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December 20, 2010

The birds, the bees, and the gadgets
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:54 PM * 163 comments

So we were in the drugstore in Centraal Station in Amsterdam, hunting down a decongestant for my mother. (She picked up a cold on the flight here*.) My father was discussing over the counter chemistry with a shop assistant whose English was more than adequate, so I went looking for the third member of our party: my daughter, not yet seven.

I found her standing in front of a wall full of sex toys, all brightly colored and substantially anatomical in design†. She regarded the display with anthropological interest.

“What are these, Mom?”
“They’re called vibrators.‡”
“What are they for?”
“They’re a grownup thing. It’s about sex. Do you want to know more?”
“No.”
“OK. Ask me when you do and I’ll explain further.”

We moved on; there was Christmas shopping to do. Later, over hot chocolate in a café, I mentioned the conversation to my father, and she piped up to say that now she did want to know more. What were they? Had I ever used one? How were they used, and why?

I talked a little about how vibrators made people’s bodies feel good, and how people used them as part of sex sometimes. That led onto a little bit about how sex made people’s bodies feel good. And then we fell to talking about how her body wasn’t yet at the stage to get into sex, and how it would change sometime in the future. I listed the external changes, and said that as that went on there would be internal changes too. After that, I said, things like sex and kissing would be more interesting to her.

“But I like kissing!” she objected. “I like kissing you, and I like it when you kiss me!” “I know, and I like kissing you,” I responded, “but later you’ll find out that there are more kinds of kissing than just between a mom and her kid.”

I think I managed the whole exchange fairly well, on balance. I wasn’t embarrassed or awkward, not past the first moment of vertigo when I realized what she was looking at. She’s not actually interested in sex right now; she’s interested in why everyone else is interested in it.

“Welcome to Holland!” tweeted a Dutch friend when I talked about the drugstore display on Twitter. But, sex toys aside, this is not far off how I was raised myself. The difference is primarily that my upbringing was countercultural where I was. Here, it’s one form of normal.


* and lost her luggage in the snowpocalypse. Not a good trade.
† This is a drugstore in a train station, the sort of place one gets bandages and hair accessories. The more creative items are sold in specialty shops.
‡ An over-generalization, I confess; I did not check if they all vibrated.

Comments on The birds, the bees, and the gadgets:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 04:46 PM:

Yeah, can't say as I've ever seen a display like that in Walgreen's.

#2 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 04:54 PM:

And yet the drugstore chain, etos, is pretty much exactly like your local Walgreen's, CVS, or Long's.

Most of them don't have a wall o' sex toys. But Centraal is tourist territory, so things are a little different.

And the display is new. I certainly don't recall seeing it when we were in there a couple of years ago getting materials to bandage Teresa's knee.

#3 ::: MichaelC ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:02 PM:

I can't speak about vibrators, but a local Ralphs supermarket here in the People's Republic of Santa Monica has a glass case of condoms right at kiddie eye-height next to the produce section. Explaining the Trojan Fire & Ice brand would be lots of fun, I'm sure.

#4 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:05 PM:

Good for you! Your kids aren't going to grow up with messed-up notions about sexuality.

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:06 PM:

MichaelC @3:

Next to the produce section? Well, I suppose that does give one some options for explaining things.

#6 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:08 PM:

Lee @4:
*Your* kids aren't going to grow up with messed-up notions about sexuality.

Would that I could be sure of that. I still did, for reasons that had nothing to do with my parents' openness on the subject.

But it's one layer of weird I can spare them.

#7 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:14 PM:

Boggle. I mind the time I was in the drug store with my mom, and she picked up half a dozen items. At the cash register, one box caught my attention.

As a all-waking-hours-at-home TV kid, I was pretty thoroughly familiar with virtually everything on the market. But I looked at that box and was utterly stumped. "Mom, what's that?"

"Later," she says, rather brusquely.

I don't recall that I ever did get a straight answer from her.

On the topic of actual sex, we did have pretty thorough sex-ed in sixth grade. (At which point I finally got an answer to my question—and practical experience some months later; at least I knew what the hell was happening when it came, ghods be thanked!)

One teensy little detail was skipped over in the descriptions of the reproductive process, however: how the sperm got from the man's testicles to the woman's uterus.

That I had to learn from a classmate over the back fence. The consensus? "Ewwwwww!!!"

#8 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:16 PM:

Oh yeah, and, though I've said it before, abi, I want to reincarnate as one of your kids.

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:24 PM:

Jacque @7:

We first talked about periods when she was three or so; it came up because she saw blood in the toilet* and was worried.

My kids asked how the bit from the father got into the mother's tummy about a year ago. Their reaction was a lot like yours.

For me, the useful realization of the day was that she's really not interested in sex. But she is interested in why other people are, and why there's a difference between her attitude and theirs. Having that explained satisfied her.

-----
* I use a cup.

#10 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:39 PM:

abi: I'm curious: how did you explain it to her?

#11 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:40 PM:

Addendum to me @10: sometimes I wonder, myself.

#12 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 05:48 PM:

Up until a few months ago, the area set aside for people to wait in line to pick up prescriptions at our pharmacy was right beside the display of condoms in varying sizes, colors, textures and other variations.

One time, waiting my own turn, the next person behind me was a young woman who looked about in her mid-twenties.

She must have been loking at the display, because she suddenly spoke up, in a puzzled tone of voice:

"Why would anyone want flavored condoms?"

This put me in a social dilemma: Do I turn around and politely answer the question? Or do I mind my own business, and just keep looking straight ahead?

I minded my own business.

#13 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 06:15 PM:

It's reassuring that at least some of the following generation will have a chance.

#14 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 06:19 PM:

Abi, that is a fine job of parenting. No ifs, ands, or buts. It's not always easy to answer the question the child is asking (rather than the one you think s/he's asking, or the one you want 'em to ask), but you did a magnificent job.

I wonder what our local holy rollers would do, confronted with that display?

#15 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 06:21 PM:

"And the birds loved each other very, very much. So they talked to their parents about having a sleepover. Then they went to the Drogisterij in Centraal, and got themselves some gadgets..."

Bruce Arthurs @12:
There are certain times that one assumes that the question at hand is purely rhetorical. You should have explained why in great detail, until her head exploded.

#16 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 06:43 PM:

abi, I agree with Fragano: you did good.

I'm curious, were there any Cthulhu vibrators in that display?

#17 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 06:44 PM:

I just had this horrible . . . well, imagine if American marketing prowess got going on promoting gagets for young people and started making licensed-property versions resulting in things like . . . ahem Twilight vampire and werewolf . . . oh, you get the picture.

#18 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 06:48 PM:

Stefan @17: You mean like the Tantus Vamp?

#19 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 07:30 PM:

I meant actual marketing tie-ins.

#20 ::: Denise ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 07:56 PM:

I'm thrilled that I'm not the only parent who takes being straightforward about something natural seriously. No reason to hide truth from children. I'll admit, the openness in Holland took me a bit by surprise, but only because I was unaccustomed to it (and it is mostly in the touristy areas, from what I could tell). I've learned a lot, though, about the differences in the mindset there from my husband (who is Dutch) - and I'm really grateful that I am with someone who values plain and simple truth as much as I do. *nod*

Good job, Mom!

#21 ::: Mezzanine ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 07:57 PM:

Abi@9:

You've just sent me on yet another reading-about-cloth-pads-and-mooncups binge...

I love them. Ever since I discovered the whole concept earlier this year, I've been all excited and keep trying to recruit people.

#23 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 08:28 PM:

Bruce, #12: Voice of Experience says the answer is, "Because they haven't tried them yet." Once was very definitely Enough.

#24 ::: Beth ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 09:36 PM:

This is great.

As we get ready for the birth of our first child, my partner and I have continued our conversations (started years ago) about how to talk to children -- about everything, but especially the big stuff like religion and sex. I really appreciate your example here. It's relaxed, honest, age-appropriate, and you appear to treat your children like people instead of strange alien beings.

#25 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 09:53 PM:

#12: "...Well, maybe some folks have taste buds in more places than others do..."

#26 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 09:55 PM:

I live in Manassas VA, an old town with an Old Town section. Recently, a store got all the permits and set up. Someone found out they were going to have adult products -- lingerie, DVDs, creams, etc. -- and flipped. How could we have that kind of store in Old Town? We were going to get crime and prostitutes in Old Town!

So the city has, so far, spent about $100K to find out how to set up new permits to keep everybody safe from that kind of a store (there are already some adult stores that aren't in Old Town). Nobody cares that there's a gun store in Old Town.

#27 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 10:10 PM:

Fragano,@ #14. Their heads would explode. Not exactly sure where you live, but around here they'd be calling the police to demand that that kind of pornography be removed from where Innocent Children (!!!!!) can see such Nasty Things.

Mind you, these folks let their children play Grand Theft Auto and other violent games, and think nothing of them watching movies where people kill one another.

The general American sex-negative attitude puzzles me, even though I grew up among it.

And a number of states prohibit the sale of any kind of sex toys.

#28 ::: Sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 11:07 PM:

Bruce @ 12 I agree with the young lady's question, but I would have put the emphasis on want. Our pharmacy has he same arrangement and I have often thought that about various offerings. (see: glitter lube. What, are we doing sparkly vampire sex now? [and the potential health problems, ugh!])

Abi, you rock. You rock lots. Just saying.

#29 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 11:26 PM:

Just sharing a compare-&-contrast before reading the other comments: when I was 11, I think, my mom bought me "The Life Cycle Library," a 4-volume set of, as I recall, innocuously factual explanations of menstruation, pregnancy, etc. Of course, I was so shy at the time that I was embarrassed to crack the covers, even in the privacy of my room.

And then there was the time, a few months later, that I had a nosebleed, and she decided that was the most opportune moment possible to ask if I'd read the books. Sheesh.

#30 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 11:30 PM:

Our local chain grocery store has the condoms shelved next to the baby supplies, which I think is a pretty good form of marketing. So, do you want the pack of condoms, or would you like to be buying the pack of diapers nine months from now?

#31 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 11:34 PM:

Bruce@12: I suppose you could have told her to watch the movie Juno, and listen carefully to the lady in Planned Parenthood.

#32 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2010, 11:40 PM:

I once saw somebody explain the best way to answer questions about sex etc. thusly: "Answer the questions they ask you, on the level they ask you. If they're mature enough to ask, they're mature enough to understand the answer."

#33 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 12:38 AM:

I own a 1928 book, "The Library of Health" by Frank Scholl, Ph.G., M.D. which has the actual Birds and the Bees talks. Also the Fish, which nobody seems to mention. The order, by increasing age, is "The Lesson from the Garden", "The Lesson from the Sea", and finally "The Lesson from the Air".

Actually, they're not too bad, age-appropriate information. Change the wording from 1928 formal to something more modern, and I don't see too much to argue with.

Now the talks the father is supposed to have with his son (masturbation causes weakness and insanity!) and the mother with the daughter (newspaper heroines are terrible, and avoid close familiarity even with your fiance), on the other hand; not to mention the lovely little eugenics chapter that leads off the "Sexology" section of the book; those are pretty bad.

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 01:54 AM:

Jacque @10:

She was three or so. I didn't explain as such. I just told her that women have blood coming out of their peepee* every month, that it's normal and (when asked) that sometimes it hurts for a day or two. I didn't even get into how to deal with it; that wasn't what she wanted to know. She was just worried that something was wrong.

It wasn't till six months later that we told her where her food goes after she eats it. Kids that age don't have systemic understandings of their bodies.

-----
* Note to self: time to switch her vocabulary to grownup mode. I've already heard her practicing the obscene version with her friends†.
† "Kut! Kut!" they said to each other while I was in the other room. They then collapsed into shrieking giggles. My laughter was more restrained.

#35 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 05:20 AM:

Bruce Arthurs @12: Do I turn around and politely answer the question? Or do I mind my own business, and just keep looking straight ahead?

You did right.

But I'm put in mind of the occasion at an office party, where I came upon a young woman colleague being teased for apparently not knowing what a blow job was. Either I or the person I was with (it was a while ago) intervened to explain.

She looked extremely puzzled for a minute, and then said, "But you don't blow!"

Game, set and match.

#36 ::: Peter Darby ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 05:31 AM:

Just thinking that

a) Abi's experience with her offspring is pretty much in line with mine with mine about sex and

b) some friends of mine in the online home ed community would be shocked and outraged by this terrible exposure of INNOCENT CHILDREN to HORRIBLE SEX.

#37 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 06:17 AM:

Well done, Abi.

#38 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 06:40 AM:

albatross @30, I saw an arrangement like that once, and I thought it was rather bad marketing- didn't exactly give the impression that the store had trust in the quality of its own products.

#39 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 06:41 AM:

Paula Helm Murray #27: I live in Atlanta.

