Posted by: littlez2008 | May 23, 2012

My Favorite Color on the Spectrum

Z and Z’s Mommy at Daddy’s work (where he makes stop motion animated stuff)

It’s been so long since I’ve written a post that I almost forgot how to sign in.  The features on WordPress have changed.  Maybe they’ve already changed a couple times.  But a lot of things have happened, and I wanted to get back to it.

Most importantly, what has happened is that my son was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.  So far, we’ve heard high functioning autism and PDD NOS, but he also, according to one teacher, meets criteria for Asperger’s.  Bottom line:  stuff we thought was probably normal or okay is…well, let’s not say abnormal and not okay, let’s just say atypical, different.  Let’s just say it’s gonna be a bit of a slog in public school if we can’t teach the kid to work in groups, which seems to be the main issue.

Forgive me if I’m a bit out of practice.  Interestingly enough, the other major thing that happened this year was a complete and total change of jobs for me.  I could spend a bunch of time detailing it, but let’s try to bullet point it instead, so I can get back to Zack:

  • Budget cuts in the public school’s adult education division
  • Job as portfolio manager of apartment buildings–huge transition
  • Eventually real estate fascinates and engages me in a way few other things have, but I am working like the proverbial dog
  • With Zack’s diagnosis and my writing “career” taking off, I decide I need more time for being a mom and being a writer.

So now I’m a real estate agent.  It’s been three weeks.  I have not made a dime doing it.  I enjoy it.  I fortunately had a lot of savings from my time as a teacher, and also fortunately, my husband brings in money.  Um, sometimes.  Two parents in the entertainment industry is maybe not the best idea, but it’s the best idea we’ve got at the moment.

Making my own schedule is great.  I have an audition, I don’t have to sneak out.  I just go.  I tell everyone exactly why.  I show them a commercial of mine on YouTube.  They say good luck.  I need the morning off to finish a pilot, so I take the morning off to finish a pilot.  I don’t need to call in sick and feel guilty.  I wish I were the kind of person who didn’t feel guilty, but I’m saddled with an intense work ethic.  I’m the kind of person everyone is so grateful to have on the job, the kind of person who can do the work of two other people without complaining–and unfortunately the kind of person who does the work at the expense of finishing the pilot.

But no more!  After I got a manager, I realized if I was going to make this writing thing work, if I was even going to have a shot at it, I would have to actually DO it.  As in make time for it.

And if I was going to have a shot at this mom thing, at parenting a kid with special needs, who has to go to occupational therapy and special preschool and special social skills classes–well, I was going to have to stop working 11 hours a day and being on call for emergency plumbing issues all night as well.  I used to panic if my cell phone wasn’t on my night table, and with good reason.  I was called out of bed for emergencies numerous times while managing property.  Weirdly enough,I loved it.  I guess I love to feel needed and important, but I’m needed at home now.  So yesterday, we went to Zack’s first social skills class, and I just left the office.  I didn’t need to fill out a form.  I didn’t need to tell anyone where I was going.

See, when they’re not actually paying you, you have a lot more freedom…until the money runs out.  But let’s hope I sell a house or a script soon.  Either one would be fine.

So that’s me.  Back to Zack, here is what happened.  I hope that parents somewhere find this and that it helps someone.  As a skeptic parent blogger, I’ve been remiss in not giving the play by play.  Well, not remiss.  I just didn’t have time.  But here’s a little catchup.

For the sake of clarity, there have been four preschools.  In order:

  1. Beautiful facility that  more or less expelled Zack for aggression.  Let’s call this the betrayal preschool.
  2. Weird Montessori school that wasn’t really a Montessori school.
  3. Nice preschool that was too academic and group oriented for a kid like Zack, and where he started to be miserable every day.  Let’s call this one performing monkey school.
  4. Current crunchy-hippie, kid directed, parent involved, developmental preschool, where he is flourishing (and the place where I have met the most parents that I actually enjoy talking to).

I blogged on here about Zack’s problems with his first preschool.  They kept sending him home for “aggressive” behavior.  We never saw the aggressive behavior at home. We moved him to a Montessori school, where he cried for a week straight.  For a kid who has a fit if you try to make him use the playground swing in the “wrong” direction, changing preschools like that must have been an utter trauma.  It was terrible for our whole family.  We tried performing monkey school, where Zack managed to calm down and have a good time.  No more aggression, but the teacher did notice that he did not play with other kids, and she said his eye contact was off.  He also couldn’t focus at all in groups.  Okay, we thought, this is preschool number three, so maybe we should finally get him assessed.  We don’t see much that’s wrong…except it is really tough to have a conversation with Zack.  He has a fantastic vocabulary…but you can’t really go back and forth with him about one topic for too long.

