Mythology is a living entity of culture in which cross-generational discourse can play a lively role. American Christmas and its Santa Claus mythology are a case in point. My early fieldwork on Santa Claus (conducted in the Midwest in the late 80s) showed that children’s perceptions of Santa and his reindeer carried impact on how family ritual was carried out. This is how I wrote about this issue in the book Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith (University of Chicago Press, 1995) as specifically applied to Santa’s red-nosed reindeer, Rudolph. Read more
During the years 2005 to 2012, when I conducted research on July 4th family rituals, the United States imported — mostly from China — over $32,000,000 worth of American flags. These flags testify to and plot the vigorous ceremonial life of the American nation-state: decorating military veterans graves’ at Memorial Day and the caskets of war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq, waving atop flag poles in front of schools and inside classrooms, at capitals and public buildings. In public places, flags are daily raised and later lowered, raised only at half mast to honor the passing of revered Americans. Read more
October 31st is America’s curious anomaly. On October’s last day, as trees defoliate and nature ebbs towards the deadness of winter, parents mark the day by lifting prohibitions. From sugar treats to stranger visiting, what is usually forbidden falls within kids’ reach. That day children lampoon adults, dressing up in roles of mature power (princesses, firemen, astronauts, pirates); kids arrive at strangers’ doorsteps and ceremonially threaten the grown-ups within with a veiled threat, “trick or treat.” Without further ado adults hand over candy, normally a controlled substance in children’s lives. Read more
In my recent talking with kids, Scrooge of London seems to have lost a lot of ground as the definitive morality tale about Christmas self-redemption. Instead it’s another miserable misanthrope, the green Grinch of Whoville, who seems to have captured children’s imaginations lately. Perhaps the farfetched hairy Grinch (first depicted by Seuss in 1956) is better able to appeal across cultural boundaries in today’s multicultural America than the strictly British characters Dickens invented in 1843.
Americans in 2016 do not much resemble Londoners from Dickens’ story. Last year I did a study in southern New Jersey (in households that were facing economic struggle and had kids age 6 to 8). Read more
Recently, I was waiting in line at a highway rest stop and struck up a conversation with the woman in front of me. Her story stayed with me. She had an autistic son whose condition had been diagnosed even before he was a year old. Over a decade later, her son had received appropriate intervention steadily throughout his childhood. Now, at the crux of adolescence, he was thriving at a school specialized to meet his needs.
Her story stayed with me because of how early her son’s problem was identified—a testament to having parents who did not have their head in the sand when trouble was on the horizon. Their acceptance that their son was different meant that intervention was timely. Read more
While most adults are eager to indulge their children and grandchildren at Christmas, my ethnographic research on Easter (described in my book Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith) suggests that many parents are more laid back about Easter’s secular celebration than they are about Christmas. Moms are eager initiators of Christmas activities such as visiting the mall to see Santa Claus or writing letters to Santa. But at Easter many parents are more involved in the religious rituals of Advent and church-going, sometimes overlooking how much kids enjoy secular Easter rituals. Read more
Summer is here, time for kids’ action adventure.
Reread that opening sentence. Did you think of movies released in the summertime?
Or did you think of the adventurous active pastimes that kids engage in during summer? Did you think of: Diving off the high diving board into the deep end of the swimming pool? Climbing toward a tall tree’s top and perching there for a while looking down at the world? Crawling in through the window of a homestead that nobody has lived in for years? Riding a bike with no hands on the handlebars down the steepest hill in the neighborhood? Read more
As little ones gather up their school supplies and head off to school this September, what are the attitudes about school that they bring along with their backpacks? In meeting kids during research, I have heard plenty of young ones say that they only like two things about school: gym and recess. It’s disarming for a college professor to consider this; we don’t have either gym or recess in college. Read more