I, too, am puzzled by the strange attitudes to sex and sexuality (and the risks that children will be exposed to them -- oh, horrors!) while being indifferent to violence in most of its manifestations, as if the one were evil and the other unalloyedly good.

#40 ::: Mark Wise ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 07:15 AM:

Could all y'all work on bottling some of that sanity for export to less civilized corners of the world?

#41 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 08:10 AM:

Remember that America was settled by two very different groups -- the "dope-smoking Freemasons", and religious fanatics looking for someplace they could persecute in peace. We've had that split personality ever since.

The "sex is unspeakable" thing is a basic part of the Puritan mode of control -- if you control someone's sources of pleasure, you can control the person.

#42 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 09:56 AM:

Reminds me of the time my wife and I were in Malta, during an eclipse cruise.

We were walking down the street with fellow passengers (another woman her and mom), and we stopped in front of a drugstore. Outside was some sort of vending machine, an we puzzled over what it was supposed to vend. There were pictures of attractive young women on some slots.

Then I saw the word stimulato and realized it was a condom vending machine, and that one middle-aged man, two middle-aged women (and one older one) had been staring at this for five minutes.

#43 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 10:15 AM:

Abi: Trying to do much the same with my daughter, now 14.5. We've had any number of similar conversations about sex toys of various sorts, condoms, kissing, etc. All age-appropriate, at various ages.

The result at earlier ages was that she knew more, factually speaking, than many, if not most, of her friends (which resulted in me saying to her, "it's kind of like Santa--parents want to be the ones to explain to their kids about Santa and they want to be the ones to explain to their kids about sex. They don't want their kids hearing about it from other kids, just like they don't want other kids blowing the Santa story for them.").

Later, the fallout was that her friends came to her--or to me directly--with questions (since apparently many people's parents still don't talk to them about sex or puberty or sexuality). And while I referred some folks back to their parents, there were times when I just answered their questions as best I could. Luckily, there were no repercussions from that.

Now, they're freshmen in high school, and some of them are still woefully ignorant, despite "health" classes. We're still talking, and I can still tell that from time to time my daughter is passing along someone else's question. Actually, sometimes it's really obvious that it's someone else's question--she'll be on the phone or texting and say, "Mom! Is it true that _____?" and I'll answer.

My own parents' idea of education was to give me the Kotex starter kits, which included descriptive booklets, when I was 12. My mother and I literally have never had a conversation about sex, and I'm now 50+ and she's nearly 80. I've no idea what they did for my brother, lol.

I can't say that all my conversations with my daughter have been easy or comfortable (for either of us, lol), and I did have to draw a line a few years ago about subjects to be discussed on the subway (the ads can be thought-provoking, but I don't want to discuss birth control or abortion alternatives on the F train). Now, for some reason, we often have these conversations while I'm cooking.

Of course, I had to open the sex door pretty early in her life because I'm a single mother by choice. Before my daughter was even 4, I'd explained (using age-appropriate terms) about sperm donation, and our first conversations about sex can't have happened too much later.

#44 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 10:22 AM:

As some of our readers may be perspicacious enough to have noticed, the British Government is sidling up on the idea of imposing general anti-porn censorship of the internet. It should be noted that, in recent years, a statement by a Government Minister, explicitly announcing a wish to not legislate on the matter, may, with some assurance or reliability, be taken as an indication of a certainty that legislation has been drafted, and shall perform as its own harbinger. As is usual in such matters, the desire is expressed of protecting children, which label is invariably a gloss for the class of people under the age of eighteen, which includes those who may already be lawfully married, who in turn may be expected, as the vernacular picturesquely expresses, to be bonking their brains out.

Your correspondent, it may be admitted, has on occasion taken advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet, and has examined some of this material, as text, static pictures, and moving pictures. He has been made aware of an astonishing--he admits to being astonished--variety of sexual acts, and, while not wishing to make any particular judgements, finds some to be bizarrely unexciting. However, he has also noticed a distressing tendency to present the achievement of sexual ecstasy in a manner which, directly or through some context external to the imagery, indicates that a sexually active woman is somehow defective, and thus deserving of all the abuses and humiliations which might be heaped upon her in the procedures depicted. Again, your reporter makes no attempt to judge a particular act or deed, but in many instances one can imagine no way in which the experience is pleasant, lacking some psychological peculiarity on the part of the woman.

My conclusion, perchance inevitable, is that the porn industry supports, maintains, and is based upon a particular, unthinking, view of male dominance. It reinforces the outmoded belief that the only duty of the woman is submit to whatever desire than man might have, especially is she wishes to attain sexual pleasure. The merest thought on the part of my estimable readers will be sufficient to find the flaws in that argument. It is, indeed, so obvious as to need but two words to express the proper attitude.

I therfore humbly beg your indulgence, and assert, without fear of contradiction, that the regular readers of this blog, whatever practices they may adopt in the bedroom, or wherever else that their fertile imaginations may suggest as a venue for these activities, are completely and delightfully aware that it takes two. Should they, on occasion, require a higher integer for counting the number or participants, I would anticipate that the principle still holds true.

And yet, having, as I do not doubt you will have observed, certain reservations about the nature of pornography, as presented on the internet, I still venture to express my concern at the insidious expansions of censorship. One might, rightly, regard with abhorrence the revelation of information useful to an armed enemy, yet the same concealment might allow some hitherto trusted personage to mislead all, and even foment a causeless war, which kills in far greater numbers, friends and supposed enemies, than any hostile act might be seen to justify, even if the target of this aggression is unconnected with the formless threat which is evoked. Censorship does not protect those it is purported to safeguard. and leaves us all ignorant, and thus vulnerable to the unscrupulous manipulations of the powerful.

The threat they perceive, we might nearly think, is that the internet makes knowledge free, and so endangers the creation and maintenance of their authority. Even in the uncontrolled internet of today, they try to hide and conceal their lies. The man who claimed that one could not run a coal mine without a machine gun might be recorded as a philanthropist, rather than as a conspirator in corporate murder. Places which call themselves "think tanks" present a politically convenient view of the world, supported those who finance them, without ever confessing their loyalties. But the internet makes it possible to find an alternative view. Perhaps too few have the critical faculties needed to form a useful opinion on the merits of these rival cases, but at some point we will find the choice has vanished.

We may judge pornography for ourselves. We may come to our own views on why it may be harmful. But the mind that secretly approves of the less obvious message, that drip of anti-civilisation which pervades the mass-media, is the mind which tries to control how we may think.

#45 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 10:23 AM:

I shall now strive to internalise the number 17.

I may be some time.

#46 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 11:22 AM:

David Harmon #41 - The Puritans get some bad press there. C.S. Lewis (cited in Wikipedia at Puritans) wrote

On many questions and specially in view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party, ... they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries [the Roman Catholics]. The idea that a Puritan was a repressed and repressive person would have astonished Sir Thomas More and Luther about equally.

#47 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 11:39 AM:

It shames me that my initial reaction to hearing Abi's story is reflexive anxiety that one of her neighbors will hear about it and report her to the government.

I was born and raised in the US, got adequate health-related sex ed in public school (for which my sex-negative (what else is the opposite of sex-positive?) parents were deeply grateful), and later read Harmful to Minors which made me think I'd been very lucky to get even that.

If I had a child in the US and wanted to help her understand sex, alcohol, physical autonomy (walking to school, for example), and other important domains and skills, I'd want to enable her learning and growth with clear and accurate information, sandboxed learning environments, and similar tools and techniques that empirically help people learn. And it worries me that, no matter how responsibly I did these things, I'd have to hide them from the neighbors lest the force of the state come down on me like a pile of bricks.

I don't have children. Am I exaggerating? Are there municipalities in the US where reports of sensible Netherlands-style childrearing do not get followed up on by police or Child Protective Services visits?

#48 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 11:44 AM:

abi @34: Sorry, I was unclear. I was actually angling for an amplification of your answer to why "she's really not interested in sex. But she is interested in why other people are, and why there's a difference between her attitude and theirs."

(Given that I eternally puzzle over this question myself.)

Kids that age don't have systemic understandings of their bodies.

I remember vividly the image I had of my innards as a wee tot: amorphous gray goo. It was only fairly recently that I connected that with my memory of modeling clay:

After you've used modeling clay for a while, the colors all blend together and you wind up with this kind of gun-metal gray mass. I played with the clay I inherited from my brother (pre-grayed) a lot, so this apparently became my mental icon for "stuff."

It wasn't until my mother purchased and assembled the "Visible Man" model that I began to develop a more differentiated concept of what's under my skin. (I still mentally refer to that when I'm trying to remember where my liver is, for example.)

It was pretty cool. You could pop open his transparent skin, shake out his organs, and then play with his articulated skeleton. (Even pop open his skull and and have a look at his shiny pink brain.) Then, when you were done, you put him back together again.

I'm not much one for games, but I do have a soft spot for 3-D puzzles. I always found it very pleasing the way his organs nested together so neatly. (Though I seem to remember that getting his foot bones back inside the transparent shell properly was a bit of a challenge.)

#49 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 12:25 PM:

Sumana @47:

Well, I was raised in the United States, by hippies with very similar attitudes to mine about these matters. Admittedly, I'm a generation back from the present day, but I think the main difference would be that I would not have let her start the deeper conversation in a café. I would have waited until we were home.

No, the thing that would get me in trouble in the US is not that I told my six year old about sex, but that I lost track of her for a few minutes in a drugstore in one of the busiest train stations in Europe. And furthermore, that I did not worry about her when I did so.

#50 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 12:44 PM:

Jacque @48:
I was actually angling for an amplification of your answer to why "she's really not interested in sex. But she is interested in why other people are, and why there's a difference between her attitude and theirs."

Why? She's pre-adolescent. Her social and physical world simply does not include sexual or romantic relationships. She neither yearns nor burns. She loves, but does not lust.

So when we talk about what sex is like, she takes an intellectual interest, but it doesn't give rise to any deeper fascination. When we discuss the changes her body will go through in adolescence, she pays a bit more attention, but even that is abstract. I used the word "anthropological" in the original post for a reason. She's studying adult sexuality from the outside.

I know she compares notes with friends, because she sometimes uses a phrasing that doesn't originate in English. She asked me once if there was an 8-year gap between Martin and me getting married and having Alex because we hadn't figured out how to "do sex" for a while. Furthermore, she wondered if Patrick and Teresa, who had just visited us, didn't have kids because they didn't know how to "do sex". I got the feeling she was offering to clear the matter up for them.

Although I was enchanted by the vision of Teresa's face as Fiona explained sex to her*, I spent a little time explaining that not everyone who does sex goes on to have babies. I talked about infertility and contraceptives.

I then talked about privacy and tact a little, and how we don't always speculate about people's sex lives, or why they do or do not have children.

-----
* Indeed, I still am.

#51 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 12:50 PM:

I'm not sure I could think of a single thing to say, beyond "Quite right; that is the way it works," "That's a very long story," and "How well-informed you are!"

#52 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 01:05 PM:

abi@6: Yeah, I agree there's no guarantee against children acquiring weird notions -- about nearly anything, I believe, though sex is traditional.

You do, however, seem to be laying some foundation for them to be able to dig their way out of the weird notions if it becomes necessary -- some ability to deal with sex as a topic of rational discussion with other people.

#53 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 01:09 PM:

Sumana @47 wrote: Are there municipalities in the US where reports of sensible Netherlands-style childrearing do not get followed up on by police or Child Protective Services visits?

The answer is Yes but it depends on the perceived socio-economic status of the people doing the childrearing as well as the circumstances under which the childrearing was observed.

For instance, my daughter's preschool and elementary school teachers (up to 5th grade) have all known (because I told them as part of explaining my SMC status) that my child had a basic working knowledge of the mechanics of sex and reproduction.

This caused a problem exactly once, when my daughter violated the "don't talk about this to your friends" rule--though she swore she didn't bring up the topic. Anyway, apparently in 4th grade several of the little girls discussed masturbation during recess. And one of the girls then told her mother about this conversation and the mother reported to the school that my daughter had used "inappropriate language" on the playground.

The school contacted me, not CPS, and the issue was resolved privately ("Don't talk about this with your friends, please, or the school will call me again and that will make me unhappy."). My daughter kept her mouth shut on the playground from then on. Unfortunately, the other little girl was forbidden to be my daughter's friend after that.

If I wasn't white, middle-class, and an active PTA parent (and that is a very important factor in school politics), things might have gone differently. My daughter might have had to see a counselor and there might have been a report to CPS.

Also, we live in NYC, where CPS has bigger fish to fry and a huge caseload. The few CPS cases I know have dealt with things like physical abuse of children by parents (beating with belt, locking in closet), neglect of child by parent (no food in the home, no proper clothing for age of child or weather, etc.--parents were drug addicts or alcoholics), child making threats against other child, child causing injury to self or threatening/attempting suicide (cutting, taking pills). I suspect unless a parent is actively prostituting a child, "speaking frankly to your child about sex" is low on the CPS totem pole.