My friends’ Facebook posts increasingly started to make me feel like something was maybe not right.  Kids younger than Zack would say stuff Zack could never say.  Stuff about the abstract, about time, about what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Those concepts are just not in his repertoire.  He was the first to learn the ABCs, the first to tell the difference between a hexagon and a pentagon (well, I exaggerate–that’s still a little tough), but try and engage him about what happened during his day, and it’s a no go.  He will go back to what’s in his hand, what’s outside the window–the concrete.  Or he’ll talk about something way off topic, usually something he’s memorized, phrases he’s heard on TV.  He would recite dialogue from video he’d seen of himself at the zoo.  It was his way of talking about that fun day at the zoo.

So we had him assessed at three places, and all three put him on the spectrum.  Why three places?  The first was a private clinic at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.  Since our insurance paid, we went.  There were one way mirrors, cameras, a team of specialists.  They were so thorough and so smart.  Anyone who has had experience with Children’s Hospital knows they are amazing.  They insisted that play based, developmental preschool would be more appropriate for Zack, so we moved him to his current crunchy preschool, which we all love.

Then, armed with that clinic’s thorough report, we went through the Regional Center and LA Unified School District to get all our free services for Zack.

So for anyone who suspects something is “off”, here is what happens.  Your kid will play with puzzles and answer questions and point to pictures.  Our kid “flunked” pretend play.  He couldn’t interact about a birthday party with a doll.  Since the evals, I’ve been working with him on this.  We got him a play kitchen, and he actually does interact and play with it.  He makes tea with milk and sugar for me–every single time.  Any new activity for him will quickly become scripted, and going off the script provokes anxiety.  When we have light saber fights, if we move to a different part of the room or say a different line, Zack has  a fit.  He thinks he’s George Lucas, apparently.  He directs the scene.  We’ve been instructed to throw him curve balls in an attempt to break this rigidity, or at least to soften it.  And it’s tough, because we are such accommodating parents that we will let him swing the same direction every time at the playground (until recently), and we indulge the exacting blocking of the Star Wars scenes.  But when the fits start, we’ve been advised to hold our ground and to repeat the mantra that, “Sometimes we can play a different way.”

I’m not doing a great job detailing the process.  So your kid gets a bunch of tests, and then you wait.  We started all our evaluation calls back in September, 2011.  We just got our first free class yesterday, May 22nd, 2012.  The private clinic didn’t offer any classes.  They just told us to go to the state sponsored ones to get services.  The state ones are slow.  So slow.  It makes me wish we’d started earlier.

Then finally, when the authorizations have been signed, and then mailed to you to be signed again, and then sent from one agency to another, finally you get your classes.

If you get an Individualized Education Plan from the school district, you go through a bunch of evaluations, and then you meet with a team of people who explain the evaluations to you, and then you set goals for your kid, and then you get some options for services.  They gave Zack a speech goal of 2-3 turns of conversation, on topic, several times a week.  I asked how much a “typical” kid could converse on topic.  They said maybe 4-5 turns, maybe more.  So I insisted we increase Zack’s goal to that.  The coordinator said, “That’s a LOT for him.”  And I said, “He’s not gonna know if he doesn’t meet his goal.  Let’s aim high.  Let’s see if we can do it.”

Everything else, I left alone.  In the fall, Zack will start a special preschool from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., where there are typical kids mixed with high functioning spectrum kids, and where the teachers are supposedly experts in helping kids interact with each other, use language to learn to take turns, stay on topic, etc.

In the meantime, before this school year ends, Zack will get a little bit of occupational therapy at a local elementary school, and he will also get a visit from a teacher at his current preschool, who will coach him on interactions and talk to his teachers and give advice.  Recently, the aggression has surfaced again, but just a little.  Let’s face it–if someone has a truck that you want, hitting is easier than talking, especially if back and forth conversation is really hard for you.

There are no services during the summer.  But with what we hope to learn by the end of June, we can continue coaching at home.

