Tag Archives: books

Notes from “Don’t Shoot the Dog”

I just finished Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog: the New Art of Teaching and Training.” Partly because a friend points out that it’s not on Audible and therefore she can’t possibly read it, here are the notes I took and some thoughts. It’s a quick, easy read.

The author started off as a dolphin trainer at an aquarium park in the 1960s and moved on to horses, dogs, and her own children. There are a lot of anecdotes about how to train animals (apparently polar bears like raisins). At the time, training animals without violence was considered novel and maybe impossible. I read it as a parenting book since I don’t plan to train dogs, horses, or polar bears.

It’s probably not the best guide to training dogs since a lot of it is about people, and not the best guide to training people since a lot is about animals. She’s written a bunch of other books about training dogs and cats. But this book is an entertaining overview of all of it.

The specter of behaviorism
I can understand not wanting to use behavioral methods on children; the idea can sound overly harsh or reductive. The thing is, we already reinforce behavior all the time, including bad behavior, often without meaning to. So you might as well notice what you’re doing.

“To people schooled in the humanistic tradition, the manipulation of human behavior by some sort of conscious technique seems incorrigibly wicked, in spite of the obvious fact that we all go around trying to manipulate one another’s behavior all the time, by whatever means come to hand.”

“There are still people who shudder at the very name of Skinner, which conjures in their minds some amalgam of Brave New World, mind control, and electric shock.”
(B. F. Skinner in fact believed that punishment was not an effective learning tool, and that positive reinforcement was much better for teaching.)

Pryor argues that behavioral training allows you to get good results more pleasantly than with other methods. She describes her daughter’s experience directing a play in high school:

“At the closing performance the drama coach told me that she’d been amazed to see that throughout rehearsals Gale never yelled at her cast. Student directors always yell, but Gale never yelled. ‘Of course not,’ I said without thinking, ‘she’s an animal trainer.’ From the look on the teacher’s face, I realized I’d said the wrong thing—her students were not animals! But of course all I meant was that Gale would know how to establish stimulus control without unnecessary escalation.”

Of course there are bad applications of behavioral training: “The psychological literature abounds with shaping programs that are so unimaginative, not to say ham-handed, that they constitute in my opinion cruel and unusual punishment.”

I don’t know a lot about ABA (applied behavior analysis), which is one application of behaviorism. My understanding is that its bad applications are certainly cruel and ham-handed, although there also seem to be good applications. I think that even people opposed to ABA should be able to find a lot of useful material in this book.

You’re already doing reinforcement training

One point I think is underappreciated is that we all reinforce each other, and children train parents as well as the other way around.

“A child is tantruming in the store for candy. The parent gives in and lets the child have a candy bar. The tantruming is positively reinforced by the candy, but the more powerful event is that the parent is negatively reinforced for giving in, since the public tantrum, so aversive and embarrassing for the parent, actually stopped.”

It’s also easy to accidentally reinforce bad behavior.

I recently read Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona with the kids, in which a preschooler scribbles in a library book she wants to keep. Her older sister pays for the book, and the librarian gives them back the discarded book to keep.
That’s not fair, thought Beezus. Ramona shouldn’t get her own way when she had been naughty.
‘But, Miss Evans,’ protested Beezus, ‘if she spoils a book she shouldn’t get to keep it. Now every time she finds a book she likes she will…’ Beezus did not go on. She knew very well what Ramona would do, but she wasn’t going to say it out loud in front of her.

Jeff and I try to not let bad behavior lead to a reward. For example, our four-year-old was eager to go home from the park, and left without us towards the house. I caught up with her and told her not to leave without us. We were halfway to the house, but If I’d continued home with her from there, she would still have achieved what she wanted: getting home sooner. So I took her back to the park and we redid the whole situation: she said “I want to go home” and I walked home with her. Running off on her own didn’t pay, and she hasn’t repeated it.

Responding to good behavior, not bad

Instead of punishing bad behavior, the emphasis is on noticing and reinforcing good behavior.
“Shutting up about what you don’t like, in order to wait for and reinforce behavior you do like, is counterintuitive and takes some practice.”

My mother, who taught preschool for decades, sums it up as “You have to catch ‘em being good.” 

Some animals can’t be trained by force, or at least can’t be trained to do anything very complicated. Such training was necessary with dolphins because they’ll simply swim away if you try to make them do anything they don’t like. You can only train them by offering something they like (fish).

“As a dolphin researcher whom I worked with sourly put it, ‘Nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken,’ meaning that the experience of getting results with a chicken, an organism that cannot be trained by force, should make it clear that you don’t need to use punishers to get results with a baby.”

At its best, reinforcement learning is enjoyable for the learner:
“Clicker trainers have learned to recognize play behavior in animals as a sign that the learner has become consciously aware of what behavior was being reinforced. When ‘the light bulb goes on,’ as clicker trainers put it, dogs gambol and bark, horses prance and toss their heads, and elephants, I am told, run around in circles chirping. They are happy. They are excited.”

Clickers and other sounds

Pryor became known for “clicker training” because she started using the method of using a sound to immediately convey “yes, that’s good.” The particular sound isn’t important as long as the learner can hear and recognize it. With aquatic animals you use whistles because they can be heard underwater; with dogs she uses mechanical clicker noisemakers; with a person I’d probably use a specific phrase but some people also use clickers.