#54 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 01:13 PM:

Mark Wise@40: Do they actually have a surplus, suitable for export? Or are they merely less desperately short than, say, the USA?

#55 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 01:17 PM:

Jacque @ 48: Abi's right--the preadolescent has no literal interest in sex (most of the time). It's interesting to learn about, but usually still considered pretty gross to do or even envision doing. To imagine that you might want to be naked! in front of another person! and have them touch you! is all kinds of icky.

My daughter has said she's glad she was conceived by donor insemination because she never had to imagine her parents "doing it." It's weird enough to think that I, her mother, had sex; if she had to think about two parents having sex to create her, she'd freak out.

Even at 14, my daughter still mostly thinks sex is icky, though she now understands how kissing and some touching can be fun.

#57 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 02:31 PM:

albatross @30:
Our local chain grocery store has the condoms shelved next to the baby supplies, which I think is a pretty good form of marketing. So, do you want the pack of condoms, or would you like to be buying the pack of diapers nine months from now?

Or, alternatively, here you are buying diapers. Buy some condoms too, or you can be back here doing it some more in nine months.

Particularly effective with the mothers of newborns, before the memory of childbirth fades.

#58 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 02:59 PM:

For those still doing their last-minute shopping, if you don't know what to get a green-minded friend, there's always a solar-powered vibrator.

#59 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 03:12 PM:

Sumana @47, I think you're exaggerating. Certainly in liberal, urban regions I'd be startled to hear of parents arrested for telling their children about sex. My parents got me children's books about sex when I was a kid, 40 years ago.

A little googling turns up nothing about about parents prosecuted for that, but I did find a story from earlier this year, about a district attorney in rural Wisconsin telling schoolteachers that they could be arrested for following the new sex ed curriculum. ("Because the law requires teachers to instruct children not only about contraceptives but about how to use them, [the DA] said, schools are forced to encourage students to 'engage in sexual behavior, whether as a victim or an offender.'")

#60 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 03:19 PM:

abi #57:

Definitely true. "Hey, you, while you're here getting those diapers, you sure you don't want a pack of condoms? Don't you remember how you got into this mess in the first place?"

This post stirs up a lot of issues for me that I don't have the time or energy to go into now, except to say that I admire how well you seem to be able to raise your kids in a sane way, having found a culture with which you have a lot in common. I find myself feeling less at home in US popular culture over time. I watch almost no TV, I get my news from all over the world with very different filters than the MSM uses, I see the world through a math/science/logic filter that doesn't seem to be widely shared, I even go to Mass in a different language about half the time.

And I'm really torn about how much to explain about the world, and how to explain it, to my kids. My oldest is nine, and he asks good questions, and notices and remembers a good fraction of what he hears on the news or sees on TV. I'm mostly happy to be sending my school-aged kids to Catholic school, but a sane view of sex and sexuality isn't the Church's strong suit. Similarly, I'm mostly glad to have my oldest son in Scouts, but I still find myself having to swallow some objections and decide whether to voice them later in private. And the larger unspoken assumptions of the culture, and the nature of our media (even the subset we let the kids see), have some incredibly broken stuff. How much to push back on, how much to let slide--that's never clear to me.

#61 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 03:22 PM:

abi @50: she takes an intellectual interest

Thank you. I find myself intrigued by trying to look at the question through the twin lense of being Fiona's age, and at the same time, from the perspective of an adult with the secret decoder ring.

I, too, am entranced by the image of Fiona's explanation to Teresa. (That's the treacherous thing about information. When one gets some new, one so often wants to share!)

I then talked about privacy and tact a little...

Good on you for covering the collateral topics as well.

#62 ::: Hob ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 03:36 PM:

Melissa @55: Depends on what you mean by "preadolescent". Seven is one thing, ten is another. I didn't hit puberty till 12, which is pretty typical for boys, but I had been kind of obsessed with sex for at least two years before that, and I don't mean in a scholarly spirit. Prior to that, I just thought it was sort of a silly story, so I was much more likely to ask awkward questions; but once the prurient interest kicked in, I got embarrassed and secretive about it. (I've often wondered where the embarrassment came from, since my parents took more or less the same approach as Abi. But it was pretty severe: after age 10 or so I turned into kind of a little Puritan, fled whenever my folks made a slightly bawdy joke, and rejected all their offers to "explain anything you might have questions about", because I was terrified that people would find out I had a dirty mind.)

I haven't seen any scientific literature about it, but anecdotally from the experience of many of my friends, this is not at all unusual.

#63 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 04:00 PM:

Hob @62:

7 is one thing and 10 is indeed another--and boys and girls are different, and when they start puberty can be very different regardless of gender. A few of dd's friends began menstruating at 11, others at 12, and some haven't started yet if my information is correct. I assume the boys we know are following similarly individual tracks, judging by changes in height and voice (or lack thereof), though I have less access to hard data since development is still one of the subjects boys do not discuss with girls (lest they all die of mutual embarrassment).

That said, I think there can be a difference between being "obsessed with sex" and thinking about having sex (or, as some of the children say, "doing sex") your own self, with someone you are in a relationship with.

I've seen the boys who were and are dd's friends go through very much what you're describing, but also the opposite--tons of dirty jokes told on the playground, boys talking about having boners (whether they are really having them or not), boys talking about girls turning them on (at 10 and 11 and 12).

As far as I know, from what I observed and overheard and what was relayed to me, even these boys were not "really" thinking about having sex; real sex was still an alien subject which made them uncomfortable, and which they joked about because that made them less uncomfortable. It does seem that many of the parents of boys talk to them about sex less often and in less detail when compared to how the parents of girls talk to their daughters--again, anecdotally speaking.

#64 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 04:02 PM:

Dave Bell @ #16

Indeed. What was that Heinlein quotation again? Ah: "Sex should be friendly; otherwise stick to mechanical toys, it's more sanitary".

I think the current trend for more and more violence[1] in the mass media may present a rather greater threat to civilisation than a few pink (or other colour according to preference) bits.

Cadbury.
[1] ...and realistic violence, unlike the cartoons of the past which were clearly unrealistic but that the moral minority continue to rail against. Sheesh![2]
[2] Wanders off to read "For whom the bird beeps" again.

#65 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 04:10 PM:

albatross @60:

Well, there is a lot about Dutch culture that I find easier to deal with than American or British (not just the attitude toward sex, but also the degree of fear and anxiety—see my comment about losing track of her in the shop and not being worried). But there's a lot that I'm not so easy with, starting with the local attitudes toward race. I'm going to have to work pretty hard to give my kids a balanced perspective there.

We do spend a lot of time on the basics, such as empathy, respect, and the notion that each person is the hero of their own narrative. Given those building blocks, I hope that the kids can think their way out of whatever unfortunate cultural constructs they pick up along the way, either inside or outside of the house. I think that's the most important thing I can give them: the ability to think about how practices and customs line up against their principles.

(That's where, for all your misgivings, you sound like you're on top of things. Having smart, thoughtful kids and raising them in an environment of intelligent discussion is a good location-independent way to bring up interesting and principled adults.)

Perhaps the most useful part of our child-rearing is that the family culture is unquestionably separate from the local culture. This allows us to gently detatch ourselves from whatever tentacles of Dutch custom that we don't want to keep.

But in the matter of sexuality, it certainly is useful having the local practice be close to my own instincts.

#66 ::: Mark Wise ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 04:51 PM:

ddb@54:

I was hoping for a sanity surplus for the export market.

You're right, though. Perhaps I should consider pirating it instead. Some of it's surely rated arrrr...

#67 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 05:27 PM:

abi @ 65: "Perhaps the most useful part of our child-rearing is that the family culture is unquestionably separate from the local culture. This allows us to gently detatch ourselves from whatever tentacles of Dutch custom that we don't want to keep."

I don't have kids, but something I worry about a lot (within the subset of worrying about having kids) is how to teach my hypothetical future children how to, to "pass," I guess is the nearest word. How to maintain an internal compass of good and bad, and acceptable and unacceptable while still being able to understand and function in a society which judges all those things very differently. I feel like growing up I was able to maintain my independent judgment, but it made it difficult for me to function socially.* As an adult I think I've been able to balance things better, and that's something I'd like to give my HFC a headstart on. But would I really be doing them any favors, teaching them to conceal their real selves from society? Maybe all I'd be passing down to them is my own nerdy defensiveness.

All this is to say, I think you've got a good thing going.

* There's probably more of a feedback loop there than I suspected before writing that sentence.

#68 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 08:01 PM:

Heresiarch: But would I really be doing them any favors, teaching them to conceal their real selves from society?

Yes! This is an issue which a lot of spectrum folks have trouble with, but it boils down to boundaries -- individual vs. others.

Society doesn't need to "know your real self", only that you can be a non-menacing (and preferably productive) member. Likewise, you can reasonably expect that society should not arbitrarily attack you, but you do not have the right (or power) to demand that society at large must validate all aspects of your "real self".

The ability to maintain a boundary, or interface, which lets you keep parts of yourself private, is a basic and necessary social skill. Likewise☂ for the judgment necessary to know which parts of yourself need not, and/or should not, be shared with everyone around you.

☂ Digression: Am I the only one who's found themselves actively avoiding the use of "ditto" in the wake of Rush and his "dittoheads"?

#69 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 10:32 PM:

Heresiarch @ 65:

"I don't have kids, but something I worry about a lot (within the subset of worrying about having kids) is how to teach my hypothetical future children how to, to "pass."

One of our kids' teachers recommended what I think is a more apt concept: code switching. Unlike "passing", code-switching isn't trying to present yourself as somebody you're not; rather, it's choosing different aspects and expressive styles of yours to bring out in different situations. It's something that nearly all of us do to some extent, as we move through different social contexts.

As the interview I link to notes, African Americans often have to do it more than white Americans. But kids in general live in a world that encourages code switching as they grow up. They move between being with their parents, being at school, hanging out with their friends, media surfing, and reading and thinking on their own. We can try to set up as healthy a culture as we can in our own homes-- Albatross' household sounds similar to ours, and I have some similar concerns about cultures and sexuality-- but they're not going to stay within our own home culture, nor should they. They need to learn to make their own way.

I still don't know exactly how this is going to work out with respect to sexuality. We've had some conversations on the subject, but some of the harder issues are still in the future. (My views on the subject are in a number of ways notably more conservative, and in some other ways more liberal, than the popular-mass-media default.)

We do try to answer any questions they have as best they can, at a level we hope makes the most sense to them. And we try to make a safe place for living and learning at home, show that there are many cultures out there with good and bad aspects, and try to make it clear what our own values are and why we hold them. We'll see how it works out.

#70 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 11:24 PM:

David, #68: You gotta be careful with that line of argument. I don't think you mean anything offensive by it, but that is PRECISELY the same argument used by those who want gay people to be invisible.

And no, you're not the only one who avoids that word now.

John, #69: I call that sort of thing "protective coloration"; I've also heard the expression "[X] drag", particularly when applied to clothing.

In Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January mysteries, she emphasizes repeatedly that Ben's ability to do language code-switching -- from the most proper Parisian French to the patois of the Swamp district, and multiple languages as well -- is something he considers both a tool and a way to keep himself safe in a variety of circumstances.

#71 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 11:45 PM:

the only problem with code switching is that there are so many freaking people who just believe the world is Just So (Xian, 'normal', gender specific, race specific..... don't get me started).

And the f-king freak out when presented with ANYONE who is non-'normative'.

I work in a Very Large Place with a lot of people. Some of them I'd rather not having near me because I fear getting 'stupid' cooties. (Like the woman who is training to be a nurse saying "I wont buy my nephews X because it will make them gay.") She's said worse. If I EVER see her in a doctor's office I am leaving and telling them why...

#72 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2010, 11:54 PM:

And if It had been left to my archaic parents, I would have known about sex the night before my wedding, when my mom came up to my bedroom and said, "there is something horrible your husband is going to make you do..."

At an age when a lot of kids turn into collectors, I turned into a small biologist, wanting to learn about animals, what they did and how they lived. AT about 10 or 11, when the girls started talking stuff about sex that sounded really stupid, I turned to the books. (things like, having intercourse the first time won't get you pregnant sounded really stupid. Which it is totally.)

And because of the library, avoided a lot of stupidity. When I met the love of my life, the campus gynecologist was totally astonished when i came in and demanded birth control. "When did you start having sex?" he asked. I said, "We aren't until I'm on the pill for a bit more than month. Until then, frisky stuff but not intercourse." He was startled and asked more questions. But determined my answer was good.

Turns out it may not have been necessary, we have had no children. Then again it didn't bother us.

