Laura Tropp's blog

Conforming ... or Not?



My son is a self-proclaimed non-conformist, which is something I always have applauded him for. I think most people, if asked whether they would prefer their child be more of a conformist or non-conformist, would probably prefer the latter. In my observations, professors generally prefer to think of themselves as free thinkers. I can think of plenty of meetings where people seemed to be on the same side of an issue but were disagreeing for the sake of appearing to think differently. In fact, Apple’s branding campaign once was based entirely on the premise that everyone should “think different.”

However, it’s one thing to embrace individuality as a 40-something year old adult, and quite another to watch your ten-year-old child live through it. We might all talk the talk about embracing difference and encouraging children to think for themselves, but the reality of childhood is that it is filled with social rules. Though we recognize and combat peer pressure and bullying much more frequently these days, they certainly have not disappeared from children’s lives. 

Therefore, when my son decided he wanted to wear neon green and silver gardening gloves to school the other day just because they looked cool to him, I experienced an extreme cognitive dissonance. My professor world is built around encouraging students to think differently and celebrating my ability to do my own thing. I want to afford my son the same freedom, but I’m still a mother and don’t want my son to go to school and be teased when I could easily steer him away from that potentially traumatic experience. I simply could have told him that he can’t wear the gloves, but what type of message would that send? Yet, if I let him wear the gloves without any warning, would I be setting him up for social ostracism? 

I know I’m talking about gloves, but this incident is just the latest one of many that I have encountered with my son, and I’m sure this pattern will continue. Yet, when we discourage a child from being who he or she is with the excuse that we are trying to protect them from a harsh society, are we simply becoming a part of that hegemonic force?

I said to my son, “It is your decision whether or not you want to wear those gloves. I’m just going to let you know that you may get one of a range of reactions. First, you could wear the gloves, and no one notices. Second, you could wear the gloves, and some kid says, ‘you look like a weirdo in those gloves.’ Third, you could wear the gloves, and everyone loves how cool they look and tomorrow, four more kids will be wearing neon gardening gloves in 80-degree weather.” 

My son thought for a moment about what I said and replied that he was going to wear the gloves. However, just before the school bus arrived, he changed his mind and handed them to me. He said thanks, but he’s not wearing them today. He added, “By the way, mom, you do a great impression of a bully.” He hopped on the bus without a care in the world.

I couldn’t figure out if this was one of my worst parenting moments, or one of my most awesome? Sure, I let him make the decision, but I certainly steered him toward the worst-case scenario. If this were a year ago, I probably would have said no to him wearing the gloves, without any explanation at all.

At the end of the day, he went off happy. Of course, this entire parenting moment happened within the span of just a few minutes. I can spend hours prepping for a class to explore hegemony, ideology, and non-conformity, but I only have three minutes to teach it to my child.

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Making Motherhood (not just mom) Visible


I will be attending a conference on the subject of motherhood in New York City at the end of the week. It is a joint effort between the Museum of Motherhood, CUNY Graduate Center, and Manhattan College. The title of the conference is Tales of Motherhood: Dislodging the Unthinkable, and its focus is on reclaiming the visibility of motherhood. The conference was timed to be the week before Mother’s Day, one of the only times of the year when the idea of motherhood gets full attention from entertainment and news media.

The rest of the time, the media seem to be interested only when motherhood is presented as a spectacle. Whether it is Kate Middleton giving birth to her second baby (the “spare to the throne”), a mother pulling her son away from the Baltimore riot and disciplining him, or any of the celebrity moms and their post-baby weight loss, the everyday experience of motherhood is put aside in favor of the good/bad mom of the moment. The Museum of Motherhood (of which I’m a board member), received borrowed space in New York City for several years but has closed its physical doors at the end of the previous year (it remains a virtual museum and is presently looking for new space).  The museum was hampered in its ability to fundraise because of the invisibility of motherhood. People could not understand why there would need to be a museum for something that seems so “natural.”

During the next ten days, we will all be subjected to stories about presents to buy for our moms, extraordinary moms who have overcome illness or tragedy, and reports on what moms would earn if they were performing their work in the workplace. Last year even brought us a fake job interview (sponsored by American Greetings, of course) to illustrate the burden of a mom’s work. Moms might even get cards from their children, a plant, or breakfast in bed.

All that may be nice, but what would be even better is if there were more discussion on the challenges facing mom in terms of wage gaps, lack of access to day care, lack of flexibility in jobs, the difficulty of re-entry to the workplace, among other serious topics that don’t lend themselves to cute videos to sell cards or flowers, but can lead toward systematic change.

So, my wish this year is for everyone to have a happy Mother’s Day (‘cause, why not enjoy it?) but also for us all to consider ways to make mothers’ work more visible and supported on a daily basis.

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Making Motherhood <br>(not just Mom) Visible

Child’s Play in a Social Media World


In the last 72 hours, I have received two requests from my 10-year-old son and my 8-year-old daughter for what I deem as unnecessary technology during inappropriate times. 

