Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Innies and Outies of Interpreting BabyG

BabyG has become an expert at identifying her favorite words in the world around us. She spots miniature cat ornaments nobody else notices and screams: “Baicy! Baicy!” since she calls all cats after our own, Percy. In other people’s homes, she giggles wildly if she comes across a stuffed dog before addressing it: “woof woof!” or if she sees a picture of a cow: “moo! moo! moo!”

If you say, “BabyG, where’s your belly button?” she opens her mouth like you’ve reminded her of the most incredible idea in the world, hitches her dress up and points. “Bay bay!” she croons, hanging slightly on each of the ‘y’s.

In her picture books, she points at babies and says, “baybay.” Faster than a belly button, but the same word.

When she’s on the potty, or she has to go poo, she says, “bay bay,” only this time, the ‘b’s are very slightly sharpened…not quite ‘p’s yet, but on their way.

Finally, there is the word which, when she's in an enunciatory mood, may come out "bye-bye" or "bye" or "bay-bye" – but just as often comes out "bay-bay."

I figure she’s determined to use words to their full potentiality at this tender age. That she wants to reuse, renew and recycle syllables in order demonstrate the innate connection between the words we use and the way we use the world. And I am very proud of her for making such an intelligent stand at such an early age.

The only problem is that sometimes she drops whatever’s in her hands as if she’s been suddenly shocked by something she sees, points her tiny finger, and says, significantly, as if she’s introducing somebody to the queen: “Bay bay!”

And then you have to figure out what she’s pointing at: the potty, a baby, a belly button…or, God forbid, some new thing she’s decided should be signified by her favorite two syllables. Because not only does she want to point it out for her, she wants you to agree that she’s right by looking at whatever it is she’s found, pointing at it yourself and saying, “Yes, BabyG, Bay Bay.”

The other morning she was sitting in her highchair, eating some of her coveted frozen blueberries, when she began frantically pointing at the closed closet door and chirping: “Bay Bay! Bay Bay!”

“No, BabyG, there’s no Bay Bay, there,” I said, when I walked in from the kitchen to see what the commotion was about.

“Bayyy Bayyyy! Bayyyy Bayyyy! Bayyyy bayyyy!” she insisted, making the ‘y’s as distinct as possible.

By this time she was doing her best to jump up and down in her high chair, leaning as far out of it as she could (thank God that Svan is so well balanced). I stared into the door like you do at those 3D stereograms, and noticed she was pointing specifically at the closet’s missing door knob...

Which is, you will note if you take the time to move your mouse over the picture below...

quite clearly, an "innie."

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Blessing for You and Your Newborns

For Ruben and Angela, and for Ruby Graciela and Lucia Simone who were born 19 Feb 07
May they mash you up in their gummy mouths.
May they render you into a pulsing goop,
a thing that shares only a DNA signature
with the person that you were.
Make it new, they will say in their secret languages.
May they hold back their first smiles.
You will peer into their faces at dawn.
You will try swinging around to catch them
laughing at you like torturers.
May they hold back
and yank you down with their first smiles
like undercurrents in the warm sea.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Problem with Natural Parenting

I imagine that many folks who come by this blog think of us, and themselves, as natural parents. It’s a popular category. At least two major parenting magazines use the term “Natural Parenting” or something like it. There’s Natural Parenting and Mothering Magazine: The Magazine of Natural Family Living. There’s also the term “Nature Mom,” which I associate with a mother who is against circumcision, vaccines, pesticide-laden food, and products that use synthetic scents. I also think of nature moms wearing their babies in slings, co-sleeping, breastfeeding at Starbucks, cloth diapering, staying at home, home schooling, hiking, and hiding their TVs in the closet. I’m very, very sympathetic with many of these positions and practices, but not all of them. One reason we have called this blog Green Parenting is to develop new kinds of language to explore some of the difficult decisions where we don’t end up falling in the natural parenting category.