#73 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 02:33 AM:

My parents told me what they thought was the truth. But they left out a key piece or two--the part about how *no one* has the right to touch any part of me, or judge me, against my will. And without that, everything else was utterly hollow.
Agree with Lee and Paula about the problem with "code switching". You can only sell yourself out so far. And when someone is in fact being discreet about whatever it is, and someone else finds out anyway, and kicks up a row, why then should the burden be all on the one who was trying to keep the private stuff private? Why should the one who snooped get off scot free, and not have to do the work of any code switching, or thought adjusting, themselves? Seems to me this traces right back to the don't-ask, don't-tell mess.
Sure, things are better now than when I was a kid, when there was so much less choice in clothes and hair length let alone who goes to bed with whom and what they do there. But how much of this increase in freedom just happened-- the way the days lengthen automatically after the solstice is past-- and how much of it was brought about by brave people who had had enough of living a lie, and took the risk of throwing off the camouflage [or not slinking away when someone pulled it off]?
This boundary thing goes both ways. Someone doesn't like what they see when they peek where they shouldn't, well, maybe they just better knock off that sort of peeking. It sure as shooting isn't the fault of the people who got peeked at. Espectially when we had already worked hard enough to keep a low profile and mind our own business.
And it also goes right back to that horrid little masterpiece on the Tor site [Ponies]. If you let them cut off your wings, then they will come after your horn next. A person shouldn't have to spend so much time "code switching" that they haven't got time left to live their life.

#74 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 04:21 AM:

Angiportus @73:
they left out a key piece or two--the part about how *no one* has the right to touch any part of me, or judge me, against my will.

I've explained to the kids that their sexuality and their bodily integrity (not using those words) are their own, under their control. Like other things (finances, interaction with the law, etc), I have the temporary right to advise, or even command them on these things, because I have judgment and they do not yet. But I am a trustee of things that are, in reality, theirs.

(We have discussed, many times, that my role as a parent is to help them develop judgment. They're familiar with this framing of the matter.)

We've also discussed privacy and private behavior. There are behaviors we indulge in in public spaces (including the downstairs areas of the house as well as the wider world) and things we do in private spaces such as our own rooms. But again, at this point in their lives, I reserve the right to intervene even in private spaces. When they reach adolescence, we will have to re-balance, but then we're back to the development of judgment.

Dealing with being judged is harder. The structures we have in place that address that are around inner self-confidence and respect for differences of opinion.

I try, in many ways, to ensure that the children know that they are good and interesting people. I don't just tell them that I love them*; I also tell them when they have done good things, or done things that demonstrate skills or attributes that I value. As someone who is never free of self-doubt, I don't know if this is enough. But it's what I have to give them.

We also want, in this house, to make space for respectful disagreement. It should be possible to do things differently, and hold different opinions, than others. Sometimes that involves understanding that people who differ from us can be right too. And if they're wrong, sometimes we just have to live with that error.

This comes in handy for people judging one. Because learning to live with disagreement means that we don't have to engage with every opinion someone else holds, to prove it wrong or accept it as right.

I don't know if this latter strategy will work. But I don't have any better ideas. I'm taking my best shot, as parents everywhere do all the time.

-----
* Though I do, frequently. I also creep into their rooms while they're asleep at night and whisper good things in their ears. They know this, and know that if they ask me to stop doing so I will (Alex tested it, then relented and asked me to come in twice the next night to make up for the omission.) One day, when adolescence comes upon us, I will have to stop. I will miss it when that day comes.

#75 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 05:55 AM:

The Puritans get a bad rap.

I did a paper on US attitudes to virginity, over time.

I recall some stuff from 17th century Mass. Couple was fined for having a child five months after the wedding; he was later fined (a fair bit more) for going into the woods to engage in unwholesome games with some of his fellows (probably drinking games), and then later fined for "masturbating against the church wall, on a Sunday".

He was, a couple of years after the last made town constable.

The more interesting thing was that there were lots of fines for five months after marriage babies, almost none for 6 months.

So it seems the real offense was waiting that long to get around to being married.

#76 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 06:10 AM:

We do spend a lot of time on the basics, such as empathy, respect, and the notion that each person is the hero of their own narrative

Actually, I'm hoping to be the comic relief of my own narrative. I think it'll be less stressful.

#77 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 07:32 AM:

ajay 77: plausibly less fatal, too.

#78 ::: Kyndra ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 07:58 AM:

abi@49
No, the thing that would get me in trouble in the US is not that I told my six year old about sex, but that I lost track of her for a few minutes in a drugstore in one of the busiest train stations in Europe. And furthermore, that I did not worry about her when I did so.

Yes, that probably would get you in trouble. At least when we were working at farmer's markets this past summer and I let F (3.5 yrs) and Su (2.5 yrs) wander about rather than stay right with me it made a lot of people nervous. I could always see them, and they knew they were to stay within sight. I just couldn't see them sitting under a tent for five hours on a hot summer afternoon.

When we moved to the city I explained carefully that they weren't to leave our yard without asking, but I haven't instituted a "don't talk to strangers" rule. They are both very friendly and I want that to continue. It can make things a little tricky (they love to invite people over for meals) but over all I think it's good.

When we visit our neighborhood farmer's market, they abandon me to go run and play with the other children. The play space is behind a fence (there is a very busy street on one side of the market) and I kind of keep an ear out but not very closely. I expect them to behave, be kind, etc. but I guess I figure that I have to trust them at some point to be good community members. After all I won't always be there to help negotiate life.

#79 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 07:58 AM:

Lee #70: I wouldn't say it's "precisely" the same argument... because (1) "the folks you're talking about" want to apply the reasoning ONLY to "queer" sexuality, and (2) in practice, they're not actually satisfied with gays etc "keeping it to themselves" -- they'll go looking for evidence, including "failure to be straight enough", and punish people on that basis. (q.v. Angiportus #73)

What's being called "code switching" is something I'd assign specifically to that interface I mentioned -- it's part of how you maintain compatibility with your (current) social surround. The catch is, the way humans implement that code switching is hazardous -- we do it by constructing a partial personality -- but that construct is running on the same wetware as everything else, so it has the potential to overgrow and displace our core personality. I think that hazard is part of the human condition, and dealing with it is just part of building a "self" that can survive in a complicated world.

In John's article, they talk about people being "surprised" that blacks actually can talk Standard English -- but I don't think that's actually surprise, I think it's (at least mild) offense. Such people are reacting against black folks daring to present themselves as part of "white" society, instead of the separate-and-inferior role that those "surprised" folks expect from them. The same pattern shows up in the current anti-Muslim prejudice, where the bigots actively deny that any Muslim could possibly be a genuine part of American/British/European society.

#80 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 08:28 AM:

Re code-switching, boundaries, etc.

This can be abused as a way to say "suppress the parts of yourself that others don't want to know about" but it's usually not just innocent, but necessary. As someone said upthread, it's usually done instinctively rather than deliberately, but I think it's useful to have in your toolkit the ability to recognize it and deploy it on purpose. Some people are more private and some are more open, but we all show different parts of ourselves to different people. We don't, for example, usually inflict our SFF passions or language geekiness or the plot problems in our current novel at length on people we know just aren't that interested. It's one of the reasons it's nice to have multiple circles of friends, because different people match different parts of us.

It's not a choice between showing all of ourselves to everyone, or not: nobody, not even life partners, knows everything about us. Heck, I don't know everything about myself, and I'm with me 24/7 (though paying more attention at some times than at others).

I'll grant it becomes fuzzy when you begin editing deliberately. What is normal variation in self-presentation, and what is lying by omission or commission? You generally try to put your best foot forward at a job interview or on a first date, and nobody thinks there's anything sinister in that. In fact, if you don't, it can look like a lack of interest in or respect for the person you are with. On the other hand, if you work really hard on the interview or the date to present yourself as someone you are not, and are accepted at that person, a long-term attempt to sustain the false front is likely to be unsatisfactory all the way around.

I don't have DADT issues with my sexual orientation, and so I can't speak to the feeling of being pressured to be someone other than yourself in that way. The analogy, to me, is my position as a person with a graduate degree, in a job that involves encouraging people to go to graduate school, living in an area that values education and perhaps tends toward education snobbery, with a child in special education with speech, language and cognitive disabilities. I'm not ashamed of her, but it's not always relevant. In a casual conversation, I might say I have two daughters, and that they are 18 and 16. If the conversation goes on, I might mention that the younger has special needs. My neighbors and my office colleagues know more, but they don't hear the details about guardianship and job skills and so forth. But if someone I had just met began, for example, talking about how funds wasted on "those kids" kept the school system from better supporting their overprivileged little darling (touchy? moi?) I would out myself in a hurry.

There is a subtle difference between showing people views of you that are limited in breadth or in depth, and denying or faking important parts of yourself.

ObBujold, the scene in Mirror Dance where Mark overhears Aral and Cordelia talking and realizes that they say the same things in private that they have in front of him, and thinks, Oh, is that what integrity looks like.

#81 ::: Sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 10:34 AM:

Angiportus @ 73

I happen to think David has the right of it. That may be because I'm a professional chameleon, code switching constantly between clients, colleagues, the non-paid job people, and friends...and many of those lines are blurry, so I end up switching between individuals. My job involves spending intensive amounts of time finding out about personalities and personal information, and most people expect an information return (and it's useful for conversations). Part of what I need to do is make people feel like they know me enough to trust me and my judgment. So, by the end of the transaction, most of our customers feel like they know a lot about me. This is usually not as true in depth as I have made it feel...and that's a skill in itself. I'm still not as good as I need to be on this, what to veil, what to reveal, with which people. I have to learn it by rote: I have just enough of a learning disability that I don't actually pick up on social cues without concentrating and learning them step by step rather than through osmosis. But yeah, it's all about boundary issues and making other people feel comfortable in the public sphere.

#82 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 11:10 AM:

Sisuile, you do that for a living, and you do more of it than I have ever had to, or ever could. We all have to do a bit of it, but some, like me, have talents that lie elsewhere, and would not thrive in that situation. So we find other kinds of work--but we shouldn't have to fold, spindle and mutilate our entire lives 24/7. OtterB provided a good example above.
You can't please everyone, so you might as well go ahead [within the limits of manners, kindness, not-hurting-anyone and so on] and please yourself.
Abi, sounds like you're doing the right thing.

#83 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 11:15 AM:

Re Puritans: Literary types tend to get their images of Puritans from Hawthorne, who only ever knew the cold gray ashes of what had once been a living flame of joyful obedience, and Arthur Miller, who was really writing about the McCarthy era.

I don't know that I would have liked real Puritans all that well, but I'm pretty sure I know that the real thing was different from the stereotype.

#84 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 12:19 PM:

She’s not actually interested in sex right now; she’s interested in why everyone else is interested in it.

This. Totally. We told our kids the facts of life (in, as you say, age appropriate language) early, in small doses. Some of this came up with my older daughter when I was pregnant with the younger one: the look on her face when I explained the likely method of egress for her sister was fabulous. The household rule is: if you don't understand something, come ask. It's worked out pretty well so far (the girls are now 20 and 15).

We don't have shelves of sex toys at the drugstore, but living in San Francisco has its dialogue-provoking moments:

I was hiking up the hill from school with Daughter 2, aged six, when she saw a large colorful poster in a store window.

D2 (reading): Ex-Ot-ic E-rot-ic Ball. What's that?

Me: It's a party some people go to, about sex.

D2: Well I'm not going to that party. (pause) And neither are you.

What I loved about this was that it had clearly occurred to her that I might have sex, or might be interested in sex, and she was going to make sure that I behaved myself.

#85 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 12:30 PM:

Madeline z 84 -

Kids can be quite the social conservatives when it comes to their parents' behavior. :)

#86 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 12:43 PM:

heresiarch @67: I feel like growing up I was able to maintain my independent judgment, but it made it difficult for me to function socially.

You articulate well a problem that has been much on my mind lately.

I'm really bad at lying, not least because I hate doing it. Furthermore, I grew up in circumstances where I could not afford to reveal my True Self to those closest to me. Additionally, my mother was all about What Will The Neighbors Think? So now that I'm free, I find it impossible to cram myself back into that casket in any form.

As a consequence, I wear my values on my sleave, and where my values coincide with my social environment, that works out great. But when they are in conflict, which these days, feels like about seventy-five percent of the time, it's a real problem. At home, it's fine, because I can just shut the world out. But at work...not so much.

Life would be much simpler, and I would probably be more successful in objective terms, if I could just suck it up and conform. But that feels too much like stabbing myself in the eye with a fork.

#87 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 12:53 PM:

John Mark Ockerbloom @69: But kids in general live in a world that encourages code switching as they grow up.

Hah! I remember vividly how shocked I was, the first time I heard my teen-aged brother talking to one of his age-mates outside of the home. Hoo-dogey, the mouth on that boy!

In contrast, when I was in Minneapolis, the first time I really connected with an African-American coworker was when I absentmindedly spoke to her in a faux-Southern accent. She treated me much more openly after that, and I deduced that, from her perspective, my "accent" had disappeared.