My son told me that everyone else on the school bus has an electronic device, and he really needs one too so that he doesn’t have to be the only one not busy on his trip home. My daughter tells me that, at the parties she goes to, the other girls have iPhones or iPads and she feels left out when they play on them.

My immediate response was “Absolutely not!” to both requests. I told my son that he needs to value downtime and that the school bus ride is great opportunity to look out the window and think about his upcoming plans. I’ve lamented here before about the loss of reflection time in our world and my desire to find moments to reclaim it. I also told my daughter that the whole point of parties is to socially engage with other children, and their screens stand in the way of that.

Have I lost this war, though? If my son and daughter are the only ones not connected (and I do acknowledge the exaggeration on their parts), am I discouraging them from finding ways to bond with the children that are forming our new socially networked age? Are kids in the same room playing on their device interacting, just in a different way?

Newer reports find that exposing children to social media at younger ages may heighten their social exclusion. Facebook made waves last June for applying for a patent that would allow children under 13 to join the social networking site. I find it hard to imagine a world with young children on Facebook.  FOMO (fear of missing out) is already happening to younger children with access to social media because they can see what their friends are doing and realize that they aren’t doing it (maybe they weren’t invited, maybe their family had alternative plans, maybe you didn’t want your child involved in that particular activity). 

I remember when my child was younger and my neighbor had a birthday party and didn’t invite her (only boys were invited). I had heard about the party from another neighbor, so I was able to keep my daughter from finding out by just avoiding the neighbor’s house during the party. The ability to shield, though, disappears in a world where children are socially networked. One may argue that you shouldn’t protect your children from these disappointments. I wouldn’t disagree, but there is a difference between having the choice and not.

Neil Postman’s Disappearance of Childhood, which focused on television’s influence over children and adults, is even more apt today. Already, the line between children and adult clothing is disappearing. Even games once reserved for children have become adult pastimes: check out adult dodgeball leagues. These trends may seem silly to me, but I’m not sure they have any lasting detrimental effects (although heels couldn’t be good for a 3-year-old’s feet). Yet, social media is still in its incunabular stage. We have hardly figured out its impact on adults. I don’t think we should be encouraging children to jump into it. Let’s allow playdates and school bus rides be child’s play.

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Child’s Play <br>in a Social Media World

Pintsized Powerhouse


I once had a student who never made deadlines and was frequently absent from class. She always had an excuse (frequently one that involved some kind of personal problem). I kept reiterating to her that despite all these problems, she still needed to make class and deadlines or accept the consequences (a loss of points and access to information). At one point she finally erupted in anger and said, “ I’d expected more of you as a professor because you’re a mother.” I’ve given great thought to my role as a mother and how it may influence my teaching. I’ve blogged before about whether I’m less patient now that I am a mother or whether I can relate to my students better because of my own personal experiences with my children and empathy.  However, I’d never thought about it from the reverse perspective: that the students would have different levels of expectation of sympathy from me because of my role as a mother.

A new study on gender bias in teaching evaluations, though, explains this phenomenon. Apparently, students perceive men and women differently, with different expectations for each.  In regards to evaluations for female teachers“…emotional (rather than intellectual) terms are used more often in women’s evaluations than men’s. Whether mean, kind, caring or rude, students are more likely to comment on these qualities when women are the ones doing the teaching. When women professors receive praise for being ‘caring,’ ‘compassionate,’ ‘nice,’ and ‘understanding,’ this is also a not-so-subtle way of telling them that they should exhibit these qualities.”

This is just one finding in a very interesting study. You can look at this interactive chart that explores the gender biases in student evaluations across a variety of areas. Not surprisingly, men are more likely to be thought of as geniuses and women as “mean” or “bossy”.  The study looks at the terms and language in Personally, the last time I looked at this ratings website was years ago when students called me a “pintsized powerhouse”. I was struck by the way the students chose the contrast of these terms and the way my height was even noticed as part of my “evaluation”. Now, I’ve discovered that commenting on height and other bodily characteristics is not uncommon. While faculty are taught and expected to focus only on the work of students, the students are free to focus on whatever aspect of the faculty they would like when filling out these evaluations. I don’t think this comes as any big surprise but considering these latest gender revelations in relation to evaluations and the tendency for colleges to move more towards the quantification of these evaluations, maybe we better give more thought to how we weight and assess them.  

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Broadening Out the Free Range Movement


Recently I had the chance to check out clips from Lenore Skenazy’s television program World’s Worst Mom. Skenazy is the leader of the Free Range Kids Movement, which encourages people to give up helicopter parenting and allow their children to have more freedom and independence in their everyday activities. She counters the public perception that we live in a dangerous world with a more balanced reality and works with parents to relax and back off from their hovering.

Skenazy, and the movement, have received some attention lately within the news media. One particular point of focus has been on the cards that the group distributes and encourages free range children to carry. The card identifies the carrier as a free range kid and provides a phone number to the child’s parent for confirmation. Apparently, people were spotting kids alone in public places and then calling authorities to report the child left without a parent or guardian. This movement inspired a Facebook post listing the different ages children must be to be left alone at home. While many states do not have any set ages, those who do vary from age 6 to 14.