Here’s an example of what I am talking about. An article about the effects of lavender, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, made it to the headlines of major US news outlets a couple of weeks ago. (See the WebMD article about it.) I think one reason the story got so much attention is because it exposes a problem with the idea of natural parenting. The article reported that three boys who used lavender products developed breasts and when they stopped using the products their breasts disappeared. Lavender apparently boosts or mimics estrogen while hampering androgens. The findings indicate that lavender, like certain plastics and cosmetics, disrupts the endocrine system.

I don’t think this report should be a huge surprise to people who use lavender products regularly. It’s well known that lavender has a soothing and relaxing effect, which must be because of a rather sophisticated chemical (i.e. hormonal) interaction with our bodies. And it’s also associated with sexuality. So the report basically confirms folk knowledge. I still drink lavender tea. I like to feel relaxed. I guess my testosterone levels need some readjustment on occasion. But I’m not a pubescent boy. My body is not growing rapidly. My cells are not responsive in the same way as a fifteen-year-old’s. Parents have to pay special attention to both natural and synthetic products because children’s bodies are constantly in a state of transformation. If some boy wants breasts, I'm fine with him drinking lots of lavender tea. But we shouldn't fool ourselves about "natural" products.

Going natural does not guarantee good health. Nature can be toxic. Nature includes poisonous plants. Nature includes diseases like polio that cripple thousands of children every year. Naturalness should not exempt products from our careful scrutiny. I know most natural parents know this already. Most readers of Mothering Magazine are not dogmatic or inflexible. We try to be thoughtful, consider multiple sources of information, and balance our decisions. I just would like to see more discussion of how the term “natural” has its limitations.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What Should Parents do about Global Warming? Avaaz Karo!

I belong to a feminist economics listserv where the posts generally deal with state policies on childcare and labor force participation rates. A few weeks ago, someone posted a general question to the listserv about global warming. What solutions do economists think will work? she asked. To my horror, the responses were mostly negative and fatalistic. Individual sacrifices, they said, cannot possibly make a substantial dent in the total carbon dioxide emissions. They believed that people in the U.S. could not give up their comforts. And that, even if people in the states did accept some changes, the tremendous economic growth in India and China would effectively cancel those reductions out.

There are a number of reasons why their arguments are specious. All growth is not equal. (Feminist economists have actually taken a lead in pointing this out, which makes the listserv discussion so surprising.) If the US were to spend all the Iraq war money on local daycare centers and windmill farms, the economy would likely have grown faster, our emissions would have been comparatively lower, and our lives would be more comfortable. Building commuter trains and highways both contribute to economic growth, but obviously they have very different effects on total emissions. Also, middle class people in India consume very differently than they do in the US. Growth in India and China does not necessarily mean an additional two billion people living the same consumptive lives people in the States currently do.

Furthermore, when I behave in a socially and environmentally conscious way, I know that my individual actions are not enough. We ride bikes, take buses and trains, avoid eating meat, buy local and organic, use vinegar instead of Windex, wash cloth diapers at home, compost our food waste, and recycle our paper, glass, and plastic – we do all these actions because they make our lives more enjoyable and meaningful. We do them because our actions can have a symbolic force when we share them over this blog. We do these actions because relatively small groups of individuals can change social norms. We do these actions because they bring us into a social network that lovingly supports us and allows us to act collectively for institutional, state, and global changes.

If you don’t agree with what I’m saying and feel that global warming is inevitable, that it is unavoidable and that BabyG will inherit a world of ecological disaster, I say be silent. What's the use of loud fatalism? For those interested in meaningful debate and action, let’s make our voices heard.

I'm interested in a new website called Aavaz.org. The site will attempt to use the same technology as Moveon.org and other such nation-focused sites with the hope of networking a multinational group of progressive people. The main organizers are based on four continents and they publish the site in ten languages. Check out the following Aavaz video:

Avaaz means "voice" or "song" in several languages including Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Nepalese, Dari, Turkish, and Bosnian. In Gujarati, we also use the word "aavaz", although we tend to use it to mean noise, which is what activism often amounts to. I think this slippage in the usage of "avaaz" is worth considering. We do have a limited amount of time and resources to commit. We can be active without being effective. We can make noise without our voices coming through.