#88 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 01:07 PM:

Angiportus @73: Agree with Lee and Paula about the problem with "code switching". You can only sell yourself out so far.

What makes it tricky is that we're dealing gradients, not discrete states. (Iz why ghod gave us teh Big Brainz, ya know.)

The intent I can accomodate is to translate my truth into their dialect.

There are times, however, when two into one simply won't go. Frex, I simply can't buy the literal Bible as Revealed Truth. The challenge, then, is to respectfully accomodate their truth, while maintaining my truth. And to correctly identify the distinction between different conceptualizations versus conflicting truths.

#89 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 01:08 PM:

Jacque @87, sometimes I find myself adapting to the accent of whoever I happen to be talking to at the time. It seems pretty natural.

#90 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 01:12 PM:

abi @74: I also creep into their rooms while they're asleep at night and whisper good things in their ears. They know this, and know that if they ask me to stop doing so I will (Alex tested it, then relented and asked me to come in twice the next night to make up for the omission.)

abi, sometimes you just make me weep. Wow.

#91 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 01:23 PM:

On the topic of code switching, I've been spending a lot of time the last few days thinking about the differences between who I am, who I think I am, and who I come across as to various people. I found that I was none too fond of large portions of my self-image, and especially of the code switching that was going on mostly in my own head. There is always a need to present oneself differently in different environments - I need to be authoritative and in command when I teach, but that isn't me as myself. I interact differently with my adviser than I do with members of my cohort. This is all normal variation.

But I realized that my self-image was centered around trying to be older and more mature than I am - and trying to do this by being sarcastic, cutting, grumpy, cranky and generally trying to behave like a disgruntled gentleman in his 8th decade. I realized, very recently, that this armor was neither who I am nor who I wanted to be, and I am doing my utmost to discard it. I've come to understand so much more about myself in the last few days, due to factors I won't write about in detail here, that my goal now is to be the human being I really want to be. The one who is kind and compassionate, honorable and loyal, who gives aid to his friends and supports them in any way he can. I want to be, to everyone, the person who I was inside that armor. I don't need the anger, the disgruntlement, the shell of annoyance with the vicissitudes of the world, for all it was doing was getting between me and everyone else.

I may present myself differently as situations require, but I will strive to do so without the calcified armor that I wore for so long, for it was a prison that I did not know until I had escaped it.

#92 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 01:43 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @91, consider yourself saluted. I've been working on a similar effort, to shed a somewhat different kind of armor, and it's neither easy to spot in oneself nor easy to do something about once identified.

#93 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 01:58 PM:

The idea I find useful here is of supporting some standard interface. I can support the suburban neighbor interface, the techie/professional interface, the cog-in-the-organization interface, the parent of a scout/catholic school student interface. I've even gotten reasonably good at supporting the parishioner/Eucaristic minister interface in Spanish, where my brain is about 25% slower[1] and I miss all sorts of background assumptions.

I find this helpful when I approach the world as a programmer, because it's a really common pattern--there's a real backend system, and then a kind of interface layer that implements some specific expected interface as best it can.

As you get to know people better, you get past the standard interface. You're no longer supporting the standard coworker interface, you're now interacting in more depth, and are able to see each others' real faces more.

The point of a standard interface is that it makes it easy for people to interact with you at low cost. I don't have to know who you are or what you (dis)believe about God or what your prefered lovers look like or what kind of movies you like, in order to work in an office with you. Making you *hide* those details is sh-tty, but expecting those details not to be critical to every interaction is perfectly reasonable[2]. There's a reason you're not allowed to ask a job applicant if she's married, or what her religion is, or whether she's gay, straight, bi, or whatever. None of that should mess up the standard interface.

Obviously, this doesn't always work. If you're blind or in a wheelchair, you will have to modify the standard interface to some extent. (One way to think about stuff like the ADA is as an attempt to minimize the parts of the standard interface that common disabilities keep you from supporting.)

I guess the reason this is helpful, to me, is that supporting an interface doesn't feel dishonest to me. I'm not pretending to be the parent of a cub scout, I'm me being a cub scout parent by supporting that interface. And it seems like a huge amount of this is simply figuring out how to *signal* your willingness to support that interface, by stuff like dress, language, and other fairly low-cost appearance based stuff.

[1] I tend to get the joke after everyone else, and occasionally make really funny mistakes.

[2] I suspect a secondary advantage is that people who are really disturbed by some attribute can pretend it doesn't exist, or can make themselves focus on the role instead of the person. This has costs as well as benefits, obviously, but it probably makes a lot of social change easier. Even if you don't want to deal with Fred the black guy or Fred the gay man, you can deal with Fred the HR guy with whom you must interact to get the health insurance forms filled out correctly. I suspect lots of people just semi-intentionally tune details that bug them out.

#94 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 03:01 PM:

Jacque #88: The challenge, then, is to respectfully accomodate their truth, while maintaining my truth.

There are also cases where "respectful accommodation" is not appropriate! In particular, there are folks who will consider any accommodation as a sign of weakness, or who are simply attempting to establish control over you or otherwise attack you. In some cases, this can call for challenging someone else's formal authority!

I'm really bad at lying, not least because I hate doing it.

Same here, and I suspect for a lot of the spectrum folks. This is closely related to our difficulty with code-switching, and also with interpreting others' behavior. The common factor is that creation of an internal personality model, whether meant for simulation, dissimulation, or outright deception.

#95 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 03:21 PM:

Dave @94: for me, being on the spectrum means that I spend a lot of time "faking it" to greater and lesser degrees. I "acted" the role of "PTA parent" for many, many months before I actually felt like I was a PTA parent. I often find that I feel like I'm performing a version of myself, one who is friendlier and more outgoing to strangers than I am by nature.

It's a version of me that rarely talks about what I do for a living (because everyone has a novel in their back pocket, it seems) or about my more nerdish tendencies or my long-abiding passions for sf/f and comics.

There's another version of me that is Professional Editor me, who gets trotted out at writers' conferences and conventions. She's very friendly and open and even kind of outgoing. But she's exhausting to "do." Lots of people who meet her would never think that I'm Asperger's because they think that pose is real.

The two versions meet when I have tasks to perform, as when I have to run a scholastic bookfair, sell food at a PTA fundraiser, or tend bar at a party. I'm great at chatting with people, getting people what they need, upselling, etc. Because these are specific behaviors that require no long-term commitment and come with readily-available conversation-starters. I'm great at that kind of thing.

But even at 50+years old, it so often feels like a front.

If I behave like "myself" in public, I'm definitely weird. So I have to try to pass as normal.

Things got better after my daughter was born because she is "normal," so I could learn from her. I'm still weird, but my protective coloration is more convincing.

#96 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 03:41 PM:

Regarding the original post and the "Dutch angle" to the story that Abi herself and some others commented on- Abi, perhaps you should still be a bit more cautious about that than some people seem to think. Of course course you know your neighbors better than I do. But the thing is, in many parts of Europe, you can travel a few miles outwards from the city limits of a bustling, vibrant, cosmopolitan city, and find yourself in the cultural equivalent of rural Idaho. (There might be places in the USA where you can do that, too, but I've got the impression that the most "iconic" urban parts of the country and the most "iconic" rural parts of the country are geographically pretty far away from each other.) So, again, you know your neighbors a lot better than I do, but if you don't know for sure how they or some of them think about something specific sex-related yet, you might want to be careful about drawing conclusions like "I live within bike commuting distance of one of the most famously libertine cities in the world, so people here won't be that conservative".

#97 ::: Kyndra ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 04:08 PM:

Melissa@95 and Dave@94

I'm reading what you have to say regarding code-switching and the spectrum with great interest and wondering this:

What advice would you give to a child or parents of a spectrum child about learning social behaviors and when/how to code-switch?

F (3.5 yrs) is definitely on the spectrum. He can do all kinds of things "normal" children his age can't, and information sticks amazingly especially if there's some kind of pattern. He recently answered his younger sister's question as to whether he liked pink by saying, "I like one pink, but you like five pink." and then slotting other family members into this scale (which is not something we do so I don't think he observed the technique anywhere).

On the other hand he does not comprehend (or often even notice) body language, voice tone, facial expressions etc. He has no ability to tell when he's annoying someone with his questions and opinions.

I'm related to and have taught people on the spectrum but since I have no trouble with body language and social cues, I'm somewhat at a loss to tell what he's missing and how to help him compensate, so I'm curious what you (and others) have found helpful...

#98 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 04:30 PM:

I've had some good training in non-verbal communication (and it is a learned skill!), Kyndra, but I've no experience with helping kids learn this sort of thing. What I'd say from your description is that he may want to be told that there's a part of communication that doesn't involve words; and that sometimes the part that doesn't involve words is more important than the word part. (I say this from your comment that he's really good about patterns.)

Perhaps spending a period of time each day for a week working on communicating without words will help. I'd start with communicating simple things like "give me that", "give some other person that", and the like (and communicate the approval when he gets it right non-verbally!). Then move on to "that makes me uncomfortable", or "don't do that", and the like.

I've no idea if this will work, but I'd love to hear if it does!

#99 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 04:49 PM:

Kyndra @97: I can only tell you what helped me; spectrum people are just as individualistic as non-spectrum people (which I'm sure you know), and girls may "socialize out" of the spectrum easier than boys (which is why I don't _look_ like I'm on the spectrum much of the time). I can even pass _in my family_. Recently a cousin and I began chatting a bit on Fb; she saw that I scored an 86 on an autism spectrum thing that was going around Fb and was just shocked--she doesn't think of me as on the spectrum at all (but she also only sees me a few times a year and my family is chaotic but fun).

Anyway, I digress . . . .

I know this sounds harsh, but flat out telling people--even little people--what they have to pay attention to is really helpful, especially if you do it without emotional loading (because the person may become confused by your emotional loading). Of course, it helps if the little person has some sense that there is something "wrong" or different about the way he or she relates to others; at 3.5, I don't think I "knew" that. OTOH, my mother may have, though she says she didn't really see anything until I was in elementary school and besides it was the 1960s so no one was really looking.

You may be able to guide F by giving him data he can use. I tended to accumulate data by observation, which is hard when you don't even really know what you're looking at.

But saying to F., "when you stand so close to someone, the other person may feel uncomfortable" and "you can tell when someone feels uncomfortable because they may look away or down, may step back from you, may walk away from the conversation" and "if someone gives you any of these signals, take 1 step back and see what happens" may be helpful to him.

Explain that most people look at each other's faces when they talk--not at someone's lips or their mole but at their face in general--and look each other in the eye (but only for a few seconds at a time (someone once told me no more than 3 seconds of eye contact or the other person starts to feel nervous--and I sometimes really count!)).

I know it sounds weird, but for some spectrum people, every social encounter is like a science experiment, and giving us data really helps! It may help, if F is interested in animal behavior, to make analogies using animals: have you noticed how dogs sniff each other's butts when they meet? People have those kinds of behaviors too but they're harder to spot.

Sometimes that, by itself--knowing that there are nonverbal cues--is enough to start someone looking for them. The more observations someone does, the better.

Role-play can also be very helpful, especially if you reverse the roles. You be F--show him how he interacts, show him how he might interact. Get someone else to help and put on little plays, with explanations.

I know it sounds weird to talk about data, but I, personally, think of it as data. I was a weird and alienated child throughout elementary school because I didn't have good data banks and I didn't have enough interests in common with my peers.

In high school, I met kids who were into sf and comics and theater. I could talk to them, and they to me, even if our early conversations were pretty factual or exchanges of opinion (who's cooler, the Silver Surfer or Dr. Strange?). And we gradually became friends. I am not ashamed to say it, but I really did not have any close friends until 8th grade.

Helping F learn when he is annoying--when he is too persistent--is a really good idea. It's easy for people to blow a kid off when he asks the same things over and over and over again, especially if he's gotten an answer. But it's a hard thing to learn--to stop asking. I still do it, with my own kid. She's learned patience, thank goodness. We have a rule, though: you can't ask the same thing more than three times in one conversation. It doesn't always work but it helps--my daughter will say, "you asked me three times already" and I have to stop. And I can, most of the time.

Not sharing opinions is infinitely harder, lol, especially since we often confuse opinions with facts. Someone on an email list recently used the phrase "hooty-tooty," and when I said, "no, it's hoity-toity," she said, "oh, that's your NY accent showing." So of course I had to post a link to a dictionary definition of hoity-toity. Now, I wouldn't do this (anymore) with anyone I didn't know well, and I did it with lots of lols and humor cues, but at the same time I know this is the kind of thing that can drive "normal" people nuts. But sometimes, when I know I'm right, I have to be seen to be right.

I have sometimes said to my (neurotypical) daughter things like "most adults don't want to hear your opinion of X, but you can always tell me." I don't do that so much anymore since she's a teen and can hold her own most of the time. I've also suggested that she research things more before talking about them, or explained that certain issues have emotional connections which she cannot (yet) understand (again, this was more useful when she was younger, though not as young as F).