The sound initially has no meaning, but by giving it at the same time as a reward (food, smiles, pats) you create an association between the sound and the reward. Later the sound itself is rewarding.

“It often happens, especially when training with food reinforcers, that there is absolutely no way you can get the reinforcer to the subject during the instant it is performing the behavior you wish to encourage. If I am training a dolphin to jump, I cannot possibly get a fish to it while it is in midair. If each jump is followed by a thrown fish with an unavoidable delay, eventually the animal will make the connection between jumping and eating and will jump more often. However, it has no way of knowing which aspect of the jump I liked. Was it the height? The arch? Perhaps the splashing reentry? Thus it would take many repetitions to identify to the animal the exact sort of jump I had in mind. To get around this problem, we use conditioned reinforcers.”

“Breland called the whistle a ‘bridging stimulus,’ because, in addition to informing the dolphin that it had just earned a fish, the whistle bridged the period of time between the leap in midtank—the behavior that was being reinforced—and swimming over to the side to collect one’s pay.”

Pryor describes the program her son (an airplane pilot) designed for pilot training:

“A flight instructor can also click a student for initiative and for good thinking: for example, for glancing over the instrument panel before being reminded to do so. So the clicker can reward nonverbal behavior nonverbally in the instant it’s occurring.”

“Once you have established a conditioned reinforcer, you must be careful not to throw it around meaninglessly or you will dilute its force. The children who rode my Welsh ponies for me quickly learned to use ‘Good pony!’ only when they wanted to reinforce behavior. . . One day a child who had just joined the group was seen petting a pony’s face while saying ‘You’re a good pony.’ Three of the others rounded on her instantly: ‘What are you telling him that for? He hasn’t done anything!'”

Attention

This doesn’t mean you give positive attention only during training.

“One can and should lavish children (and spouses, parents, lovers, and friends) with love and attention, unrelated to any particular behavior; but one should reserve praise, specifically, as a conditioned reinforcer related to something real.”

I think when children point out minor accomplishments — “Look at all the sticks I collected” — it’s more often a request for attention than a situation that requires praise. I’m likely to comment in a way that shows interest — “Yes, you’ve got a lot of sticks there!” — but I don’t see a need to evaluate the quality of their stick pile or whatever. I try to save actual praise for something I especially want them to do more of, or something that was new and challenging for them.

Interested attention during training is necessary, and ignoring someone is a kind of punishment:
“If the trainer starts chatting to some bystander or leaves to answer the telephone or is merely daydreaming, the contract is broken; reinforcement is unavailable through no fault of the trainee. This does more harm than just putting the trainer at risk of missing a good opportunity to reinforce. It may punish some perfectly good behavior that was going on at the time. Of course if you want to rebuke a subject, removing your attention is a good way to do it.”

Wrong timing

Pryor emphasizes that if you give punishment or reward at the wrong time, you reinforce the wrong behavior. If you call a dog to you and it finally comes, then you strike it, you’ve punished it for returning to you.

My mother always complained of the same tendency in her choral director: when the singers finally got a difficult passage right, instead of praising them he’d shout “Why couldn’t you do it like that the first time?!”

I’ve noticed the importance of timing when a child finally does what you want, because it’s tempting to scold them even after they’ve shaped up. Anna has a wide variety of delay tactics for brushing her teeth, and I find it easy to be stony-faced when she’s capering around instead of coming to the sink. By the time she finally comes to have her teeth brushed I’m feeling annoyed and would like to give her a lecture. But if I give her an unpleasant response just as she’s finally doing what I want, I disincentivize her from doing it. Instead, as soon as she comes to the sink I become pleasant Mama, smiling and joking.

Maintaining behavior

Once a behavior is established, you use intermittent reinforcement to maintain it:

“In order to maintain an already-learned behavior with some degree of reliability, it is not only not necessary to reinforce it every time; it is vital that you do not reinforce it on a regular basis but instead switch to using reinforcement only occasionally, and on a random or unpredictable basis.”

“Many people initially object to the idea of using positive reinforcers in training because they imagine that they will forever have to hand out treats to get good behavior. But the opposite is true. Training with reinforcement actually frees you from the need for constant vigilance over the behavior, because of the power of variable schedules.”

In people, the behavior itself eventually brings its own reward; we praise toddlers for learning to use the potty, but after the behavior is established we no longer need to reinforce it. And having dry clothes is its own reward.

“The power of the variable schedule is at the root of all gambling. If every time you put a nickel into a slot machine a dime were to come out, you would soon lose interest. Yes, you would be making money, but what a boring way to do it. People like to play slot machines precisely because there’s no predicting whether nothing will come out, or a little money, or a lot of money, or which time the reinforcer will come (it might be the very first time).”

We encountered this in my house when Lily was two. Our housemate would sporadically show her a Sesame Street video on his phone, and she loved this so she’d pester him constantly for it. The reward came unpredictably, so she asked very often. Once he moved to a predictable schedule (one video every day after dinner) she learned the pattern and stopped asking at times of day when she knew it wouldn’t work.