This fall, special preschool will be in the morning, but we will keep Zack in his current preschool for the afternoons.  It’s expensive, but we love it.  It’s completely kid directed and developmental.  We were advised by our IEP committee that while this is wonderful, it exactly works against the kind of “compliance” we will have to encourage in Zack if he is going to succeed in kindergarten.  I bristle at the word “compliance.”  I don’t want him to ever be compliant.  His refusal to participate at times is just so completely bad ass.  We have video of him at the performing monkey preschool during the Xmas Pageant, looking in to the audience and wailing.  He didn’t understand any of it.  Why am I up here, and Mommy and Daddy are watching down there?  I don’t want to sing.  I want to be with them.  The audience, the group of kids around him:  invisible.  He’s so immune to social dynamics.  But here’s the thing:  the pageant did kind of suck, and for us he was the best thing about it.

Our new, crunchy hippy school would never make kids perform like that.  Kids get to run wild and cover themselves with corn starch.  They get to choose their activities. They come home with green hands and paint in their hair.  There is no homework.  (Yes, at the performing monkey school, 3-year-olds had homework.)  Zack is happy at his school now.  He gets to do what he wants.  The group activities are minimal, but the teachers notice he has trouble with them.

In fact, seeing him in a group was what first prompted me to get the evals.  We took Zack to the local YMCA for swimming lessons.  He did okay the first class, but increasingly, after that, all he wanted to do was shout at me about playing with the rubber ducks.  We had done that one time at family swim hour, and he perseverated on it.  He didn’t want to do swim class.  He wanted to play with the ducks.  He wouldn’t listen to the teacher.  Finally we pulled him out of there.

Also the locker room terrified him.  Echo-y, loud noises are a bit of a nightmare for him.  The swimsuit spinny drying machine thing was the catalyst for total freak outs.

I asked his preschool teacher (this was performing monkey preschool), “How do you work with Zack in groups?  Because I see in his swim class he has trouble with it.”  She said, “We don’t.  He can’t do groups.  He plays alone.  And actually…I think it’s time you have him evaluated.”

It was a shock.  It was depressing.  And the evaluations were tough and hard to take.  The news was hard to hear.  But in the end, Zack should be okay with all the intervention and the therapy.  He’s still awfully, awfully cute.

And we got him private swim lessons, and now he can swim on his own.  Different approach, more money, more time, same result.  I’m hoping it will go down the same way with:  writing (tough for him), playing in groups (getting much better), and having a danged conversation.

So there it is, my rambly first post on parenting a kid with high functioning autism, or maybe PDD NOS, or even possibly Asperger’s.  We’re not 100% sure.  But look at that red hair.  No matter what you call it, he is my favorite color on the spectrum.

Posted by: Ticktock | May 22, 2012

Princess Hands and the Path Not Taken

One of the benefits of my wife being unemployed (yes, she’s a victim of the tea party) is that the whole family has been able to spend more time together. Today we went to Cincinnati’s largest state park to play on the playground and wander the nature trails. It’s the sort of luxury that we couldn’t afford with both of us working, and little adventures help us forget the stress of finding new sources of income.

My daughters were struggling at the playground to cross the monkey bars with the dangling rings. They would make it half way and then lose their grip, but I was impressed with their tenacity to keep trying. So, in an effort to sweeten the deal, I offered $1 to them both if they could make it all the way across. I know that kids should be motivated intrinsically, but I could see that they were determined to cross whether I offered money or not. Cash just made it more fun. I ended up paying them both for accomplishing their goal; it was well worth the money.

When we started our walk on the nature trail, Juliet looked up at me and whined about the callous that had formed on her hands from hanging on the rings. I told her not to worry, that callouses are something to be proud of because they show that you worked hard. I told her that if she went through life with princess hands then that would mean she would have never tried something difficult.

Along the path, my wife suggested that we go off trail to follow a dry stream downhill to it’s parent stream. Sasha said she didn’t want to go away from the path. It looked dangerous and scary (it really wasn’t). After much cajoling and hand holding, I told her to think of going off trail as building a callous for her mind. Yes, it’s tough doing something that scares you, but once you commit to following through on the adventure, you will make yourself more brave and that callous will form over your fears. After all, you don’t want to go through life with a princess brain.

Once she relaxed, we had quite an adventure: discovering fossilized shells, searching for amphibians, spotting a woodpecker, and even coming across a raccoon (the coolest thing Juliet’s EVER seen). It may not always be the smartest thing to go off trail, and I did make that clear, but in the context of a family nature hike, it was just the calloused decision that my little princesses will keep in their piggy bank of memories… right next to that dollar they earned on the playground.

Image

Posted by: Ticktock | May 15, 2012

Daddy Wars!