I also recommend lots of pretend play and theater games or children's acting classes, assuming F is able to enjoy such things. Kind of "fake it till you make it".

There's a decent episode of Arthur about autism. I bet its online somewhere. George meets a kid who is on the spectrum and learns about autism. It's not perfect but the autism explanation/analogy is pretty good, imo. I poked around online a bit and it seems to be in season 13.

#100 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 04:52 PM:

Tom's advice is excellent, but one addendum: when he gets it right, you should dually communicate it, both with verbal praise and non-verbal approval. That way he'll learn to connect them....

I'll also add that possibly the most important bit is simply letting him know that there is something for him to learn there, because his perceptions are different from most of the people around him. Obviously, he doesn't need to get the whole package about neurology, discrimination, and such at three-and-a-half, but you should mention he's a little different than most people, and that while he can see things other people can't, there's also things that are harder for him to see. (If you both know anyone who's colorblind, that might make a good analogy.)

Also, especially at his age, let him know it's OK for him to ask people things like, "are you mad at me?", or "are you happy about that?" You might also play a game of modeling expressions for him, and/or pointing out expressions and body language in movies, advertisements, and so on: "This is an angry face", "that person is embarrassed", leading up to "what kind of face am I making now?".

#101 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 05:00 PM:

And, that's more good advice from Melissa, cross-posting with me.

#102 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 05:00 PM:

I agree with everything Dave says too.

#103 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 05:02 PM:

<tosses cookie at Melissa> ;-)

#104 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 05:58 PM:

Madeleine Robins @84: The household rule is: if you don't understand something, come ask.

See, this is one reason why I feel burning envy for people who have grown up in saner circumstances than I: I was very carefully and systematically trained, from a very early age, not to ask questions.

I had to manually retrofit curiosity as an adult, and I'm reasonably good at it, and fortunately seem to have a strong native inclination.

But I am much more comfortable telling, and in fact have strong conditioning against asking. Only one of the ways this has severely impaired me is that my comfort zone in conversation tends to be expounding Interesting Facts and dishing out unwanted Free Advice. This has gotten me into serious, painful, trouble several times in recent months.

#105 ::: Kyndra ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 06:04 PM:

Dave, Melissa, and Tom@various numbers

Thanks, it's helpful to think about providing data. I know with my husband (SamChevre)who is on the spectrum I occasionally review interactions in order to give him the body language information that I picked up. I haven't thought about doing that with F, but he probably would get at least some of it.

Recently we've been practicing singing with me conducting so that might make a good analogy for him since I've mostly been concentrating on dynamics.

Practicing non-verbal communication could make a good addition to our school-time and perhaps a good semi-active indoor game as it's been too cold recently for much play in the yard and the energy levels after several days of preschoolers in the house are impressive.

I'll let you know how it goes.

#106 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 06:13 PM:

Yesterday I scanned the pages from my 1928 Library of Health book with the Birds and Bees (and Fish) talks. For a bonus, I also scanned the cringeworthy section before it, on how wonderful eugenics are. It goes nicely with the almost as cringeworthy bit about how masturbation will make you weak and insane. The actual Birds and Bees talks, and many of the justifications for talking with your kids about sex, are an island of sanity in this. As with many old books, one is in danger of a certain amount of mental whiplash. "Oh, that's sensible." "WTF??" "Ok, that's fine." "OMG!"

In any case, I sent the scans to myself at my yahoo address, and if anyone would like me to forward it to them, I can be reached at my first and last names shoved together at yahoo, which is, as you know, a dot com. All lowercase, though I don't think that matters.

I had had hopes that I wouldn't have to scan it, as I found a 1918 edition online, but alas, the volume they scanned only contained the first half of the book. And the Sexology section is in the second half.

#107 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 06:15 PM:

Another vote here for what Melissa, Dave and Tom have said.

I've done some work with my on-spectrum nephew, and much more explaining him to my neurotypical mother (his grandmother). In particular, thinking about interactions as sources of data, and how that data can be analyzed to create rules, tests, and decision trees, makes them much less intimidating. It gives one a goal in situations where one might otherwise get lost, and hope of eventual mastery of uncontrolled social contexts.

(Why yes, I am either on the spectrum or just off it. Much of my fairly overtly explanatory manner with my kids is the product of that. Neither of them appears to have inherited the family Asperger's, but my approach seems to work anyway.)

#108 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 06:27 PM:

Raphael @96:

You have a good point.

In my case, I know enough of my village's culture to know that it's not likely to be a problem. Neither of my daughter's two close friends comes from an overtly religious family (one set is definitely not churchgoers; the other may or may not be, but the fact that I don't know is telling). They're well-accepted members of the community.

The Netherlands certainly does have its Bible Belt, and there are plenty of places near Amsterdam with strongly conservative local cultures. However, even they tend to give space to open and frank discussions of the mechanics of sex; the main difference is in the moral dimension.

And, although I hold fast to our household's standards of not judging the choices others have made, my suggestions to my children about how and when they choose to use their mechanical knowledge (in company; solitary activities are covered under the rubric of privacy) are likely to be fairly conservative. This is probably my own personal experience bleeding through, but that's what experience does, after all.

#109 ::: Hob ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 08:13 PM:

Madeline @84: Clearly the real reason that event ended up not happening: everyone was afraid of your daughter's disapproval!

#110 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 09:02 PM:

I've long been amused by the point that the canonical phrase for "the sex talk" invokes two sorts of critter which do things quite differently than humans! (As do Cally's fish....)

#111 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 09:14 PM:

Kyndra: Another thing I just thought of: In a few years, you might consider getting him a bit of martial arts, to help with his physical coordination. Even my year-and-change of judo (around age 10) gave me far-better balance, and reflexes for handling falls. Those have stayed with me all my life, and surely saved me from at least a couple of broken bones.

You may need to hunt around a bit for a class that can accommodate his attentional issues and learning style, but that's a matter of individual teachers rather than the type of martial art.

#112 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 09:31 PM:

More thinking: Abi, you might amuse your kids by mentioning out that even after puberty, their genitals will be only the third most sensitive area of their body. The fingers are second, and the most sensitive area is the lips.

#113 ::: Kyndra ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 10:07 PM:

Dave@111

Yes, something like that would be helpful. I've thought about Highland Dancing for the same reason, good exercise and the emphasis is on style rather than grace so the physical movements are "bigger"than in ballet or ballroom dance.

#114 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 10:17 PM:

#17: The Silver Bullet?

#115 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2010, 11:04 PM:

On code-switching: I have been told that I have a calming air about me, which is really useful when I'm holding the time-out room door shut and repeating, "I will start the timer when you sit at the back wall and say, 'I'm ready.'" I speak in special-ed terms-- you make good choices and not so good choices, we will help you walk to the cool-down chair-- and am getting better at explaining academic things to kids who aren't memorizing absolutely everything the way I was taught to. So that's Teacher Me.

I also pick up behaviors from the kids. I have a couple things I do with my hands that I didn't when I was younger-- a particular thing I associate with fans and winding yarn with my hands, basically. I am either developing new behaviors from the students and what I know about people on the spectrum* or I am being made aware of them, having seen them in large-print versions with some of the students. That is Weird Me.

I also have the me I am with my close and extended family, the me I am at Alpha, the me I am with my knitters**, and the me I am with the boy. I am least fond of the me I am with the boy, but this can be fixed.

There's Public Speaking Me, which is sort of a hypercompetent presentation mode. I like that one, and it's fun to feel it click into place when necessary. I can't call it up when I don't need it, though-- my practice speeches are awful and only serve to make the final presentation better. I once came home from a speech meet in high school and couldn't make eye contact with my parents because it was exhausting. There's Walking Me, which is very insular and just about getting there while I run scenes in my head.

It's the same as being online. I don't post the same things to Livejournal as I do to Facebook, nor here. None of this means I am lying about who I am, only that not every behavior is appropriate to every situation.


*I put myself at the weird end of normal. Normal is also a spectrum, right?
**The more I hang out with knitters, I less I care about normal. I care a fair amount what other people think of me, but I'm better at picking which people.

#116 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 12:05 AM:

Kyndra, #113: Contradancing would be another alternative. Among other things, it's "controlled socializing" -- you dance with different partners over the course of the evening, and interact with other couples while moving up and down the line.

Diatryma, #115: I care a fair amount what other people think of me, but I'm better at picking which people.

That's a profound insight. You can't easily go thru life not caring what people think about you, but you can chose which people's opinions you allow to matter.

#117 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 01:26 AM:

Jaque @104: Part of the reason that the "if you have a question, ask" policy is one I believe in is because my family was totally into the "what, you weren't paying attention? No questions will be answered now" theory of child raising.

Sometimes this was comical: my parents didn't talk about sex, but my school did, with the result that when my mother reluctantly broached the subject ("I think it's time we talked about sex,") my response was "Sure, Ma, whaddaya want to know?"

Like you, I've always been more comfortable wiith trivia, with telling, with being useful (in terms of unwanted free advice). I always felt like everyone else got the memo, and I was determined that my kids would feel differently. Until we get the therapy bills I won't know how successful we've been.

#118 ::: Sarah Magpie ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 01:46 AM:

Kyndra: I second the vote for theater classes. It's a good place to practice modeling and recognizing emotions.

Theater classes gave me the tools to begin conveying emotions that were recognizable to people who weren't me. In college I realized that there were vast swaths of nonverbal communication that I was totally missing. Probably even worse*, I was failing to send the correct nonverbal signals: basic things like "I like you" or "I'm happy" or "I'm very upset." I felt as if the rest of the world had been issued dictionaries that had all the same words as my dictionary, but totally different definitions.

I had had some acting classes. And I had a Psych 101 textbook illustrated with photographs of the universal human emotions. I practiced in my dorm room mirror and used what I knew about acting to build a persona that successfully reflected my inner reality (despite a naturally stone faced demeanor, I'm pretty friendly, and tend towards liking people). I watched the people I interacted successfully with and incorporated some of the things they did into my repertoire. (My expression of "pleased interest" owes a lot to the guy I was seeing at the time.)

Peer review seems to indicate that I've done fairly well at constructing a warm and friendly persona, despite a fairly significant inability to sift emotional cues from tone of voice and facial expression. I know that I probably still read as weird and awkward at times, but being able to express friendliness and good will goes a long way towards establishing workable relationships with people on the normal spectrum.

I likewise second the suggestion of martial arts (when your son is older). I have found that it's good practice for my communication skills (verbal and nonverbal), and helps me with sensory integration. A good teacher will also talk about constructive ways to deal with anger and aggression when teaching kids. (I admit, I have only had the good kind, but I know things can be otherwise, so it's worth looking for the right school.)

*By then I had had a lifetime's experience trying to understand the very strange people around me, and comparatively fewer people had had practice decoding me.

#119 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 02:50 AM:

Diatryma @115:

I am least fond of the me I am with the boy, but this can be fixed.

I hope so.

I remember, early on in the relationship, describing how I liked the person I was when I was with Martin. It was a good sign, I thought at the time. 17 years of marriage later, I guess I was right.

#120 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 03:23 AM:

My mother, to whom I have been reading this thread, is neurotypical. She's married to an Aspie, and three of her four children are somewhere on the spectrum. She would like to emphasize that Aspies can be tremendously charming and delightful, and that we should not focus purely on the difficulties that being on the spectrum in "normal" society produces.

#121 ::: Kyndra ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 07:51 AM:

Lee @116

We used to contradance before we got married, now that we're back in the city where there's a contradance group we've been talking about starting again. I see that they have Family Dances once a quarter.

abi @120 and that's part of my dilemma-F goes to an art class once a week in which he is the youngest child by at least a year and a half. He is fairly popular with the other children (I've dropped in on class a couple of times) but can't tell when they want to move on to something other than whatever he's obsessing about. Also he can't tell when someone is upset or just tired, and assumes that if they're upset it must be with him somehow. He is very sweet and charming (and has the most amazing dimples) it's just that he can tell that he's missing some information that other people (especially his two younger siblings) don't miss. He gets frustrated and then nothing goes right, so I'm trying to figure out when and where to intervene/train/teach and when to let him figure things out....

#122 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 10:25 AM:

About martial arts, dancing, etc.: square dancing also works, as does swimming. But theatrical combat was by far the absolute best physical activity I ever tackled. Full of rules, patterns, and cues and you _had_ to learn to communicate with your partner in a non-verbal way (lest you accidentally plink them, or worse--Hi, Madeleine!). You learn about balance, personal space, and how to fall. And you learn about your own body--I discovered that I wasn't a klutz! I'm not graceful as a swan or anything, but I know how to use what I've got.

