeful, language loving heart that still clings to life inside of me.

I think she might have done this on purpose because I tease her about her accent.  Well played, Wife.  Well played.