Choosing to stay home with kids can be socially isolating for any parent, but some dads have a particularly hard time adjusting. Where once they had office parties and water cooler conversations, they’re now saddled with Big Bird and dirty dishes. And when once they had time to join a soccer league and exercise at the gym, now they’re too busy juggling minivan trips to various activities for their kids.

For many at-home dads, there is a sense of loneliness that comes with spending huge chunks of the day without any connection to other adults.

At-home dads choose different paths to remedy their loneliness: some tunnel into their daily chores and tasks as if their duties were going to be evaluated quarterly by management, some pursue memberships to zoos and museums to distract themselves, and others seek community and fellowship by socializing on the internet. For those living in larger metropolitan areas, there’s an easier path from the isolation… creating a tribe.

It makes sense to connect with other first dudes who are in the same situation. Moms generally don’t want to have anything to do with at-home dads for various reasons, including real or perceived sexual tension. So, many at-home dads seek out the company of their peers.

But, that’s not to say that these tribal communities of at-home dads are all peaches and sunshine. In fact, there’s a false sense of “no judgement” peacefulness that develops when at-home dads begin to organize socially. They become lured into this idea that they can be friends with everyone in the group, despite potential personality differences or political/religious preferences. Men are just as complicated as women – they can’t just cluster into a group and call it a day. But because of the limited supply of at-home dads within a given community, guys work extra hard to avoid any drama.

When I met David, we were the only at-home dads that we knew. We scheduled play dates with our kids for over a year before anyone else showed up. I enjoyed hanging out with David because we were on the same wavelength about science, atheism, and progressive politics. But, I slowly realized that, despite our common interests, David and I were not meant to be friends. We had forced ourselves into a friendship because we valued the idea of having a tribe over the idea of having a perfect friend.

This pseudo-friendship we had developed came crashing down one spring day. It was an ill-fated play date where a small group of dads and their kids planned to meet at a local attraction and then rendezvous at the nearby restaurant afterward. Sounds easy enough until you realize that playdates are more about the parents than the kids, who may vary in age, personality, and behavior.

David had a new baby in a stroller which slowed him down, and his 3 year old son was lollygagging a bit. My kids, on the other hand, were speed racers and had to be told to slow down when going through the exhibits. By the time we had made it through the exhibits, I was annoyed that David was so sluggish and he was annoyed that my family was impatient. It was a petty dispute which should have been left unspoken, but it escalated into some serious drama…

I decided that I was tired of waiting for David, so I just walked out the exit to meander over to the restaurant where we had previously agreed to meet. A couple of the other dads saw me leave and followed me out, but David didn’t see us leave the building and nobody told him we were moving on. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most thoughtful exodus, but with so many kids of differing ages, it’s nearly impossible to move the group when everyone is ready to go.

We were at the restaurant when David called my cell phone asking “Where the hell are you guys?”, and that’s when I knew that he was truly pissed. By the time that he arrived to join our party, he had worked himself into a Hulk-like level of rage. We had an argument which escalated to the point where he was giving me little shoves (while holding his baby) and suggesting that we step outside to settle the matter. Once I realized that we were disturbing nearby tables and that this was going to be a publicly embarrassing situation, I tried to reason with him not to ruin our friendship, not to destroy his participation in the at-home dad group, and most importantly, not to jeopardize the friendship that our kids had developed. I was mostly trying to stay zen and resist the urge to fight in front of my kids over something so stupid.

Thankfully, we never actually traded punches. He was asked to leave by a manager, and I was left sitting there next to another at-home dad who had just joined the group. We were truly in shock.

I wasted no time blocking David from our playgroup, unfriending him on facebook, and shutting him out from my social circle completely. I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t particularly want to see him again. Incidentally, the at-home dad who was new to the group and witnessed the whole fight became one of my best friends and later took over as the group’s organizer.

There’s a new movie out with a story line about at-home dads who call themselves the “Dude’s Group”, complete with rules about not fighting or judging each other. Well, that may be a noble goal, but it’s sometimes easier said than done.

Posted by: Ticktock | May 14, 2012

The Bully Vaccine – FREE on Kindle!

Jennifer Hancock’s book “The Bully Vaccine” is available for FREE on Kindle today and tomorrow. Jen wrote a happiness guide for teens and young adults called “The Humanist Approach to Happiness“, which offers advice from a secular humanist’s perspective.

The Bully Vaccine gives recommendations for kids on how to prevent bullying through behavioral changes. I briefly interviewed Jen about her book and her approach to bullying…

What made you decide to write about the subject of bullying?