Also affects adult relationships:
“If you get into a relationship with someone who is fascinating, charming, sexy, fun, and attentive, and then gradually the person becomes more disagreeable, even abusive, though still showing you the good side now and then, you will live for those increasingly rare moments when you are getting all those wonderful reinforcers: the fascinating, charming, sexy, and fun attentiveness. And paradoxically from a commonsense viewpoint, though obviously from the training viewpoint, the rarer and more unpredictable those moments become, the more powerful will be their effect as reinforcers, and the longer your basic behavior will be maintained. Furthermore, it is easy to see why someone once in this kind of relationship might seek it out again. A relationship with a normal person who is decent and friendly most of the time might seem to lack the kick of that rare, longed-for, and thus doubly intense reinforcer.”

Pryor training herself to go to class even when she didn’t feel like it, and then maintaining the behavior without the reward:
“I found that if I broke down the journey, the first part of the task, into five steps—walking to the subway, catching the train, changing to the next train, getting the bus to the university, and finally, climbing the stairs to the classroom—and reinforced each of these initial behaviors by consuming a small square of chocolate, which I like but normally never eat, at the completion of each step, I was at least able to get myself out of the house, and in a few weeks was able to get all the way to class without either the chocolate or the internal struggle.”

Sports players and fans become “trained” to do certain actions (wearing their lucky clothes, etc) because they associate it with the team winning. 
“I have seen one baseball pitcher who goes through a nine-step chain of behavior every time he gets ready to pitch the ball: touch cap, touch ball to glove, push cap forward, wipe ear, push cap back, scuff foot, and so on. In a tight moment he may go through all nine steps twice, never varying the order. The sequence goes by quite fast—announcers never comment on it—and yet it is a very elaborate piece of superstitious behavior.”

Raise expectations gradually, with rewards for incremental progress:
“I once saw a father make a serious error in this regard. Because his teenage son was doing very badly in school, he confiscated the youth’s beloved motorcycle until his grades improved. The boy did work harder, and his grades did improve, from Fs and Ds to Ds and Cs. Instead of reinforcing this progress, however, the father said that the grades had not improved enough and continued to withhold bike privileges. This escalation of the criteria was too big a jump; the boy stopped working altogether.”

Pryor claims that you have to be much more consistent with aversives (punishments) than with rewards. Seems like that might be right with animals and young children, but adults are usually willing to avoid committing crimes even if they don’t expect to be caught every time.

“Often when we are teaching the behavior, we use a fixed schedule of reinforcement; that is, we reinforce every adequate behavior. But when we are just maintaining a behavior, we reinforce very occasionally, using a sporadic or intermittent schedule. For example, once a pattern of chore sharing has been established, your roommate or spouse may stop at the dry cleaners on the way home without being reinforced each time; but you might express thanks for an extra trip made when you are ill or the weather is bad. When we train with aversives, however—and that’s the way most of us began—we are usually taught that it is vital to correct every mistake or misbehavior. When errors are not corrected, the behavior breaks down. Many dogs are well behaved on the leash, when they might get jerked, but they are highly unreliable as soon as they are off leash and out of reach. When out with their friends, many teenagers do things that they wouldn’t dream of doing in their parents’ presence. This can happen because the subject is fully aware that punishment is unavailable—when the cat’s away, the mice will play—but it can also happen as a side effect of training with aversives. Since the message in a punisher is ‘Don’t do that,’ the absence of the aversive sends the message, ‘That is okay now.'”

Learners can go long periods of time without a reward:
“One psychologist jokes that the longest schedule of unreinforced behavior in human existence is graduate school.”

When to stop a training session

End a training session while the learner is having success:
“When you stop is not nearly as important as what you stop on. You should always quit while you’re ahead.”

“The last behavior that was accomplished is the one that will be remembered best; you want to be sure it was a good, reinforceable performance. What happens all too often is that we get three or four good responses—the dog retrieves beautifully, the diver does a one-and-a-half for the first time, the singer gets a difficult passage right—and we are so excited that we want to see it again or to do it again. So we repeat it, or try to, and pretty soon the subject is tired, the behavior gets worse, mistakes crop up, corrections and yelling take place, and we just blew a training session.”

Sports training

Pryor notes that in the second part of the 20th century, sports training seems a lot better than when she was young, and has moved toward more effective reinforcement learning:

“I think what had changed in the last decade or two is that the principles that produce rapid results are becoming implicit in the standard teaching strategies: “This is the way to teach skiing: Don’t yell at them, follow steps one through ten, praise and reinforce accomplishment at each step, and you’ll get most of them out on the slopes in three days.”

On patience

Good trainers are disciplined and intentional:

“People who have a disciplined understanding of stimulus control avoid giving needless instructions, unreasonable or incomprehensible commands, or orders that can’t be obeyed. They try not to make requests they’re not prepared to follow through on; you always know exactly what they expect. They don’t fly off the handle at a poor response. They don’t nag, scold, whine, coerce, beg, or threaten to get their way, because they don’t need to. And when you ask them to do something, if they say yes, they do it. When you get a whole family, or household, or corporation working on the basis of real stimulus control— when all the people keep their agreements, say what they need, and do what they say— it is perfectly amazing how much gets done, how few orders ever need to be given, and how fast the trust builds up. Good stimulus control is nothing more than true communication— honest, fair communication. It is the most complex, difficult, and elegant aspect of training with positive reinforcement.”