Although Aavaz is still quite young, I'm hopeful that they will build an effective group. Problems like global warming can no more be addressed by single nations than by individuals. I also assume that Aavaz will feature many of the same limitations that Moveon.org does. The top-down design of head organizers sending out dispatches and calls to action does not harness the creative power of decentralized, collective decision-making that characterizes, say, the Indymedia websites. But every approach has its limitations and I think there is a time for high-achieving, well-funded organizers to tell a group of like-minded people how to act in concert. So take a look at their website and consider adding your email to their list.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Gonna Wash that 'Poo Right Out of My Hair

Please see the updated post by clicking on health at the bottom of this post, and finding the new article.


There’s this line in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales about the Pardoner’s smooth hair that drips down in curls, and another about how the cook has a festering sore. Maybe I was smoking too many funny cigarettes in high school, because for many years I not only conflated the two characters, but I grossed out their appearances: I imagined there was a Chaucerian cook who was so disgusting that all the food he cooked was contaminated by his hair that was dripping with greasy, yellow oils and his sore that squirted puss. And sorry to say, this improperly combined, gross, imagined image is the only memory of the Canterbury Tales I took off with me, into later life.

It has come up because I’ve always had a friend or two who has decided to stop using shampoo, or to skip multiple days of shampooing. “Shampoo is just a capitalist consumerist conspiracy,” my friend Winona used to scoff during college. In Houston, my friend Chuck would say a little more humbly, “I find that if I don’t wash my hair, I don’t need pomades.”

For most of my life, I was terribly jealous of the likes of Winona and Chuck. Of people who could skip a day of washing their hair without looking like my nightmarish Chaucerian misread.

What I learned over the years, though, is that no matter what kind of shampoo I have used, throughout my life my hair has behaved more or less the same: it is thin; when shampooed daily, it is thin and brittle; when not shampooed, it looks like I put olive oil in my hair; also, it won’t grow past a certain length; it is flyaway and it never looks healthy. All these facts about my hair lead me to believe I was just another white girl with terrible, mousy, broken hair. Since I’ve read so much about the dangers of the toxins in shampoos, I was forced to buy super expensive shampoos (my favorite: Aubrey’s Organic Baby Shampoo).

and if it won't clean your hair, you can always make a volcanoAnd then, about a month ago, I read this article on “No-Pooing” – a name, I confess, I totally disdain. The writer I first read washed his hair with a baking soda solution, and conditioned it with Apple Cider Vinegar. Since I like mixing things together, and there is really nothing I can do to my hair to make it worse, I delved into this No-Pooniverse (can. not. resist. stupid. word. jokes. sorry. ch.).


No-Poo Log, 2007:

#1: I washed my hair with 1 T. of baking soda dissolved into ¾ cup of water. As per the directions on the sites, I really massaged the solution into my scalp by first massaging around the crown, and then in the center of my head. I used no conditioner.
Result: Very clean, very manageable hair, slightly dry, though.

#2: I read that most people just mix baking soda into a hand paste before using. I tried this. And I also rinsed with 1 T. Apple Cider Vinegar and 1 Cup water.
Result: Hair was oilier than usual, but not gross with oil. It was sort of an interesting texture that held curl, and didn’t look brittle.

#3: I washed with the baking soda paste, again. I read that vinegar rinse should only be used on the ends of hair, and this time, didn’t wash my scalp area with it.
Result: A little less oily than before. I was not completely satisfied, though I already preferred this hair to shampooed hair, because my hair started feeling like, I don’t know, hair. I realized that my old hair felt more synthetic or something.

#4: Some people No-Poo by just skipping shampoo, but using conditioners.
Result: My hair was way too oily. The woman who suggested this was African American, though, and a lot of people on her site found it worked for them. Maybe it just doesn’t work on super fine hair.