My 10-yo not-nephew is taking regular fencing now and my understanding is that it's much the same. It simply wasn't available to me when I was younger. But beginning in my 20s, I spent a decade learning how to work with various edged weapons and my body, and those lessons are still with me now.

#123 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 10:27 AM:

"Also he can't tell when someone is upset or just tired"

I've known plenty of grown-up non-spectrum adults who couldn't always tell this. And a fair few who sometimes made mistakes about whether they themselves were actually upset, or just pissed off and tired. If F gets it down as a kid, he'll have a head start there at least.

#124 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 11:26 AM:

Kyndra, 121: I'm trying to figure out when and where to intervene/train/teach and when to let him figure things out....

Ask him, and work out a system of signals that you can both live with. Its continuing refinement can be a way for him to see his progress.

#125 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 11:49 AM:

Oh, heavens, this is all sounding SO familiar. The casual online screenings put me borderline on the spectrum; I like to say that I've had to derive all the social cues that ordinary people seem to intuit. I've mentioned it to a professional, but we're still trying to sort out how much belongs to another condition and how much might be spectrum issues -- as the Crazymeds site likes to put it, I'm mentally interesting.

Besides the physical training, one thing that helped me that might not be obvious: the Miss Manners books. They purport to be etiquette manuals; they're also REALLY FUNNY. They're beyond the level of a three-year-old, of course, but I wouldn't hesitate to hand them to a clever ten-year-old, and if they can appreciate her humor, the underlying rules will sink in, especially since she explains the axioms! They are really some of the best things out there for people who need help on social interactions.

#126 ::: Sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 12:13 PM:

Abi @ 120

I agree with your mother. As frustrating as it is to date Aspies sometimes, the benefits tend to outweigh the negatives.* It may, however, come of being the daughter of an engineer and being either just-off or slightly-on spectrum (and whichever, non-neurotypical). My mother taught me about code-switching and how to read expressions and body language by rote, breaking down conversations and interactions step by step, so that I would learn how to deal with customers. And still, I am a *whole* lot better dealing with customers and knowing what those boundaries are than I am with coworkers. I understand the boundary with clients, where it lies, where it needs to be, and how to tell if I'm verging on it. I fail in corporate settings because I have a hard time seeing those signals - they're different, and it's not a set I grew up having taught to me or modeled for me; my parents are both in independent sales. (church? check. Friends v. acquaintances? check. Colleagues? check. Coworkers-with-whom-I-must-interact-and-cooperate? not so much.)

A couple of years ago, in my mother's Childhood Development class, they were talking about that most learning disabilities short-circuit the ability to learn how to pick up body language/expression cues by observation/osmosis, from ADD to Dyslexia to Autism. This always made sense to me, and made everything clearer as to why I gravitated toward other people who were not neurotypical: they usually understood the issues around expressing ourselves appropriately and gave slack as I tried to figure this stuff out, while I did the same for them. It made me determined to create that kind of safe space in my home, because this shit is hard and a lot of people don't have that safe social space where they can learn, and/or don't figure out it's a problem until they are technically adults and are expected to have mastered these nuances of social interaction.

Devin @ 123
A friend of mine once proposed we strip all of the SCA corporate rules and bylaws down to:
"1) Play nice and share the toys
2) Them that need naps take them."

It was agreed that if we could manage to enforce those two rules, it would solve most of the issues in the Society (in general society, as well).


*applying specifically to those portions of personality and character having to do with being on-spectrum. The rest of it is, well, the rest of it.

#127 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 12:28 PM:

Does Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle still work for younger kids re learning manners?

#128 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 01:25 PM:

I keep trying to talk about this - I'm sure I'm "on the spectrum" somewhere - and can't. I learned what I guess was "code-switching" with my mother's explanation "You need to learn what is correct in polite (North American) society. You're going to learn by doing it. Once you do learn it, I don't care if you ever do it again - because at that point, you can *choose* to be polite, or you can *choose* not to. If you don't learn it, you don't have a choice about being a boor." Made sense. Unfortunately, she didn't realize how much of the non-verbal communication I wasn't getting, and so I'm learning it now.

I have the help of what I've called "my dev environment woman" (as opposed to "in production"). She knows me well enough to know where we stand, she's assertive enough to pull off the "you're getting close, Mycroft" kind of aggressive boundary control, and is *very good* at reading society cues, as well as dealing with "typical IT" (and their cues). I *know* that my reaction to "is this safe or not" is to fail safe (and not do it), so occasionally I try it, whatever it is, with her. If it's not safe in general, she'll let me know, without taking offence (if it's not safe for her, or for us, she'll definitely let me know!) If she doesn't, it's probably safe.

I am incredibly lucky sometimes.

I am also much more capable of code-switching in different cultures, for example when I went to India for work. I can read up culture differences, say on Wikitravel, and since I've already done the "learning non-verbals by conscious reading and matching" bit for my own culture, it's easy to catch the instinctive "that's wrong" and correct it in my brain before reacting badly to it.

If "theatre classes" will work, they will work well. They didn't work for me, because a) we were graded, and I was slow ("look angry. "I am" "no, look angry" "okay, what does that mean?") or b) we weren't graded, but I continually got shuffled off to bit parts (OTOH, it got me to walk off into the tech room. They assumed I was competent (except when it came to power saws, which required special training. Makes sense to me). Guess what I did in theatre from then on).

But the big key is knowing that there is something there to learn, and that (now at least) there is information at the "101" level written for people not from the culture (and really, people like me are not from the culture, we just live in it). Since a common advantage of people on the spectrum is an enhanced ability to follow rules, when told about them, automatically, they're now in better shape than a random neurotypical immigrant.

#129 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 04:05 PM:

Diatryma @115 Normal is also a spectrum, right?

I always liked the phrase I got from an online group for parents of special needs kids: Normal is just a setting on the dryer.

#130 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 06:03 PM:

Rikibeth #125: The "spectrum" does extend down through a "subclinical" range ("infra-autistics"?). My stepfather is a decent example -- he's an engineer whose preferences largely match the stereotypical Aspie's -- doesn't like large groups or loud/bright environments, has strong food habits, etc, but he doesn't have the handicaps that would warrant an actual diagnosis.

Sisuile #126: I've seen some claims that ADD is just a symptom of being on the spectrum. I'm not sure about that, despite fitting the pattern myself. Certainly they're often found together, but AIUI, autism does "flock" statistically with most of the classic disruptions of neurology -- not just high or low intelligence, but even things like left-handedness and homosexuality.

Mycroft #128: they're now in better shape than a random neurotypical immigrant.

Well, a high-IQ spectrumite at their best can certainly learn to perform better than an average NT... until they get tired or otherwise overdrawn, and decompensate! That seems to be my greatest hazard, that is, running out of steam at inopportune moments.

#131 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 06:26 PM:

Rikibeth @125 -- agreeing about Miss Manners. I can't tell you how chuffed I was to discover that someone I'm selling prints to gave one to her (and her husband) as an anniversary present!

#132 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 08:02 PM:

David Harmon @ 130:
I've seen some claims that ADD is just a symptom of being on the spectrum.

I think there may be a relationship between ADD (and perhaps ADHD, but I'm less sure about that) and the spectrum, but it seems to me to be more complex than just that one is a subset of the other. I'm ADD, and have been at least since puberty (though the term didn't exist then, and I wasn't diagnosed until I was 50), and at least one of my children is ADHD (the other may be ADD, but refuses to be tested). I've known a few high-spectrum people, and my wife used to teach way-low spectrum autistics back when Bruno Bettelheim was burning mothers at the stake for having autistic kids.

Assuming my ADD is relatively typical, which would seem to be the case from my diagnosis, there are some aspects of it that aren't common on the spectrum. For instance, while both ADD and ASD involve anxiety, the source of the anxiety in ADD is centered around having to take action or complete some task, whereas in ASD AIUI it centers around the stability of the environment. Also, people with ADD frequently find humor in their own behavior, and the mistakes caused by the condition, as a way of minimizing any problems; I believe that people with ASD use humor on themselves less often, and also use humor as a social tool less often.

OTOH some of my experiences are similar to what people on the spectrum describe: sensitivity to touch (I can't stand to hold a peach or to pick up a piece of styrofoam), susceptibility to migraines (I get an average of 4 or 5 a month, and they vary from "I feel odd" to "I'm going to have to lie down in the dark for a few hours"), an ability to concentrate tightly on something that I don't notice anything else going on (except that most of the time I can't concentrate because of the distractibility of ADD).

I wouldn't be surprised if there were some common neurologic factors or mechanisms between ADD and the spectrum, though.

#133 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 08:05 PM:

What's the current medical consensus on spectrum? Is it only improved diagnoses (and a broader definition), or is there some unknown environmental factor that is increasing the percentage of kids so diagnosed? Is later childbearing a factor?

#134 ::: Kyndra ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 08:36 PM:

Steve C. @133

There have been no studies I'm aware of that really show an environmental factor. Genetics certainly plays a part (in my case my father and youngest sister and my husband would all test on the spectrum). There may be environmental factors, there may be cultural factors (many people on the spectrum do better with a high degree of structure as the culture becomes less consciously structured there is less of a safety net).
Part of the problem at the moment is that there is not a good set of typical in all cases symptoms, that's why it's a spectrum. Some of the recent studies I've read about seemed to be done on subjects who shared very little with F, so the conclusions weren't that helpful (for instance some on the spectrum are incredibly good at finding objects even those they've never seen before, while others can't find anything if it's not where they expect it to be, and oriented the way they expect it to be).
Diagnoses are up, but how much of that is a real increase in cases is hard to say. There are more people in more visible positions who are on the spectrum so there's more awareness.

Also (and I say this as a former special ed and reform school teacher) I think at this point for some people it's a good (trendy?) excuse not to do the hard parts of parenting (ADD and ADHD were like this in the '90's, I had genuinely ADD/ADHD kids in my classes and I had some whose basic problem was that no one had ever told them "no" and meant it, or made them do something that was difficult). A lot of people with "on spectrum" kids will excuse any behavior because "Johnny has Aspberger's". There are severe cases where there are many behaviors that Johnny will never master, but for many there is a need to recognize that these children are unique, very talented, and need to be taught differently then a "normal" child. They can be taught and they can learn and contribute to society in a variety of wonderful ways, although the condition may be disabling in some ways (many ways?) it is not a disability like Down's Syndrome or even severe autism.

It is a balancing act the whole way- how to work with the child in the weaknesses and support and encourage the strengths (a good definition of parenting). One reason I'm as concerned as I am about F's social adjustment is that at his current rate of study he will finish high school when he's 14. I have been avoiding teaching him to read for two years because I don't want him to be to far ahead of his age peers, but at this point he's doing first grade level work and not really being stretched. On the other hand he still has some very impressive meltdowns that can go on for an hour or more. Quite an adventure!

All that to say that the science is still very much in flux as to "treatment" and causes.

#135 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2010, 09:13 PM:

Bruce Cohen #132: Um... are what you're calling "low-spectrum" kids the further from normal, or closer to normal? I normally think in terms of "ground-level == normal", and the Aspies are "up in the clouds".

As far as humor, I certainly use humor a lot, but it's a lot easier to laugh at my problems now that I know what's going on! (That is, since I gained some mastery over the situation.)

Steve C. #133: As far as I can tell, it's an open question whether there are actually more spectrum folks around, or just more getting diagnosed. Personally, I suspect some of both -- we clearly are represented by several very old archetypes, but I do get a sense that there's been a jump not just in visibility, but in how much we're collectively affecting society. Of course, I'm hardly an unbiased observer!

As far as causes... they do know for sure that the general case is not a matter of single genes, or even "a few" genes. There's strong suspicion of epigenetic factors, such as disruption of DNA methylation (which controls when and where genes are active, e.g. when cells specialize into various tissues). On a higher level, there's also some suspicion that prenatal stress is a causative factor, and I can buy some of that.

#136 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 12:07 AM:

David Harmon @ 135:

Sorry, I was conflating "low-spectrum" and "low-functioning", which was probably very unclear. Some of the kids Eva was teaching (this was an art therapy class she ran for a school district's special needs kids) were severely autistic and had never had any treatment to speak of, because they had no idea in 1969 what autism was. IIRC most psychologists still thought it was some form of schizophrenia at that time.

#137 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 12:08 AM:

Bruce: That last bit you describe? It's a common effect of ADD, it's called hyperfocusing. As-you-know-Bob, ADD's stereotyped as a lack of focus, but as you and I know from living inside our own brains, that's not exactly true. One of the things that I think I get from ADD is that when something interests me the right way, I can pick up a very complete grasp of the subject, very quickly, with a remarkable retention rate. I can't necessarily put my attention where it needs to be as well as a neurotypical person (and I definitely have loads of anxiety about stuff needin' to be done), but when it wants to be a certain place, I can focus a lot harder than most people.

I don't think ADD's on the spectrum, necessarily. But I'd bet they're cousins.

