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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Drinking Water

Yesterday Bow did not feel well. He suddenly took ill with some kind of stomach virus and refused all food. He accepted water, but promptly threw it up. He spent most of the day sleeping on a big thick quilt, and he didn't even get up to look at guests.

Today Bow is feeling much better. He ate all his breakfast and lunch, made a tear in the quilt and is up to his usual antics. And he's drinking plenty of water to make up for what he lost.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meditation on Violence

People are really uncomfortable with the subject of violence, to the point where it is almost taboo to point out to them that violence is normal and natural, serves a useful function, and resides in each of us, ready to be put into effect if and when the need arises. When it comes to chimpanzees, people's attitude toward violence colors their view of the species.  I have encountered the following groupings:

1. People who like chimpanzees and therefore think they are non-violent.

2. People who don't like chimpanzees because they know they are violent.

3. People who like chimpanzees and know they are violent, but think that's okay because they are wild animals, and there is a special dispensation for wild animals to be violent.

What I haven't met too many of are people like me, who like chimpanzees, know that violence is a part of their behavioral repertoire and think that's okay. It's also part of my behavioral repertoire and yours and of most human beings.

I've had people tell me that they know that violence in wild chimpanzees has been documented, but they believe that it's only the encroachment of man that drove them to it, and by nature chimpanzees have no violent tendencies. These people belong to group one, and they subscribe to the noble savage view of chimpanzees. They probably think that about aboriginal human beings, too.

I've had people tell me that chimpanzees are dangerous because they kill and maim, and so they should be kept far, far away from us. Some of those people belong to group two and some belong to group three, because those two groups have a lot in common. Let's face it: saying you like chimpanzees but you want them to be kept separate from humans at all times is a lot like saying that you like Finns as long as they stay in Finland among their own kind and far, far away from you.

Do chimpanzees kill and maim? Definitely, but so do humans.

And what about Bow? He can be violent and he can be sweet, and it varies. Sweetness is met with sweetness, and to the extent that the violence cannot be met with violence, it is met with a retreat.
I recognize that I cannot match Bow blow for blow, so I excercise caution and discretion, but it's not because I think it would be bad to do otherwise. I just have to be realistic about my own personal resources.

Recently, in a discussion of violence in the schools, someone said to me that violence in children is always a result of bad parenting. I had to bite my tongue not to give them my full opinion about this. Can violent behavior be one of the results of bad parenting? Sure. But it need not be. That would be like saying that Bow's dominance displays are entirely due to the way he was brought up. I can assure you he never saw a dominance display once the whole time he was growing up. He didn't learn it from me, and he's not doing it because he's bad or because I'm bad. He's doing it because it comes naturally.

I think it comes naturally to a lot of human adolescents, too. Not everyone is equally aggressive, and not everyone uses it to hurt others. Violence, after all, can be channeled into good uses: gangs of teens roaming the streets preserving the law instead of breaking it. But if we tell the young that it's violence that is wrong, instead of unfairness towards others, then we will leave those with aggressive instincts with only one choice: illicit violence.

So what about Bow? Well, just to reassure you that everything is fine, here is a video from today.

As a parent, of course, I don't want my children engaging in violent acts against innocent people. But at the same time, trying to place a complete moratorium on displays of aggression isn't any different from trying to eliminate all displays of affection. Affection and aggression are both natural and necessary. So the issue that I grapple with on a daily basis now is how to allow Bow an appropriate outlet for his more aggressive tendencies. This is probably what many other parents of adolescents are also grappling with.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Video Call With Grandma

Bow is nine and a half years old, and as the year progresses and he comes ever closer to his tenth birthday, his dominance displays are becoming more frequent. Are they a voluntary behavior or a reflex over which he has no control? The answer seems to be something in between. Sometimes he starts down the familiar path, gets rocking back and forth with bristling hairs all standing on end, swaggers around a little, and we wait for the entire thing to go all the way to its climax, but it doesn't. He stops short of hurling himself against the glass or making the characteristic cry that ends the whole thing. We have gotten so used to this pattern repeating itself over and over again, that when it doesn't finish the usual way, we wonder why. Sometimes, we can divert him with a question, a suggestion or an invitation. At other times, the impulse seems to be implacable, and we have to wait until it reaches the natural conclusion.

One time last week, right during dinner, between courses, Bow started to make a few overtures, a little menacing swagger, the hair on end, the back and forth motion, a few initial cries, and then nothing much. "What's taking him so long?" Sword asked. "I wish he would just go ahead and get it over with."

"I think it just petered out," I answered, as even Bow looked confused. "You know how sometimes you think you have to sneeze, and you get all ready to sneeze, and then nothing happens?"

"Oh, yeah."

There are things that trigger it, and other things that can divert him from a full blown dominance display. Strangers in the house, or even just on Skype, bring it on almost invariably. Having a familiar companion who is paying all her attention to him tends to dissipate it.

Today, Bow had a video call with my mother. To him, she is Grandma or סבתא. He has known her all his life. We have never lived in the same house, but she did occasionally change his diaper or bottle feed him in early babyhood, and he hears all our conversations on the phone. She comes to visit every year. She is no stranger. And Bow responds to her differently from the way he would to someone he does not know.

This is not to say that during the call he did not drift into a few dominance display overtures. But it was easy to steer him right back to social, communicative behavior. How did we manage that? "Bow do you want me to turn it off?" Threatened with a lost chance to see Grandma, Bow immediately settled down. A second time: "Bow, do you want Grandma not to come for Thanksgiving?" He calms down at once. And, of course, the third time was when I announced it was time to say goodbye.

Are there triggers in the conversation for the unwanted displays? I think that there are, but it's too small a sampling to be sure. Bow kept pointing at the letters "gimmel" and "c" every so often during the conversation. It's hard to say what he was getting at, but when I saw that he pointed to the "c" and failed to see that he also pointed at the "gimmel", that's when Bow began his first display. He might have been angry about the oversight. Another display followed immediately upon my mother's request that Bow point at the letter "aleph". Bow hates being told what to do.

This is not to suggest that the displays can be avoided altogether. They can be put off, but they will surface no matter what eventually. So it's not anyone's fault.

Watch the video embedded below. See what cooperative and friendly exchanges between Bow and my mother you can identify. See how the displays surface and subside. If you speak Hebrew, you can follow the conversation, but if you don't there's still plenty to notice.