Brainwashing Your Kids
I was reading The Hobbit to my eight-year old, and we got to the part where, having escaped the elf-king’s prison, Bilbo and the dwarves come upon a city of men. She was surprised men existed in The Hobbit’s world, but I reminded her that the wizard, Gandalf, himself was a man. To which she replied, “No, I mean ordinary men, like us.”
I gave her a look. “You think we’re ordinary men?”
She was confused. “I know we’re smart, and I know how to box, but we can’t do magic like wizards.”
“I’m not talking about smart. And yes that’s a power, and so is your boxing. But we’re wizards,” I assured her.
“No we’re not.”
I laughed. “Yes, we are. Did you not know this until now?”
“Then do some magic,” she said. “If you’re a wizard, do some magic right now.”
“It doesn’t work like that. We don’t just do magic on command. Magic is something that needs to be cultivated over time.”
I could tell from her face she wanted it to be true, and there was part of her that believed me. But she was also skeptical, having been raised by a father who told her when she was three that her mom had been a hippopotamus before a species-change operation.
I continued: “The other night when you had trouble sleeping because of your thoughts, and I told you to observe them. Thoughts of the past, thoughts of the future. Thoughts about things. Remember?”
“That’s how you build up your powers.”
We finished reading, I closed the book, gave her a kiss goodnight and summoned her mom for the closing ritual.
When her mom came back 10 minutes later I told her about our conversation. She seemed dubious.
“Just don’t disabuse her of the idea. It’s good.”
. . .
I follow a Twitter account that posted the following quote:
If you don’t brainwash your kids, someone else will.
I wasn’t raised religiously, though I read any Buddhist/self-help style book on which I could get my hands in the early 1990s. I was in my 20s, and my prior belief system, best summed up by Ice Cube’s “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money,” wasn’t working for me. My beliefs were forged in 1980s Manhattan, the original era of Donald Trump, the Junk Bond King and “Greed is good.”
It wasn’t that my goals had changed so much as my failure to achieve them; law school and going to bars in the hope of meeting girls was obviously the wrong path even to my 23-year old self.
Buddhism — the promise of peace and enlightenment that virtually no one in society possessed — was appealing in part for the peace and enlightenment and in part for its scarcity. If I could not succeed in the “bitches and money” part of the game, maybe I could win by not needing them.
I probably didn’t see it that way at the time. I was an earnest student, having genuine insights and also talking way too much about them to anyone who would listen. I was trying to find my way, create a sense of purpose despite failing to achieve society’s apparent purpose for me. My 20s were the most difficult decade of my life.
. . .
I am Jewish by birth, both my parents being full Jews, but as I mentioned, we were not religious. I remember an occasional seder at my relatives’ house, Hannukah until I was about eight, and Christmas thereafter. There was no fasting for Yom Kippur, and after my father died when I was 10, I don’t remember anything Jewish whatsoever, besides take-out Chinese food and bagels with lox and cream cheese from the local deli.
. . .
My wife — I call her that even though we’re not legally married because we’ve been together nine years, own a house together and have a daughter — is only half Jewish, and it’s the wrong half. Her mom is a WASP, making her and our daughter technically non-Jews based on maternal lineage. Even so, she has more than once asked how I felt about raising Sasha Jewish. I’ve always said it’s not really me, but if she felt strongly about it, I wouldn’t stand in the way. In other words, don’t expect me to recite the Torah to her, or whatever Jewish dads are supposed to do in raising their Jewish kids.
Eventually, she let it go, and Sasha doesn’t seem to have much interest in it either, especially now that we’ve lived in Portugal the last three years where Jews are few and far between. (Half of the Portuguese look and seem like Jews to me, but given how they killed most of the avowed ones here 500 years ago, I can’t blame anyone for changing stripes.)
Like me, Sasha is being raised without religion, without a traditional framework through which to assign meaning to her world.
. . .
One thing Sasha and I have in common is a love for animals. I know, everyone loves animals, but I think we love them more than most. If we find worms in the farmer’s market lettuce, we gently pull off a wilted leaf and place the worm with his leaf in a potted plant to enjoy his short worm life. We catch moths in our hands and throw them out windows rather than killing them. When we pass a field of cows or sheep, I say, “friends of Dada’s,” and she says, “My friends too.” We pet dogs and even stray cats on the street, we watch the ducks and turtles in the park. The natural world has meaning for us, and there’s a hint of religion in that, though it’s probably not enough.
. . .
Sasha is more like me than she is her mother. Her brain works more similarly to mine, and when she told me she couldn’t sleep because she was “having thoughts”, I understood. When I was a kid, I stayed awake at night imagining all the different foods I wanted to eat, going position by position through the various all-star baseball cards from 1976 to 1980 in my mind. I’m not sure whether I did it because I couldn’t sleep, or I couldn’t sleep because I did it, but she was doing more or less the same thing.
I told her thoughts were neither good nor bad, they were just thoughts. Thoughts about today, thoughts about yesterday, thoughts about tomorrow. Thoughts about people, thoughts about things. She could let them float by like sticks in a river. If she got stuck on one, that was okay. It was just a thought. It was normal to have them, and it was okay if she couldn’t sleep while having them. They were just thoughts, and she was exactly where she should be, lying in bed, with her eyes closed.
I left the room, and she fell asleep shortly thereafter. The next night, her mom put her to bed again, but five minutes later I was summoned to give her the talk about thoughts. Apparently, it had helped, and she wanted to hear it again.
I went through it, adding a wrinkle about noticing her breathing, counting it if she liked. In one, out one. Feel the air gently through your nose. In two, out two. She fell asleep again, shortly after I left. We did it another time, but she said the thoughts were fewer, and she just wanted a quick reminder.
. . .
I didn’t plan to tell Sasha we were wizards. It just came up when she put us in the category of “ordinary men”. But even though it was out of character for me to insist (non-jokingly) on our supernatural status, it seemed right in that moment. When I thought about it later, I realized I was teaching her my religion. It’s probably a hybrid of Buddhist teachings about the mind and a stoic idea of self-mastery. To be a wizard rather than an ordinary man is to have a spiritual dimension. Not simply to follow rules and assuage doubts, expedient though that might be, but a connection to something within, the kingdom of heaven, so to speak. A belief in her powers she’ll one day understand in the sense I meant it. So she won’t be brainwashed the way I was by the society in which she grows up.