I wrote the book because I know I had good advice to give to young kids just starting to get bullied. My mom had taught me how to deal with it successfully as a kid so I was never really bullied as a result – give that I had a deformed jaw as a child, that’s a huge deal. The problem was, I wasn’t sure I had anything to offer kids coping with chronic bullying. And then I realized, I was a victim of a stalking and that’s actually really similar to what happens to kids who are being chronically bullied. So, I realized that I did in fact have something substantial to offer them and I realized, I really needed to write the book so that these kids who are suffering can get real help.

Do you think parents should intervene when their child is bullied?

Yes, parents should get involved when their child is bullied. What exactly they should do depends on what is happening. At the very least, they need to proactively teach their child the skills they need to cope with bullies. We don’t expect our kids to learn how to swim without instruction anymore. Same thing with bullies, they need to be explicitly taught how to cope. If your child is being assaulted or battered as a result of a bullying, you need to speak up on their behalf and keep speaking up. Kids learn more from your example then they do your words. They need to see you reporting what’s happening. This will help give them the courage they need to report what’s happening and to keep reporting it.

Some people say that the best way to defend against bullies is to be aggressive, others say to use reason or humor. Do your suggestions fall within that spectrum or are they more outside of the box?

As any good scientifically minded parent would – I teach operant conditioning techniques to deal with bullying. And don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds. But basically, what I teach is how to train your bully not to bully you. It’s proactive, compassionate, geeky and empowering all at the same time and yes, it really does work. Humans are WAY easier to train than cats.

Bullying has changed in the era of facebook and twitter. Does your book’s recommendations cover cyber-bullying?

I do touch on cyber bullying, but not as something separate. I just give advice on how to use the operant conditioning techniques in the cyber environment.

Does “The Bully Vaccine” use humanist principles and ideas, or does this book not really focus on your secular views?

The book is implicitly Humanist – because that’s how I approach everything. And certainly my encouragement to find compassion for bullies is extremely Humanistic. But it is not explicitly about Humanism. It falls more into the category of Humanistic Parenting if anything. But the book was made to be accessible to anyone except extremely religious parents who won’t like what I have to say about religious or sexual bullying. Everyone else though, will get a lot out of it.

Thanks to Jen Hancock for the answers!

Posted by: Ticktock | May 13, 2012

Our School’s Mission and Belief Statements

Continuing with my series of articles on leading my daughter’s school toward greater success…

Now that the parents have the attention of the school board, there is a renewed sense of communication and cooperation between the administrators, faculty, and parents. We’ve met and strategized about areas of focus that all parties feel are important in our school district. With the brainstorming session complete, our duty now is to coalesce the group mind into a narrower focus.

Our group’s facilitator recently brought together the core committee to develop a mission statement and belief statements. The administrators took the lead at this meeting, but I didn’t mind because they had let parents go a little crazy with unwieldy mission statements in previous years. Here is our current mission statement:

We will provide an excellent education in a safe and caring environment.”

Here are our six belief statements:

  1. Children learn best in a positive, caring environment where they feel safe, respected, and valued.
  2. Every child can learn and deserves an excellent education.
  3. Instruction will challenge students to express creativity, think critically, and develop problem solving skills.
  4. Children learn in different ways and have different interests, styles, and paces.
  5. Partnerships among the parents, the community, and the school are essential to student achievement and personal growth.
  6. Self discipline, intrinsic motivation, and personal accountability are essential for a student’s future success.

As a skeptic, I’m glad to see that “think critically” was added to the belief statements, but I’m happy with each of the points. Moving forward, I want the steering committee to make evidence-based decisions for the progress of the school, and I plan on voicing my opinion if they ever stray from proven tactics. The problem is that I’m essentially starting from scratch when it comes to being a reliable expert on evidence-based education, which is why I will be searching for resources that will help in that mission.

One problem that my school district faces is the same problem that it’s closest urban neighbor faces, and that is the challenge of childhood poverty. The Cincinnati area has the third highest rate of children in poverty (behind Detroit and Cleveland), and more than 2/3 of student population are living below the poverty line.

Market Place aired a story on Cincinnati’s poverty problem yesterday, focusing on the attention that the city has been giving to early childhood education and development. They mentioned two organizations: Success by Six and Every Child Succeeds. My goal is to introduce these organizations to my community (assuming they are not involved already), and to raise awareness about their services.

I’m still looking for ideas for evidence-based education reform! Any help is much appreciated!