I was also very resistant to testing, to accepting my diagnosis, and to taking meds, when I was younger. One thing that helped me was the realization that if you take Bobby Neurotypical and feed him Adderall or Concerta, he gets smarter (well, better able to concentrate, but he'll test better and can get more done). Now, probably there's a disproportionate effect in people with ADD, but it's not like an antidepressant (which won't make a happy person happier).

I think it was an excuse for myself, as much as anything. But for a while, it was important to me that I didn't necessarily have to have anything wrong with me, I could just take the stuff because it made school easier. (Then I got over it and decided that if neurotypical people liked boring stuff more than I did, it sucked to be them).

#138 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 01:45 AM:

Some of the increase in spectrum diagnoses might also be a feedback loop: I pick up behaviors from my students and from relevant fiction. I don't see any reason that other people wouldn't do this as well.

Example: I have worked with some students who carry everything with them. One doesn't take off his winter coat when he's inside. One doesn't have a single thing in his locker but has a backpack, lunch box, and a string bag. This is how they deal with anxiety.
Recently, I had a lot of car trouble and was heading to the boy's house. I considered taking my laptop with me... then realized that it would make me feel a lot better because I needed it there. Not for anything useful, and in fact I had it open for maybe ten minutes, but I had my laptop with me and so I could control that bit of the world.

I didn't do that kind of thing before realizing that some students did it.

But then, I know I'm impressionable when it comes to this kind of thing. I try not to be an I-have-the-trendiest-diagnosis person, but the possibility's always there.

#139 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 08:46 AM:

Jacque @104:
(M)y comfort zone in conversation tends to be expounding Interesting Facts and dishing out unwanted Free Advice. This has gotten me into serious, painful trouble....

Yes. Yes, indeed. (hands him a cup of hot chocolate.)

#140 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 09:46 AM:

Diatryma #138: That's part of what I mean by "affecting society". See, this is something I first noticed in high school, but didn't actually understand until much later: Groups in general regulate "normal" behavior through a rapid and mostly unconscious exchange -- any member's behavior is first checked for "acceptability", but if it passes that, it's a candidate for imitation, and most members are trying to "act like most of their crowd". There's a natural give-and-take here, letting any group assemble a pool of characteristic habits and turns of phrase. I'm told this is the actual mechanism behind "gaydar" -- what folks are actually spotting are the signals for the local gay subculture, and perhaps some "natural consequences" of closeted life.

But there's a bug there -- the oddballs, the ones who aren't picking up behavior from the others (or at least, not as much), nevertheless influence their peers behavior. In fact they do so disproportionately, because they're not "playing fair" with the give-and-take! That traditionally means high-status types ("group leaders"), but it also grants influence to "mavericks", who can influence the group even if they're not otherwise dominant, even becoming "fashion leaders".

So the one person who insists on always carrying their backpack on their left shoulder, or wearing their cap sideways, can start a trend, and their whole group starts doing that. When enough of them do it, they may start influencing overlapping groups, and it becomes a spreading fad, or even a subcultural identifier.

(On a darker note, this is also part of the charisma of sociopaths and the like -- they don't take correction from others, so they come across as uber-dominant, and drag a group consensus their way.)

#141 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 10:58 AM:

Years ago, my wife and I visited visited one of the Bay Area's wineries up in Napa Valley and I was quite amused at their display of antique corkscrews, especially the one shaped like a nun. At least I thought it was amusing. Maybe one has to be a Catholic.

#142 ::: Branko Collin ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 01:18 PM:

@12, Bruce Arthurs: "a young woman who looked about in her mid-twenties"

... and who probably thought she had found the perfect conversation starter.

#143 ::: Dr. Psycho ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 01:23 PM:

Bruce Cohen @136: And they thought schizophrenia was caused by bad parenting. Doubtless many parents of schizes (and Aspies) went to their graves wondering what they did wrong.

Diatryma @138: Oh, God, I was that kid, keeping my coat on indoors, carrying everything that others kept in their lockers, &c. I carried an overloaded backpack until just a couple of years ago, when my back started to give out.

And I still carry my laptop almost everywhere today (at fifty).

#144 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 01:24 PM:

My oldest daughter (oldest family of kids were Aspies one and all I am sure, but the condition was not understood then) once said of her father "he treats people like furniture". After a brief pause to laugh at how right she was, I said "Well, I treat people like furniture too," to which she replied, "But you're polite to furniture!" And then we really did laugh, because I am well known for apologizing to chairs when I bump into them. I got pretty good training as a kid, and I passed it on to mine, but it is easier if I don't have to make a lot of unnecessary distinctions. If you bump into anything, you apologize. Problem solved.

In like manner, my son said the military was the right place for him because every social interaction is exactly prescribed. He never had to worry about how to greet someone, for instance.

The older I got, the more I found that eliminating daily-life types of decisions made my life easier. It helped that I worked most of my life as a mail carrier. I didn't see a lot of my co-workers, and they were tolerant of my tendency to shut myself into my cubicle and wear earphones. These people are just about the best people anyone could work with. They tend to be very tolerant, so long as the work gets done.

And I have a talent for delivery. Turns out it really is a talent. Right now, retired from the route over ten years, I can recite the names of all of my several hundred patrons from start to finish, and in many cases, all of their family members.

So was my education wasted? As my husband said (the one who treats people like furniture) when asked if mail delivery allowed him time to "do his own thing" said, "If your thing is thinking, you have plenty of time".

#145 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 02:19 PM:

Dr. Psycho #143: And they thought schizophrenia was caused by bad parenting.

That may have been a correlation/causation problem, plus definition issues. IIRC, the specific idea was that "cold", insufficiently affectionate mothers ("refrigerator mothers") caused "schizophrenia" -- which at the time, included what we call autism.¢ Of course, Aspies can have weak expressive ability, thus coming across as "cold"... and autism runs in families!

Older #144: "But you're polite to furniture!"

I do that too! I've also been known to say "stop that!" to stuff that keeps falling off its pile.

¢ In fact, at that time schizophrenia was the "miscellaneous bin" of psychiatry.

#146 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 02:51 PM:

David Harmon @ 145:
That may have been a correlation/causation problem, plus definition issues.

I can't be that non-judgmental. There's a very common pattern I've seen in diagnosis of both psychological disorders and medical disorders, which aren't currently treatable: the symptoms are attributed to a moral or emotional failing on the part of the patient or someone responsible for the patient. This absolves the doctor of the responsibility for treating the patient without having to admit that there is no known treatment (doctors, of course, being omniscient, it can't possibly be their fault).

Bruno Betelheim made the identification of "refrigerator mothers" as the cause of autism practically a crusade, which is why I mentioned him; he also wrote an influential book on the psychological meaning of fairy tales (based on a strictly Freudian analysis) that I think completely missed the point of fairy tales.

#147 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2010, 04:06 PM:

Bruce Cohen #146: That sort of displacement is hardly limited to shrinks; In modern times, it's a major driver of the anti-vax and other "alt-med" movements.

It's not just doctors not wanting to admit their limits, either -- their patients can get quite nasty when the doctor fails to provide a cure on demand! People do tend to despise a god they think has failed them.... Indeed, my RSS crawler is currently showing this article: Haiti mobs lynch voodoo priests over cholera fears.

#148 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2010, 01:50 PM:

David Harmon (145): I tell precariously balanced things to "Stay!"

I also sing to traffic lights. It makes them change faster. Probably to shut me up.

#149 ::: sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2010, 02:37 PM:

Older @ 144, David @ 145

I thought everyone talked to inanimate objects like that. Of course you apologize if you bump into something-it's rude to do otherwise. I've never thought about it. I guess it is a pretty animist behavior pattern/viewpoint.

#150 ::: siriosa ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2010, 06:38 PM:

Madeleine Robins @117: I always felt like everyone else got the memo
This. I was raised by wolverines, who were raised by deeply damaged people, and so back into the mists. I've always needed to work social things out from first principles (and have often got them wrong, due to missing data, incorrect assignment of valence, whatever). So I suppose I'm spectrum as well.

Diatryma @115: I care a fair amount what other people think of me, but I'm better at picking which people.
And this. What a gift to find people who think the way I am is perfectly cromulent.

#151 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2010, 11:52 PM:

Mary Aileen: "David Harmon (145): I tell precariously balanced things to "Stay!" "

Doesn't everyone? And I know I'm neurotypical, if a bit odd*, so it's got to be common.

*A friend reportedly told Evil Rob that he and I should get together because we were "socially weird in compatible ways." This is also the one that told Evil Rob that the way to have a happy marriage was to keep me well-fed. Wise man.

#152 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2010, 10:44 AM:

I talk to inanimate objects some; telling stuff on a pile that's teetering to "stay" sounds very familiar. I don't think I mostly remember to apologize if I bump into a chair, though, and I do if I bump a person.

(I'm neurotypical, at least never diagnosed otherwise, and I don't have a lot of marker behaviors and don't have the right social deficits. On the other hand I've spent the last nearly 40 years primarily around SF fandom and software engineers socially, so I know rather a lot of people who are formally diagnosed somewhere on "the spectrum"; this both confirms my impression that I'm neurotypical, and makes me VERY comfortable with the "spectrum" metaphor.)

siriosa@150: the trouble with working out social rules from "first
principles" is that, it seems to me, they don't consistently derive
from any set of principles; they've accreted over the years, under
different circumstances. But if it works for you, then it's useful.

#153 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2010, 02:21 PM:

Diatryma @115: I care a fair amount what other people think of me, but I'm better at picking which people.

HAH! Bumper-sticker-worthy! I love it!

#154 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2010, 02:29 PM:

Madeleine Robins @117: I always felt like everyone else got the memo

Hah! Great way to phrase that. What I struggled with through much of my life is that I felt like I had had the memo, and then it was lost or stolen. Drove me nuts, because I felt like I ought to be able to function smoothly in society, but was constantly tripping over my own feet. Very frustrating.

#155 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2010, 04:20 PM:

Mark D. @139: (hands him a cup of hot chocolate.)

Aw, thank you! I'm doing better these days. Well, trying to do more consciously, at least.

#156 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2010, 05:49 PM:

I tend to get the hackles when folks start talking about "the spectrum" as if there was only one. I think there's several, but haven't figured them out yet.
When I say "Stay!" to something precarious I am being facetious, for the amusement of friends present, and I think I got it from someone else long ago. But when I say rude things to my computer--which doesn't have any effect so far as I can tell--I try to save that for when I am alone. I can cuss the spines off a cactus, a habit I picked up from others during a bad year when young, and don't always remember to come up with alternatives.
Feeling like I never got the memo--been there. What ticks me off is when people change the rules and don't warn me. I grew up hearing X and then the same people who taught me it start saying the opposite, and if there isn't a coherent story behind the change it can be disconcerting. When they break the same rules they once taught me to keep, I don't feel like hanging around.
I don't apologize to inanimates...in words; I figure that whatever entity might be "there" is smart enough to understand. A lot remains to be found out about people like me who are at least as much into things and ideas as into people. When some things have a powerful emotional/esthetic effect, it is natural to think that there is some sort of mysterious power at work, but not all of us who feel that sort of thing, manifest it in an animist fashion; sometimes it is more abstract, or something.
[And yes, we do form attachments to people, if the people don't try to remake us.]
This thread has diverged a bit from its original subject, and I can only say that the talk about the birds and bees needs to be expanded to deal with asexuals and gender-neither-neithers as well as transfolk.

#157 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2010, 07:18 PM:

I wish I could swear at my computer in Latin.

#158 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 27, 2010, 11:40 PM:

Earl Cooley @ 157:

Swear at it in something it understands: binary.

#159 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: December 28, 2010, 07:37 AM:

Mary Aileen @148: I shout "Mary Poppins!" at traffic lights to make them change. Because you wouldn't expect to find her in a red-light district.

I'll get me brolly.

#160 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 28, 2010, 08:32 AM:

tykewriter #159: 88888888

#161 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2011, 08:14 AM:

[I]t is easier if I don't have to make a lot of unnecessary distinctions.

And then you find out that they ARE necessary distinctions...which is really frustrating.

Note, for example, the fiasco that was my participation in the Thomas Becket thread--which, so far as I can tell, started because I did online something I've had to work at and work at doing IRL--signaling at the start of a conversation that I may walk out in the middle of it.

#162 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2011, 09:23 AM:

SamChevre @161:

If that's the only lesson you took from that incident, you need to go reread some of the reactions to how it came out.

There are conversations we start and leave in the middle, and ones we don't start if we're not willing to see them through. And there are ways and ways of conducting conversations.

#163 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2011, 09:33 AM:

I would add:

When a conversation in one thread has gone sour, going to another thread and trying to get people talking about it there - that's generally not one of the good ways of conducting a conversation. Even when what happened in the first conversation is relevant to what's going on in the second, spreading unpleasantness is unlikely to have a pleasant outcome.

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