One thing I notice in all this is that it’s self-reinforcing. The method requires a certain amount of patience and self-discipline from the parent. It’s easier to do that when things are already going well, and in turn you’re rewarded with children who are easier to live with. When parents are exhausted and time-pressed, it’s easier to slip into inconsistency, and both parents and children are more prone to outbursts and unpleasantness. 

Limits of reinforcement

She ends with some warnings about trying to apply reinforcement to absolutely everything, or assuming it’s the only thing in play: 

“Idealistic societies, in imagination or in practice, sometimes fail to take into account or seek to eliminate such biological facts as status conflict. We are social animals, after all, and as such we must establish dominance hierarchies. Competition within groups for increased status—in all channels, not just approved or ordained channels—is absolutely inevitable and in fact performs an important social function: Whether in Utopias or herds of horses, the existence of a fully worked-out hierarchy operates to reduce conflict. You know where you stand, so you don’t have to keep growling to prove it. I feel that individual and group status, and many other human needs and tendencies, are too complex to be either met or overridden by planned arrangements of reinforcement, at least on a long-term basis.”

This isn’t the only tool I’d want in my parenting repertoire. But I do think it’s well worth having.

Wild animal welfare in Hans Christian Andersen

Continuing the theme of wild animal suffering in children’s lit

Hans Christian Andersen’s stories involve a lot of suffering of both human and animal varieties. “The Ugly Duckling” takes a brief detour from describing the duckling’s repeated social humiliations to describe being a waterfowl in winter:

The winter grew cold – so bitterly cold that the duckling had to swim to and fro in the water to keep it from freezing over. But every night the hole in which he swam kept getting smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the duckling had to paddle continuously to keep the crackling ice from closing in upon him. At last, too tired to move, he was frozen fast in the ice.

Thumbelina” likewise details bird hardship in the Danish winter:

In the middle of the floor lay a dead swallow, with his lovely wings folded at his sides and his head tucked under his feathers. The poor bird must certainly have died of the cold. Thumbelina felt so sorry for him. She loved all the little birds who had sung and sweetly twittered to her all through the summer. But the mole gave the body a kick with his short stumps, and said, “Now he won’t be chirping any more. What a wretched thing it is to be born a little bird. Thank goodness none of my children can be a bird, who has nothing but his ‘chirp, chirp’, and must starve to death when winter comes along.”

“Yes, you are so right, you sensible man,” the field mouse agreed. “What good is all his chirp-chirping to a bird in the winter time, when he starves and freezes?

Not that different from “The Little Match Girl“, in which a child freezes to death on the streets of Copenhagen:

She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her!

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. Interesting that an author who didn’t shy away from human suffering in his fairy tales also didn’t shy away from animal suffering.

Notes on Oneida community

Passages I highlighted about the Oneida community from Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings. The Oneida Community was a Christian communal society founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York.

“At the community’s peak, three hundred Oneida “Perfectionists” lived an intensely intimate, intellectual existence in a rambling, Italianate mansion. They saw their community as an earthly branch of the Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of portal through which the millennium would come to earth. Under the influence of their utopian forebears, the Perfectionists renounced private property, raised their children collectively, embraced gender equality, perfected a novel form of birth control, experimented with every health fad of their day, pursued rigorous self-improvement, practiced a complex system of free love, and initiated an unprecedented experiment in eugenics.”

…..

Early decision from the founder on cooking:

“When it occurred to him that the practice of eating three hot meals a day subjected women “almost universally to the worst of slavery,” he simply stopped it. The thirty-odd members of the Putney community ate one sit-down meal in the morning and then foraged for themselves from an open pantry “as appetite or fancy may suggest.” The door to the pantry was marked with a card bearing the motto “Health, Comfort, Economy, and Woman’s Rights.””

…..

After the woman he loved married someone else, Noyes decided that “complex marriage” in groups was the proper way for Christians to live. He was a virgin at the time.

“By the 1860s, with three hundred people living at Oneida and Wallingford, the Perfectionists’ struggle against “the marriage system” was going surprisingly well. While moralizing critics described the community as an “orgy” or “brothel” or “harem” or “seraglio” or “whoredom,” the Perfectionists insisted upon their own conservatism. Their erotic delight, they pointed out, came with all the usual pledges and sacrifices of the marriage bed. Any two Oneida lovers, by dint of their membership in the community, were obligated to support each other through sickness and health, to hold all of their wealth in common, and to care for any offspring born of their coupling. . . . Sex, as practiced within the community, was understood as a sacrament—“a more perfect symbol of [a union with Christ] than eating bread and drinking wine,” as Noyes put it.

“Every adult in the community was loosely ranked according to a system of “ascending” and “descending fellowship.” To hasten spiritual growth, novices were encouraged to go to bed with those who were more enlightened. In practice, this meant that the young or recently converted slept with older, more experienced Perfectionists. . . . [such as the founder, Noyes].

“At Oneida, unlike at so many other sexed-up religious enclaves, the May–December loving went both ways. “Spiritually ascendant” older women erotically baptized teenage boys. Given that the mechanics of male continence were difficult for young men to master, receiving their sexual education from postmenopausal women offered one practical benefit: there could be no risk of an unplanned pregnancy.”

Seems to me this still holds benefit for Noyes, though. If the young men are paired with older women, it leaves young women available for older men.