Posted by: Ticktock | April 25, 2012

Progress at Our Public School

Last month, I wrote about the poor learning environment that my daughter was encountering at her public school, and how I communicated my frustrations to the superintendent, encouraging him to listen to the parents and show them that he will take action. He promised that he heard me and would resolve the problems. Here is what happened since then…

  • He immediately reduced the class sizes in my daughter’s grade by adding a new class and reshuffling teachers.
  • He added a second recess for some grades based on my suggestion.
  • He immediately had a meeting with the teachers to discuss their problems and concerns.
  • He gave the parents a forum to create a steering committee for the school.

Pretty nice reaction, but will it help the school’s fundamental problems? The best way to make progress is for the parents and school district to agree that there are areas that need work, come together to discuss ways to fix the problem areas, and then to take the type of necessary actions moving forward. Easier said than done, but certainly well within the realm of possibilities.

I just returned from the first steering committee meeting where a cheerful neutral facilitator from the county helped involved parents brainstorm concerns, categorize those concerns, and prioritize those concerns. In the next few months, we will create committees that will take those problem areas and begin to strategize on the most progressive and helpful ways to solve them.

What was evident to everyone at the steering meeting was that there wasn’t a representative sample of parents in attendance: meaning that the 80% black / 20% white ratio of the student population was reversed for the parents at this meeting. This is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that these changes won’t work if we don’t have the involvement of parents who represent the school’s majority.

I’ve been reading “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One block at a Time” by David Sloan Wilson, hoping for some insight into how I can help my daughter’s school and also the community itself. The issues are challenging when I search on twitter for my hometown and words like “ghetto” and “scared” are quick to pop up in the results. Am I swimming against the tide or can a group of concerned parents revolutionize our over-stressed school district with positive changes?

I think my fellow parents have very reasonable concerns that are solvable: coherent discipline policies, healthy lunches, cooperative education, joyful learning, community and parental support, etc. Now my goal is to find the best science-based ways to help this steering committee achieve it’s goals.

Your thoughts and suggestions are more than welcome!

Posted by: Ticktock | April 10, 2012

On Kangaroos and Atheism

Australian animals are amazingly goofy looking creatures. I can totally understand how someone can look at a kangaroo and wonder whether a capricious god slapped together a deer and a bunny, or combined a duck and a beaver to make a platypus.

On the surface, these exotic animals seem so odd that they must be designed. How could an atheist like me dismiss the complexity and divinely intelligent assemblage of the natural world?

This was the question that was put to me as I wandered through an Australian-themed animal park. It was a fair question, which deserved a friendly response.

The answer to the question is that kangaroos are designed naturally by the hammer blows of natural selection. We can see the different adaptations develop as we follow the trail of evidence of the marsupial ancestors migrating from their earliest incarnations in (what is now) Alaska, down through (what is now) South America, through (what is now) Antarctica, and finally into Australia, where their traits were selected in isolation as the continent separated from it’s neighbors.

It just so happens that I was introduced to an expert on mammalian paleontology (via Rob and Laurie’s Louisville Science Cafe) on the very same day that I had this discussion about the beauty of the kangaroo. The paleontologist mentioned the sequence of marsupials migration that I noted in the previous paragraph, and it made me smile to think about my day of marsupials circling in upon itself.

To be fair, the question of the divine-inspiration of kangaroos was posed to me by someone who believes in evolution. She just thinks that evolution is part of the master plan, and that’s a position that I can accept as a possibility which can’t be proved or disproved. However, as I pointed out to her, if we accept that premise, we must also accept that God included the millions of bacteria, viruses, single-celled organisms, and all the inherently evil entities such as ichneumon wasps and the person who created Desperate Housewives. When it comes to kangaroos, God’s plan seems obvious, but when it comes to gang rapes in Somalia, he works in mysterious ways which we will never understand?

If we grant the overwhelming evidence of evolution then we must also grant the evidence for the age of the Earth. And, as we all know, the evidence for the age of the Earth invalidates the Bible and those who interpret it literally. More importantly, an ancient Earth, one in which humans have only enjoyed for only .0044 percent of it’s history, invalidates the idea that God cares about people. If he cared so much, why did he take billions of years to get us to the point where I could write about him in a blog post. Is it because he works in mysterious ways?

Not only is the immensity of time a challenge to overcome for the believer, but so is the immensity of space. When the bible was written, people thought that the stars were lights in the firmament of the world. They couldn’t have envisioned the swarms of galaxies that Hubble and other telescopes would discover by looking into the farthest regions of the known universe. If there’s a god, he wasted an awful lot of space to make us the center of attention.