#5: For about a week, I tried washing with varying amounts of the baking soda paste, and started skipping the vinegar rinse. I always needed 1 Tbs of Baking Soda: ½ I rubbed onto the top of my head, the other into the back.
Result: Varying degrees of hair feeling more oily than I had become accustomed to. Never hair I could go more than a day without washing, but hair that was much more manageable than it had ever been, previously.

#6: I washed with a lemon juice rinse (1 T Lemon Juice in 1 C water).
Result: Made my hair extra oily, again. But I was starting to worry because I felt like even when my hair felt more oily, it was also drying out the ends of my hair more.

#7: It occurred to me that my hair was the least greasy the day I mixed a T of Baking Soda into ¾ cup water. I had been assuming the paste was strongest in eliminating oil, but decided to test the assumption.
Result: Lo and behold: in the less concentrated version, my hair wasn’t oily at all. When I awoke the next day, even, it wasn’t oily. I didn’t have to wash my hair that day when I showered!

#8: I started using less and less Baking Soda in the ¾ cup of water.
Result: My hair needs about 2 t. full – 1 T. full dries it out.

#9: My hair was not oily everyday, but for the first time in my life, I worried it was overly dry. So I started using the vinegar rinse, and I added some rosemary essential oil – which strengthens and darkens hair.
Result: Voila! Hair not dry, not oily. But I can’t use this vinegar every day: more like every three days.


There are a few really fabulous No-Poo sites out there. My favorites are BabySlime, and Motowngirl.   Pioneer Thinking offers various hair/skin recipes.  The No-Poo sites explain how there is a long process of figuring out what your hair needs: clearly, I’ve found this to be true. It has been enjoyable, though, experimenting. Now I keep a water-proof container filled with baking soda, a teaspoon, and a measuring cup in the shower.

BabySlime has a lot of recommendations for different rinses. I’m about to mix up a gigantic batch, so I won’t have to make a hair rinse every day. Even on days I don’t use vinegar, I’d like my hair to smell of something, so I’m experimenting w/different essential oils. Daily I’ll use that rinse, and some days I’ll add some vinegar or lemon juice.

And I love washing my hair. Because 2 t. of baking soda a day costs less than half a penny. Because when you actually massage your scalp with baking soda, or with rosemary oil in water, it tingles. Because even though I was totally screwed by shampoos for most of my life, at least I figured it out. Because my hair used to be this terrible, sad fate I would be sealed with forever, and now it is this fabulous, shiny, manageable cool-person hair.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

When Viresh Forgot English

In 1979, when I was about two, my family moved from Chicago to Mobile, Alabama. At the time, very few Indians lived there. When I was older, my parents and their Indian friends would tell me, “If you saw an Indian family in Bel Air Mall, you would approach them and invite them over for dinner. That’s how our community came together. How else?” When my family arrived, I was told, there were fewer than twenty families in all. Indians came to Mobile for the jobs – professors at the University of South Alabama, engineers at Union Carbide and International Paper, and the convenience store and motel owners along interstate 10. We were Indians from different parts of India: Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bengal, and so on. In a way, our small group reflected Nehru and Gandhi’s nationalist dreams more than anything you would find in India itself. We had Hindus, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims among us. Our secularism was of the Indian kind in that each religious holiday was celebrated rather than American-style, which is to attempt a complete separation of religion.

What really astonishes me about my memories of those early days of Indian life in Mobile was the communion across caste and class lines. I remember frequently going over to a motel for dinner. The motel owners, like most Indian motel owners in the United States, were Gujarati. My family is Gujarati as well. But we are Nagar Brahmins and they were Patels. My parents both had M.D.’s and faculty positions at the University of South Alabama. The Patels operated a run-down motel on the side of a highway. Our family room window looked out on a big, green lawn. Their family room was separated from the receptionist desk by a beaded curtain and looked out on a parking lot. Our caste has historically practiced professions like medicine, law, writing, teaching, government administration, and diplomacy. Patels were farmers. Yet, on what felt like the furthest edge of the Indian diaspora, our shared language and food mattered much more than all the differences.