…..

Women in the community designed a costume suited to work:

“The result was a long-sleeved blouse and a matching knee-length skirt worn over loose “pantalets.” They called it “the uniform of a vital society.” After some snickering, all of the women in the community adopted it. This so-called short dress was soon supplemented with elastic sneakers, which, like true utopians, they called “the final shoe.”

…The women at Oneida cut their hair shoulder length or shorter, a style then associated with adolescent girls. While their sisters in the World routinely spent an hour arranging combs, pins, and extensions atop their heads, the women of Oneida boasted that they went directly from bed to the breakfast table. “Any fashion which requires women to devote considerable time to hair-dressing,” they announced in the community paper, “is a degradation and a nuisance.”

“In the 1860s, a group of community women started an “express service” to convey visitors and packages back and forth between the mansion and the nearby train depot. The venture presented local non-Perfectionists with the jarring sight of “unattended” women in sporty dresses and childlike haircuts loading parcels, wrangling horses, and operating a prosperous enterprise.”

…..

“Labor “bees” were common at every utopian colony of the era, but the Perfectionists raised them to an art. They held bees for every large task—brick making, planting, broom corn harvesting, bag stitching, vegetable picking, and fruit preserving. “Working in storm,” as they called it, made tedious jobs go fast and gave the communists an economic edge over their neighbors. Neither “isolated” householders nor wage-paying bosses could quadruple or halve their workforce from day to day. The Circular regularly trumpeted the efficiencies of the system. Four thousand quarts of strawberries were picked in a single day. A barn was raised in a weekend. A large trap order was filled in one night. One “storming company” was tasked with stitching the bindings of nine hundred religious pamphlets. They ran out of printed matter so quickly that they went looking for other things to sew, turning their needles upon a large heap of flour sacks in need of darning. Laboring in “mixed company”—especially when combined with breaks for cake or brief bouts of fiddle-accompanied contra dancing—helped give tiresome undertakings a flirtatious, festal atmosphere.”

…..

“In July 1852, at the height of the Observer-stoked outcry over complex marriage, the communists opened their gates to a skeptical public, inviting people to come in and be impressed. That event, a free “strawberry festival,” was the first of countless subsequent picnics, performances, and concerts, all of which were orchestrated for the pleasure of the World. The outreach worked. The Perfectionists’ upstate neighbors gradually became their best defense against periodic attacks by crusading politicians and churchmen. When the district attorney in Utica agitated for the community’s expulsion, a prominent local businessman wrote Noyes, promising that “the people in this vicinity will not consent to have you disperse.”

. . . .”An illustration on the cover of the magazine Puck depicted a clutch of scowling churchmen gesturing toward the peaceable commune. “Oh, dreadful!” reads the caption. “They dwell in peace and harmony, and have no church scandals. They must be wiped out.””

…..

“A community notice from 1858 declared that “child-bearing, when it is undertaken, should be a voluntary affair, one in which the choice of the mother, and the sympathy of all good influences should concur.”

“The community’s unusual method of birth control was surprisingly effective. Among roughly two hundred sexually busy adults, there was, on average, about one accidental pregnancy each year, a rate that compares favorably with that of modern birth control pills. Those few men who were unable to master male continence were paired with those women who were, in the poignant euphemism of the day, “past the time of life.” In 1852, the Circular boasted that “the increase of population by birth, in our forty families, for the last four years, has been considerably less than the progeny of Queen Victoria alone.””

….

“As the community prospered, the Children’s House became increasingly deluxe. A large, steam-heated playroom was outfitted with indoor seesaws, balance beams, swings, and a miniaturized wood shop in which a group of boys attempted to build themselves a “flying machine.”

. . . .The children conducted their own sort of self-governance. In 1851, they raised their small hands in support of a series of resolutions denouncing their homemade dolls as a medium of “the mothering spirit”: “This doll-spirit that seduces us from Community spirit in regard to helping the family and that prevents us from being in earnest to get an education is the same spirit that seduces women to allow themselves to be so taken up with their children that they have not time to attend to Christ, and get an education for heaven.” After a discussion about their “idolatrous” toys, the children voted to put their dolls to the flame. The little boys were particularly “loud in their clamors for the great massacre.” Following the vote, a group of nine- and ten-year-old girls stripped their dolls of the bloomer-style outfits they had sewn for them and, one by one, tossed the toys into the woodstove. When the burning was over, “all hands rejoiced in the condemnation.””

….

After thirty years of a deliberately limited birthrate and cautious recruitment from outside, Noyes announced the start of a positive eugenics program (“stirpiculture”, from the Latin for “stem,” as “eugenics” wasn’t coined for another twenty years) in 1869.

“The ability to actually achieve “scientific combination”—as opposed to the “promiscuous scrambling” of the World—was opened by the twin innovations of male continence and complex marriage. In hindsight, Noyes’s hat trick of erotic experiments form a chain. Male continence, first inspired by Harriet Noyes’s birthing traumas, created the possibility of complex marriage. And it was complex marriage, the community’s civically oriented ménage à trois-cent, that made their experiment in controlled breeding possible.