And then the argument comes: how can we come from… nothing? And every atheist should be able to answer that with one counter-question: how can god come from nothing?

The faithful have no easy answers for the “how” of the universe other than “God did it.” Atheists do have answers that tell an indirect story… an expanding universe, fossilized bones, radio-carbon dating. These facts might not satisfy believers, but they are far better explanations than “God did it.”

Religious believers are posing the wrong challenge to atheists when they follow the path of “how” the complexity of the universe was created. The better challenge is “why” the world exists at all. Atheists can give their opinion (I certainly have mine), but this takes the atheist into a philosophical place to which there are no definitive answers. I’m not saying that the faithful will have the upper hand in the argument. I’m just saying that focusing on the “why” puts us on an even playing field.

I suppose I shouldn’t be offering advice on how to challenge an atheist, but I felt it was worth noting that there are some questions for which we don’t necessarily have an easy answer.

Posted by: blotzphoto | April 4, 2012

It’s playground season… KABOOM is here to help.

A preternaturally warm Spring has descended on the Tri-State area.  The daffodils have come and gone already. The cherry tree in our backyard has bloomed, shed it’s blooms and donned it’s summer coat of green a full two weeks earlier than last year.  Opening Day is tomorrow and the sages at The Weather Channel promise 60 degrees and clouds but no rain, a marked improvement over last years parade,  which marched by under a slate grey sky  past crowds of shivering reds fans.

Spring means that it’s time to pry the Hellions away from the TV and the family’s collection of iDevices and thrust them outside, where they can benefit from the enriching experience of skinned knees, bountiful amounts of dirt, the occasional dog and or cat and or coyote and or spider, and all of the wonders and adventure of potential trips to the emergency room.

Whilst we here at Hellions World HQ have been blessed with a modest backyard and a lovingly hand built slide and swingset,  there is no replacement in my opinion for a great playground. Not only do playgrounds provide a wider variety of ways for your lovely children to break bones, acquire the need for stitches, or perhaps get that concussion they’ve been putting off, good neighborhood playgrounds can become the social center for the entire community, providing a space for birthday party’s, “playdates”, neighborhood BBQ’s and holiday celebrations.

Don’t know where your closest playground is?  Well the good people at KABOOM are here to help.  KABOOM is a national nonprofit dedicated to… well… PLAY.  I’ll let them speak for themselves, from their “about” page.

Our mission is to create great playspaces through the participation and leadership of communities. Ultimately, we envision a place to play within walking distance of every child in America.

They exist to fight what they call the “Play Deficit”, the fact that our children are playing less than previous generations, and we are seeing the results in terms of childhood obesity rates, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity, anxiety disorders and depression, and a variety of other social ills.  Now as a Skeptic parent it’s certainly normal to be…well… skeptical of anyone claiming to provide a panacea to all of our problems.  That being said, everyone I’ve encountered in the organization has been a top notch advocate for children and they promote an enthusiasm towards community building that I personally find refreshing in these strange times we live in wherein a candidate for president can say with a straight face that poor schoolkids could benefit from doing the janitorial work at their schools (in the stead of union janitors, whose kids would then join the ranks of poor schoolkids).

KABOOM’s website is a treasure trove of information on playspaces around the country, including a great playspace finder  and a mobile app for the iPhone. (Those of you weirdo’s out there who use Android devices need not worry, the Android app is in Beta as we speak.)

Encouraging our kids to play outside with other kids is one of the best things we can do to promote healthy happy childhoods for them.  We’re very lucky to live in a community here in Cincinnati with an active Parks Department  at both the city and county level. Reading KABOOM’s section about “Play Desert’s” sent a chill down my spine.  If your family lives in one of those community’s, then KABOOM is there to help.  If you are lucky enough to not need their help, then consider how you can help them, KABOOM is a Better Business Bureau Accredited Charity and one of the Non-Profit Times “Best Non-Profits to Work For” for 2011.  So maybe consider adding them to your charitable giving?

Now I gotta go kick the Grommit outside… it’s gorgeous today!

(crossposted at Raising Hellions)

Posted by: Ticktock | March 20, 2012

The Thorn in Their Side

After seeing Janet Heimlich speak about her new book “Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Maltreatment” at my local meeting of humanists, I was fired up and annoyed at the hypocrisy of self-righteous individuals who obediently abuse their children in the name of their deity. The brutality that exists in this community of religious extremists crawls under my skin in the worst way. There’s absolutely no excuse for child abuse, but the worst possible excuse would be that it was in the name of loving god.