As the Indian community grew in Mobile, we did what Indians do best. We started to segregate ourselves. We did not have the numbers to have a Bengali Society and a Telegu Society, but there were enough Gujaratis to form a group. A group? Our group? Their group? My family spent more time with the South Indian professionals than with the “Motel Patels” in the Gujarati circle. I remember the stories we would tell each other about Patels. They have a deal with the pimps and prostitute, charge them by the hour. They have good training from life in India for hiding the extra money from the IRS. If they are losing money, they burn down the motel for the insurance. They can go anywhere in the country and have a free motel room to stay in. Did you know that the last motel before you reach the North Pole is owned by a Patel? I remember one Sunday at a weekly Gujarati class. My brother and I were looking down from a second floor window when a tiny car – maybe it was a Volkswagon Beetle – pulled up. We watched as eight Patels spilled out of its doors. "How did they all fit in there?" I asked. Someone said, “I’ve seen ten Patels fit into a car no bigger than that one.” At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I think these “Patel stories” served to draw a line between us and them. They transmuted the old caste boundaries from India into a new set of distinctions.

The Patel story that really grabbed hold of my imagination was about the time Viresh Patel forgot English. I do not remember Viresh very well. I think his family had moved away before I turned eight. What I remember are people’s descriptions of him. Even though he grew up in the States like the rest of us, he had a thick accent. He was said to have curly hair that stuck out in all directions. And, apparently, his parents took him back to Gujarat for a long summer and when he returned, he had forgotten English. His family’s home in India was that rural. That backward. No one spoke English to him there. But how can you forget English? I would ask. How is it really possible? Did he have trouble for a week, or was it like someone starting from scratch, learning the alphabet and reading, Jack and Jill ran up the hill? In my young mind, this story struck some chord inside that resonated with my anxieties. My fear was more that I was not really Indian enough and Mobile would never let be anything else. I knew I would never forget English. That’s all I had, English. Gujarati was a swamp to me. A bog. The story of when Viresh forgot English seemed to speak to our tenuous place in Mobile. Our non-place. I have written on this blog about being treated like the substitute nigger at my all-white school, but for the most part we were just off the map, outside of all rhetoric and discourse, beyond all communal ties and prejudice. Sometimes it seemed like we could say or believe anything about ourselves, and it would be true. At other times, I felt outside of all the groups – the Patels, the educated Indians, and even my family. Maybe it was this alienation that Viresh’s loss of language resonated with.

I know that BabyG, as a half-Indian and half-American-whatever, will face even more nuanced questions that I did. Sometimes I don’t feel that responsible for shaping her social milieu, so much as helping her sort through it whatever it is. Other times, I think we have to live in a city like Houston, where you can pick and choose the cultures your children are exposed to. Part of me wants to take her, when she’s about six, to India long enough that she forgets English.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Problem with Dolls

The video below is about a high school student who repeated the famous experiment where black children are given a choice to either pick a white doll or a black doll. (Thanks Cake for passing it on to me.)

Maybe the experiment isn't that well constructed. Maybe it's an oversimplification to think that nothing has changed since 1956. Maybe the sample of little children isn't representative of most black kids in America. Maybe the self-hatred is being passed on by black parents to their own children, a process of internalizing a history of racism even though the colored only signs are long gone. But I got a little teary while watching the video.

MaGreen's stepmother gave BabyG a doll for Christmas, a dark-skinned doll with black hair. It's the second brown doll she's gotten. The first one came before MaGreen gave birth and I wrote about that right when we started this blog. I had the same response this time as before. I resented the doll and I resented the giver. Those brown dolls make me feel hyper-aware of my own skin color. I would rather not feel that way. I'd rather feel like my background and culture are an integral part of my life, that they will be for BabyG too, but without this dred feeling of otherness. Maybe those dolls trigger some small bit of racialized self-hatred left inside of me? I know that Helen's intentions were good, just as they were when she gave me Barack Obama's book. MaGreen says her stepmother has given little brown dolls to all her friends' babies, white and black and brown and whatever else. Her own kind of activism.