For a time, selections were made by a six-member committee that included two Yale-educated physicians. Mostly the selections were left up to Noyes and his inner circle. Like breeders of flowers or dogs, the Perfectionists had to choose which traits they were aiming for. While the intelligence and health of the volunteers were taken into account, the main criterion was a highly subjective notion of spiritual inspiration. On the dubious assumption that good sex makes good babies, mutual attraction between volunteers was considered a plus. Practically speaking, the Perfectionists had their ideal target close at hand. “The existence of Noyes,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “simplified the breeding problem for the Communists, the question as to what sort of men they should strive to breed being settled at once by the desirability of breeding another Noyes.” Not surprisingly, Noyes personally fathered a sixth of all the “stirpicults.” Ultimately, a total of fifty-three women and thirty-eight men were selected. They pledged themselves as “ ‘living sacrifices’ to God and true Communism” and went upstairs in pairs.

“Between 1869 and 1879, forty-five “stirpicults” were born. They were raised and nursed by their biological mothers for nine months and then transferred to the nursery of the Children’s House, where they were cared for by specially selected teachers and generally fussed over by the entire community. The biological parents renounced all rights of parenthood.

“In 1891, after the breakup of the community, Anita Newcomb McGee, a final-year medical student at Johns Hopkins who specialized in gynecology, studied the stirpicults for a report in the American Anthropologist. By then, the eldest were twenty-two. McGee found that most of them had been impressive students, with both boys and girls earning scholarships to top universities. With a single exception, all were perfectly healthy. Many were unusually tall. They were highly literate, and when they convened at the Mansion House each summer, they entertained themselves with debate competitions and concerts. With the exception of Noyes and a few other lawyers and clergymen, the volunteer parents had all originally been farmers, laborers, and craftspeople. All but one of the stirpicults (a machinist) pursued nonmanual professions. Among the eldest boys in the group—those for whom a career could reasonably be predicted in 1891—there were medical students, law students, businessmen, a math prodigy, and a successful musician. The eldest girls, in the estimation of Dr. McGee, were also bound for intellectual careers. One was a scholar of Greek at a women’s college; another was studying the new kindergarten system. Of course, much, if not all, of the stirpicults’ success in life can be attributed to their carefully administered upbringing in the Children’s House and the intellectual, self-improving tenor of the community in which they were raised.

Ironically, the stirpicults’ main “failing” was a distinct lack of faith.”

One interesting thing about this is that it goes against a lot of modern findings that institutions are terrible places to raise young children 24/7. It seems that a community of loving and motivated adults was able to do a very good job at institutional childrearing. I don’t know much about kibbutizim but that would also be an interesting area to look about this.

….

Ultimately the community disbanded after failing to find a suitable leader to replace the aging Noyes (he tried to install his son, who was a flop.) Many younger members wanted to try monogamous marriage. Noyes fled to Canada in 1879 after it looked likely that the town would charge him with statutory rape, and the community ended complex marriage at his recommendation. The community lasted two more years before disbanding. The transition from group marriage to monogamy was extremely difficult, as members who had thrown themselves into arrangements radically different from mainstream nineteenth-century society now tried to live in a halfway arrangement neither here nor there, in the blended family to end all blended families.

In the same year, an unpopular ex-member assassinated president Garfield. I’d be curious to know whether this association, even by  a member the community found unpleasant and unstable, would have done them in if they hadn’t already been disbanding.

….

The book covers five American utopian movements, of which I found Oneida and the Shakers the most interesting. If you liked these passages, I’d recommend the rest of the book.

Children’s lit as source for intuitions about animals?

People have wildly different intuitions about what kind of lives wild animals have and whether their lives contain more enjoyment or suffering.

I suspect that opinions about this vary a lot by how you view nature. Before the Romantic era, nature/wilderness was not seen as a charming place. Nature was what made you die of exposure or starvation.

I don’t know what people in a pre-industrial society would say if you ask what kind of life a mouse has. Maybe they’d think the question too silly to answer. But I suspect they wouldn’t have the intuition I had for most of my life, that being an animal would be kind of charming and fun.

Some of this is being raised in the era of the environmentalist movement, with its emphasis on the beauty and wonder of nature and the importance of preserving habitats so that wild animals can do their thing.

But In raising kids, I keep noticing another influence: almost all the depictions of animals they see are cute anthropomorphized ones.  There are old Aesop-type animal stories with anthropomorphized animals that talk to each other, but the genre really expanded in the 20th century, starting with Beatrix Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations make the depictions especially salient.

(There’s a whole other topic of how farms and farm animals are depicted  which is only on old-fashioned non-industrial farms run by the like of Old MacDonald — but I’ll stick to wild animals here.)

In many books the animals are just stand-ins for humans: think Goodnight Moon or The Berenstain Bears where the characters live in houses and go to school. But even the ones where animals do animal activities leave out most of the things that might be unpleasant for actual animals, like starvation or being eaten. The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s only problem is a stomachache after eating too many pickles and cupcakes.

Another factor is that children’s books are designed to be read at bedtime, so a large portion of them end with the characters going happily to sleep. My favorite cozification of animals is Ashley Wolf’s illustration of the Raffi song “Baby Beluga”, where the (fish-eating) whales snuggle fish as we read

When it’s dark, you’re home and fed
Curl up snug in your water bed.

So naturally kids conclude that wild animals have charming, pleasant lives.