Janet Heimlich is also the co-founder of a new organization called “Child Friendly Faith” that advocates for churches to promote responsible non-abusive parenting styles. The other co-founder is Christine Woodman, who also spoke at the meeting I attended. It was her testimony of the abuse that she allegedly experienced and witnessed that really made me pay attention to the issue. She spoke of being spanked relentlessly for half-hour stretches (or longer). She spoke about how she witnessed ritualized abuse for harmless acts from kids that shouldn’t have even merited any form of punishment, let alone the type of torture that violates Geneva Convention. She spoke about the rapist youth pastor who raped other young girls in her church.

What was most important from her lecture wasn’t that she experienced these horrible inhumane things, but that she went through a process of learning to speak out against them. She learned to voice her dissent and speak out against the injustice. She went from quietly accepting the punishments (abuse) as a child, to reporting the rapist as a teen, to finally speaking out about her experiences for the first time at the meeting I attended. And I expect that she will continue to be the thorn in the side of fundamentalist christians as she moves forward with expanding the advocacy being done by Child Friendly Faith.

It’s interesting that Christine may have inspired my own “thorn in their side” moment, even if my experiences are under the context of kids not being disciplined enough. Let me explain. My daughter has been coming home from school on a daily basis telling me about the discipline problems in her class. Sometimes it’s kids hurting each other, sometimes it’s kids hurting the teacher, and one time it was a kid telling my daughter that he was going to bring a gun to school and shoot her. At the same time, I was learning things about the class that were very disturbing, such as the fact that it was the largest first grade class (with over 32 kids), that the class was purposefully filled with problematic kids (who were so bad that the full time school psychologist quit), and that there was very little strategy to fix the discipline problems.

It was time for me to speak up and be that thorn in their side. I went straight to the superintendent and told him about my concerns. He seemed like he was hearing me, but not truly listening. So then I sent him my complaints in writing via email, letting him know that the gossip I was hearing from other parents was that they were planning to abandon the public school, leaving a vacuum of overly-involved caring parents. I was not about to let that happen.

The superintendent called me back and told me that he did care about my concerns. He told me that he had a long meeting with the principal and my daughter’s teacher, and that despite budget concerns, he would be hiring an assistant principal and expanding the number of classes in my daughter’s grade so that class sizes would be more manageable. He scheduled a meeting with the teachers to develop a strategy for discipline, and he called some of the other concerned parents to reassure them that he was listening.

I can’t say whether these changes will actually happen, or whether they will help improve the discipline problems at the school. But I am positive that I’ve made a difference by being that annoying thorn in their side. Thank you Christine Woodman! Keep inspiring people to speak up and speak out… it’s the only way we’ll ever see positive change.

Posted by: Ticktock | March 10, 2012

Power Imbalance

A funny thing happened to me at the corporate chain restaurant for which I slave away as a server. One of my fellow employees found a “Power Balance” bracelet laying at one of her tables. “What is this thing?”

Oh man! Did you just ask Mr. Skeptic himself to explain “Power Balance” nonsense? “Would it help if I said that it’s complete hogwash?”

“Um… no.”

Right. I didn’t think so. Probably not the best way to answer the question. “Well, it’s a plastic bracelet with a simple hologram that supposedly provides balance to the person wearing it, but studies have shown that any effect that it has is based on a placebo effect. There’s no plausible scientific reason that it should work.”

She jokes, “Well, I”m going to try it, and if I don’t trip for the rest of the shift then I’m going to say it works.”

Exactly! That form of confirmation bias has been the very process that has stoked the flames of this sort of crap. She may have been joking, but there are plenty of reasonable individuals who don’t care whether their pseudo-scientific accessories are plausible or not as long as they perceive a benefit. I would be fine with consumers making their own decisions on how they spend their money if the businesses who sell these bracelets weren’t profiting from deliberate deception. Not only are these products proven to be bogus, but part of their sales pitch involves deception using body mechanics. I took a picture at a mall kiosk to show the tricks they use to manipulate their customers…

Imager

See how the customer has his arms out? That’s where the magic trick comes in. The guy working the kiosk will push down on his arm and make him fall over, then give him the placebo band and push down again (in a subtly different way) to prove how his balance is restored.

You can see a shark from Shark Tank fall for a similar trick in this video (featuring some snarky commentary from another skeptic). Kudos to Mark Cuban for calling out the guy for trying to sell the sharks useless crap…

So, how do these tricks work? Check out this video of Australian Richard Saunders for more information on the trickery involved…

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