The problem with dolls is that they give children (and adults) a chance to openly reveal their deep sense of identity. Sometimes I would rather have those deep feelings stay buried so we can pretend our way American-style to a better future. I prefer the doll that MaGreen's dad gave BabyG. It doesn't look human. Going non-human's the only way to escape race and sexuality. That's the closest I have to a solution - we should ban all humanish dolls. At least then high school students won't be able to make such troubling documentaries.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Audacity of Hope

For Christmas, we all went up to Utah. The last time I had gone to Utah, I had seen MaGreen’s step-mother Helen nearly die. I spent a week babysitting BabyG while MaGreen talked with her father and sat with her step-mother in the intensive care unit. After a life of substance abuse, her liver was so scarred that her blood was backing up and bursting through some of her veins. When she wasn’t vomiting blood and being rushed into surgery, she was delirious and demented. It seemed so unlikely that she would live. The doctors performed a procedure called TIPS, which I wrote about, and she “recovered.” After a month, she was living at home and on the phone she seemed more clear headed than I had ever known her to be.

Even in the relatively short time I have known Helen, I have learned to check myself when I feel hopeful about her. Paradoxically, I feel sadder when she is clear headed. You realize what has been lost, the extraordinarily kind and perceptive person who has been lost. Talking to Helen when the “real” her emerges only reminds you of the inevitability of her decline. I know this sadness is harder for MaGreen since Helen raised her from a pretty early age.

We got digital photos of Helen by email from my parents when they were passing through Salt Lake City. She looked so much better that it surprised me. Her skin was no longer yellow but back to its Queen Elizabeth white whiteness. For several months, Helen had cogent conversations on the phone with me about the latest Britney Spears story or the weather. Sometimes a terrible and wondrous hope flickered through my mind. Maybe she will last, maybe she will stay sober, maybe she could qualify for a transplant.

When we got to Utah for the holidays, we immediately realized that Helen’s mental state had declined again. Some relatives had warned us, but you can never know for sure until you see a person face-to-face. Helen didn’t exactly recognize us. Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t. She didn’t always remember our wedding. She didn’t remember dancing with me during the reception. She often thought MaGreen was Caroline Kennedy. She thought MaGreen’s dad was four different people, three of whom were living in the basement and trying to impersonate her real husband. She would walk through each room of her own house collecting objects and piling them up because they were hers. “How did this remote get here, this is my remote.” She would leave the house when no one was looking, walk through the snow in her slippers, and ask her neighbors to take her to the home she lived in before. She seemed more like an Alzheimer’s patient than anything else and my cynical, anti-hope side was clucking its tongue triumphantly.

For Christmas, Helen gave me a copy of Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. I had wanted the book. I had told MaGreen that I wanted a copy on the flight over from Texas. How could Helen have known that in the few days preceeding our trip, I had started to become infatuated with Barack Obama? The gift was a reminder that even this demented person who couldn’t remember who I am still had the “real” Helen inside of her, the person who is so perceptive she knows their desires better than they know themselves.

I read most of the book between car trips to Myton, Roosevelt, Vernal, Neola, Heber, and Salt Lake City. Obama departs from the style of his first book, which was a memoir. He only makes passing references to his personal and family history. It’s also not a statement of his policy goals. The book is more an analysis of rhetoric, a call for richer public discourse. Sometimes while I was reading, I wanted to cry, and to jump up and down. Obama is so eloquent and intelligent. He puts into clear prose the kind of arguments I have only come across in heady, theoretical books like Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics. He is such an impossible figure. It’s simplistic to call his background exotic. His genotype, his phenotype, his life story, his identity, and his rhetoric – together they are like some kind of manufactured narrative that magically reconciles all of the festering histories we never even acknowledge in the US. He seems to be the beautiful person I have always felt inside of myself, but who was battered down when I was a child by little unknowing kids regurgitating the latent hatred in our society, the beautiful person I myself won’t allow to show because I am too angry and timid and petty.