These animals aren’t living in a dirty hole getting rained on without enough to eat; they’re nice middle-class animals. And we definitely don’t talk about r-selection.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Two Bad Mice

Lightsabers and cinder-maids

I’ve been enjoying Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  But she does get alarmist at times, as in this take on 1980s television:

In surveys of parents and teachers across the country, Levin found that, rather than engaging in creative play, children began imitating what they saw onscreen, reenacting rote scripts with licensed products. Whether in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, their play became homogenized. Nor was there evidence that their stories were evolving, that they were making the kind of inner meaning out of their dramas that would provide psychological resolution, as they once had. . . . As for guns that are not “really” guns, Levin told me, “We’re fooling ourselves if we think those are better. When you give kids a light saber, you know exactly what they are going to do with it, and every kid who has one will do the exact same thing. There is no creativity there.”

Huh?

I remember playing with a friend after he got seriously into Nintendo games. Around age nine, I saw him and feared he had become boring, gotten sucked into a screen. But when we ran around on the playground, his games were both imaginative and Nintendo-themed. He assigned us all different colors of Yoshis to be, and we ran around dodging imaginary mushrooms and jets of flame. I was relieved that he was still the same person.

And lightsabers? At the peak of our Star Wars stage, my best friend and I staged lightsaber battles with yardsticks. We were doing what children have done for centuries: playing with toy swords. The fact that Lucasfilm got us interested in it doesn’t change that.

I don’t think my children will become more violent people for playing with “war toys.” (Once again, I like Teacher Tom’s take on this.)  And I don’t think getting interested in a setting, whether it’s Greek myth or Mario Brothers, is likely to make them less imaginative.

I guess I do see an argument for non-specific toys. A yardstick can be lots of things, but a plastic lightsaber is pretty much always a lightsaber.

Orenstein also gets into the quagmire of whether to expose children to fairy tales, and if so, which ones.  I was raised loving Grimms’ and Andersen’s tales, which my parents read to us nightly, and the Disney movies, which we mostly watched at the neighbor’s house. My Cinderella play involved both carrying tea sets like the Disney one, and sitting in the fireplace, like the German one.  (I was deeply upset when my parents varnished our slate hearth, since the shiny new surface didn’t give me the feeling of sitting among the cinders.)  I was as familiar with Ariel’s happy ending as with the little sea-maid who “looked towards the east for the first blush of morning, for that first ray of dawn that would bring her death.”

And I’m pretty sure I came out okay.

Book recommendations in jail

Most of the inmates at the jail can visit the library occasionally, but the ones on certain units can’t go.  So they rely on staff, including me, to supply them with books.  Everything I do as a mental health clinician is supposed to have a clinical purpose – any reading material is supposed to be chosen to help clients cope with stress, etc., and not just for entertainment. But I do it more because I can’t help myself, because I can’t imagine being locked up and having nothing to read.

Currently there’s a something of a racket in Hunger Games books going on. One of my clients has read the first book and got the third from the library, and now he’s holding the third one captive until he can read the second book. Another client told me she read the second book, so I found out who she lent it to and got the second woman to promise to give it to me when she’s done. (She’s likely to help me out because I’ve been keeping her supplied with Twilight novels for a month now.)  Then my first guy can read the second book and the third, and when he’s done I can get the third book to the two women. I will feel so accomplished if this plan works.

I have a client who asks for classics, saying she doesn’t want her brain to rot when she’s in solitary confinement.    Recently I got her Edith Wharton’s 1905 House of Mirth, telling her it’s about a woman who realizes she needs money, so she decides to marry a rich man but has all kinds of problems with relationships and money and ends up with a bad reputation and a drug problem. My client laughed and said she looked forward to reading it, because it sounded exactly like her.

I once came onto a unit bearing a few copies from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series to add to the unit bookshelf. A woman spotted them from across the room and exclaimed, “Oooh, those books are like crack!”  And she would know.

My selections aren’t always so successful.  I brought some Edith Wharton to a man who had begged me for novels and poetry.  He slid it back under the door of his solitary cell with disdain, saying he was only willing to read British literature because he finds American authors have “a dearth of poetic language.”   Never mind that it meant another week with no new books until my next visit.  His standards were firm.

We have a copy of Les Misérables in the mental health office that nobody is brave enough to bring to a client. In its favor, it has lots of characters the clients would love – a good-hearted prostitute who’s down on her luck, an ex-con who tries to do the right thing but keeps getting caught up by a vindictive cop. But it gets passed over due to the huge size and intimidating prose.

Not all the inmates are put off by big books, though. One of my clients is currently enthused about a history book (I suspect it’s Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States) that he found being used as a doorstop on his unit.

Another man told me he’d never had time to read much Dickens before.  “I can’t believe how funny it is!”

There’s a lot of demand for dictionaries. Some people use them to check, when they’re using big words in their raps and love letters, that they’re using them correctly. But it took me a year to realize that much of the demand is because some of the illiterate inmates believe they can learn to read and write from a dictionary. There are a few books intended for speakers of other languages, but not much for native English speakers who never actually became literate.

Parenting books are also in high demand. Most parents learn as they go and see their child develop, but a lot of the clients haven’t had custody of their children in a while – it’s hard to jump to parenting a 4-year-old when you basically haven’t seen her since she was 2.