Having received this gift from Helen of all people, I felt the audaciousness of the audacity of hope, which is to say I felt ridiculous and na├»ve and vulnerable. Here I was carrying this book with a mixed-race liberal on the cover through rural Utah. MaGreen may as well have been Caroline Kennedy and I Rajiv Gandhi back from the grave. What would that make BabyG? I do not want to be so cynical about Helen’s chances to recover. I do not want to be so cynical to think that this nation could really come to accept a person like Barack Obama as its leader, which would be akin to a deep reconciliation inside of me.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Capability Approach and Parenting

I have planned on writing this post for several months but never get to it, partly from being busy and also from fear of misrepresenting a complicated idea. I want to be very ambitious about Green Parenting. I don’t want to only write about planting a tree or going hiking with my baby. I don’t only want to write about swapping vinegar from Windex. I want to think about parenting in the broadest possible sense. What do I hope for my daughter? What do I hope for myself and my wife as parents? What are the parents’ and society’s obligations to the child?

When I think of these grand questions, the first answer that comes to my mind is very simple. I just want each of us to be happy. Then I have to wonder what happy means. Comfortable? Secure? Rich? Ensconced in a solar-powered mountain chalet? If I think hard about these answers, they all have problems. For example, I have known parents who sheltered their children in suburban homes and stockpiled massive trust funds, but the children did not thrive as adults. I know many sad, maladjusted children of wealthy families. That does not mean I want to abandon my questions. What is happiness? What is a dignified life? What is a meaningful life? A full life?

I think the Capability Approach can help us sort through these questions, even though it was not really developed as a parenting model. It was first conceived of by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Regular readers of this site might be familiar with Sen. He won the Novel Prize in Economics and I had the opportunity to interview him, the recording of which I posted on this blog. Nussbaum is a famous scholar at the University of Chicago, who writes about philosophy, law, feminism, and a wide range of other topics. Their collaboration has led to a burgeoning new area of inquiry and has already influenced the UN, the EU, and national governments. (Sen and Nussbaum were even married for some time and I like using a theory born of miscegenation to think about my miscegenating family.)

The Capability Approach focuses on an individual’s abilities to choose the kind of life they find meaningful. It focuses not just on legal rights, but on “doings and beings,” or outcomes and functionings. Nussbaum has suggested a tentative list of basic capabilities that we might discuss and come to a consensus about as the minimum standard for a life worth living. If you want to see the full list, check out her recent book Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, and Species Membership. Below is an abbreviated version of her list:

1. Life; being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length
2. Bodily health; being able to have good health
3. Bodily integrity; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign
4. Senses, Imagination and Thought; being able to use the senses, to imagine, think and reason
5. Emotions; being able to have attachment to things and people outside ourselves
6. Practical Reason; being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life
7. Affiliation; being able to live with and towards others, to recognise & show concern for other human beings
8. Other species; being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants and the world of nature
9. Play; being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities
10. Control over One’s Environment A) Political; being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life. B) Material; Being able to hold property [both land and movable goods] not just formally, but [with] real opportunity [for use].

What I like about the capability approach and this list is that the individual is envisioned as a social being whose well-being depends in part on government, economy, and social norms. Even though the approach was designed primarily to evaluate policies and statutes, I think it could be useful in many other contexts. For parenting, I think the list could be used not just to think about raising a child so that he or she has a life of dignity, but about parents as well.

This conception of parenting would be in contrast to popular theories of parenting which tend to be narrow. For example, attachment parenting valorizes the attachment between parent and child. It is often silent about the mother’s need for a fulfilling life and just about anything that does not relate to attachment. Ferber seems interested in a convenient schedule for the parent and a child who exemplifies the myth of American individualism. The American Pediatric Association guide is focused on the child's bodily health. Let’s think about well-being and about society, community, parents, and children together in the broadest and most substantial way we can.