One of my coworkers had a client ask her for a copy of “Men’s Health” magazine. She couldn’t find one, but brought him “Positive” magazine instead, which had some healthy-looking men on the cover. Afterwards he told her kindly that he was able to get the magazine into the trash without anyone noticing, and to please not bring him no AIDS magazines next time. Another coworker had a similar experience with a randomly-chosen novel that turned out to be about gay men. Now we’re careful to evaluate books for gayness, lest we endanger our clients.

For more on the life of books in prison, see librarian Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books.

What needs to be done

I was struck by the descriptions of nursing in Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience  (not the greatest novel, but a fascinating take on women’s careers in 1860s Boston). The last of the professions our heroine turns her hand to is wartime nursing, just as the author did in the Civil War.

A senior nurse commends the heroine:

“You are a treasure, my dear, for you can turn your hand to any thing and do well whatever you undertake. So many come with plenty of good-will, but not a particle of practical ability, and are offended because I decline their help. The boys don’t want to be cried over, or have their brows ‘everlastingly swabbed,’ as old Watkins calls it: they want to be well fed and nursed, and cheered up with creature comforts. Your nice beef-tea and cheery ways are worth oceans of tears and cart-loads of tracts.”

. . . . Mrs. Sterling, Jr., certainly did look like an efficient nurse, who thought more of “the boys” than of herself; for one hand bore a pitcher of gruel, the other a bag of oranges, clean shirts hung over the right arm, a rubber cushion under the left, and every pocket in the big apron was full of bottles and bandages, papers and letters.

The 1860s were a pivotal time in the development of nursing – in England, Florence Nightingale was just founding the first secular nursing school. Clara Barton, “the angel of the battlefield”, was gaining the experience that she would use to professionalize American nursing. But at the time Alcott trained, nursing involved no formal education, no study of biology. Both nursing and medicine in general were at such a basic stage that nurses were basically trying to keep the patients from bleeding to death, and if possible to keep them comfortable and in good spirits.

Given how much actual medical care nurses are now responsible for, I’d much rather have a nurse who can put the right drug in the IV line than one with “cheery ways.” But some combination of both would be nice.

Currently, medical and social services are segmented enough that I’m a little envious of 19th-century nurses’ ability to actually do tasks that they saw needed doing. Help a client call his mother? No, that’s the caseworker’s job. Get a client in solitary confinement the Danielle Steel novel she’s asking for to pass the time? That’s the librarian’s job, except he never seems to make it up to the tenth floor. Helping a bulimic client brainstorm about how to drink more fluids – that would probably be the nutritionist’s job if he hadn’t been laid off.

At its best, I think social work includes things beyond talk therapy. Getting a cup of coffee for a woman who just arrived at the domestic violence shelter with two children and a trash bag of belongings. Spending a therapy session helping a client write a resume. Getting a pair of reading glasses for the hospital patient who lost hers. Getting a Spanish-language Koran for the prisoner who wants to read his holy book in his own language. No, it doesn’t take a master’s degree to do any of these things, and when they need to be done en masse it’s worth having someone whose job that is. But when random needs come up, sometimes it’s better to just get the job done.

Some favorites

Fiction:

March, Geraldine Brooks.  The world of Little Women seen through less rosy glasses, complete with Marmee’s unhappy marriage and what Mr. March was doing during the Civil War.

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle.  Dreamy, comic, odd.  Molly Grue might be my favorite character in literature.

St. George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges, ill. Trina Schart Hyman

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers.  My favorite of the Peter Wimsey detective novels – but it’s more about 1930s feminism and about the love story than about the mystery.

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn.  A dystopia in which letters of the alphabet are successively banned.

Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes, Wendy and Clyde Watson.  Very Vermont.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters.  The underclass of Victorian London, an insane asylum, a plot twist, and a love story.

Work, Louisa May Alcott.  A virtually unknown novel by the author of Little Women.  A young woman’s career in 1850s Boston, complete with socialites, prostitutes, escaped slaves, Quakers, and a Henry David Thoreau stand-in.

Nonfiction:

Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Judith Martin.

The DSM-IV-TR, American Psychiatric Association.  I know it’s unpopular to actually like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but it’s fascinating.  I haven’t read the new one yet.

Memoir:

All Souls, Michael Patrick McDonald.  South Boston.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi.  Iran.

Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt.  Ireland.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel.  By the author of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Movies:

The Philadelphia Story.  Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant.

Tootsie.  Still one of the best takes on gender I’ve ever seen.

Victor/Victoria.  Julie Andrews gets a little less wholesome.

Poetry:

William Butler Yeats.  Dreamy.  Unrequited.

John Donne.  Runs the gamut from romantic to sexy to religious.  I’m glad I discovered him early enough that I wasn’t put off by the 17th-century gender stuff.

Hafiz/Daniel Ladinsky.  Apparently the poems “translated” by Ladinsky are Ladinsky’s riffs on themes by the 14th-century Persian mystic and poet Hafiz, not an actual translation.  I still like the poems, though.

Literary criticism

I found this review written inside the cover of a library copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

You’d have to have 6 personalities to get jiggy with this shit.  Playin the role of everybody like a creep Just to understand it.  Tell me that aint some Bullshit.  

To Be? Or Not to Be? Definatly – NOT TO BE

I have to say, I love the idea of this person reading the play aloud.