I think it is important to question unfounded or exaggerated fears. I also cannot object to a discussion of whether and how states should regulate the babysitting and care of children. However, last week the annual Sarah Lawrence Women’s History Conference presented research on motherhood. At the conference, someone (sorry for the lack of a shout out, but it was an audience member whom I do not know) spoke about the contrast between the free range kids, who have the first world problems of over-protective parents who can choose when they want to let go, and children who are “othered” by society. Last summer, news stories spread nationally about a woman who was arrested because she needed to work her shift at McDonalds and left her child to play at a park across the street for the day. Skenazy commented on this case and the problem our contemporary culture has of not believing children are okay alone.

For many parents on this new TV show, the problem is one of over-protectiveness and fearing for their child’s safety. Yet, for some of these othered children, the problem facing parents is one of access to affordable, quality childcare and the inability to set up a flexible work schedule. These parents often have the additional fear of not just strangers attacking their children but the possibility that their children will be policed in a racist and ultimately life-threatening way. Some might say that Skenazy’s movement may help all children by shifting societal attitude to question the intensive caring we feel obligated to provide for them. Yet, I don’t think we can forget that a child walking by herself means something very different in some people’s eyes, depending on who the child is. I wonder whether there is a way for those leading or participating in these movements to consider ways to reshape the discussion to include these larger questions about race, policing, and parenting.


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Broadening Out <br>the Free Range Movement

Our Piano Man


There is an unusual level of conflict going on in our house these days centered around the piano. The children are constantly fighting over whose turn it is to practice and frequently I will see a line of children waiting to play. Plus, the music they are playing sounds pretty good and the songs are always recognizable. This is a far cry from just 6 months ago when I had to beg them to practice and the level of music they were playing was not that advanced. This can all be attributed to our new piano teacher and his unusual musical philosophy.

When we moved to our new house I sought out recommendations and was led to this new music teacher who was in high demand (at first he couldn’t even squeeze us in). When he showed up at the door, I was happy to be greeted with an enthusiastic gentleman who had a kind manner and was generous with the praise. The only thing that seemed strange to me was that he placed little numbers on the keys and said that he was not going to teach them to read music. All my children can already read a little music and to me that seemed an essential part (maybe even the purpose of) taking music lessons. The piano teacher informed me, though, that his philosophy was that music should be fun, all about playing, and that they should be drawn in by being able to play whatever song they wanted using the number system. He told them to start making lists of their favorite songs and by the end of the lesson, my son was playing the beginning of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (his choice). Piano man also instructed me that I was never to remind them to practice and that they should want to play when the mood strikes them.

I’m very torn on this new philosophy and I think it is connected to my more general values in regards to education. What is the purpose of the music lesson? I guess if my goal is to get them to play cool and classic music on the piano, then his method makes sense. But, is part of the music lesson teaching the structure of the music? In many ways, I see piano lessons as just as much about teaching children a new type of language and that the reward for sticking with it is to play beautiful music.

Of course, my son was already becoming bored with the music because he couldn’t play anything interesting and probably would have quit piano altogether had Piano Man not walked into our lives. Yet, when I walk past the numbers on the keys (he’s added letters in the last week), I feel kind of like we are “cheating.” Am I now teaching our children instant gratification? My daughter can play “Let it Go”  but can only read the music for “Mary had a Little Lamb.” Are they getting the dessert before the vegetables? Then again, in my own teaching, I do adapt play as part of my curriculum. When teaching about early language development, my students use clay to explore cuneiform. The notion of my children skipping over steps and leaping into these advanced pieces reminds me of our non-linear world. Is learning mimicking the Internet culture and losing its hierarchical structure? Is play and gratification more important than discipline and the rewards to attention and focus? The children are playing more and more every day and it’s certainly more pleasurable to listen to, but though they can play piano are they learning to be piano players. Does it matter?

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The Mysteries Under the Hood


We moved a couple of weeks ago and had to change the children to a new school mid-year. My son said to me that it’s fine, as long as I can find him a bunch of nerds to hang out with. 

I realized, though it didn’t exactly surprise me, that my son self-identifies as a nerd. This is such a change from when I was growing up. Then, nerds were someone to feel sorry for. They were mocked in popular culture: the entire plot of movie Revenge of the Nerds centered on nerds as social outcasts and underdogs. At the time, no one could imagine that anyone would ever want to be like them. 

I began to think about the causes for the re-evaluation of the place of nerds in our society. Certainly, programs like The Big Bang Theory hype the value of the nerd. Sure, the four protagonists are still socially inept in that series, but their intelligence often is rewarded. In fact, the show seems to imply that they need to be nerds in order to have genius qualities. They also still end up paired up and able to have a love life. Yet, I wonder whether popular culture is creating new representations or reflecting them?

The technologies we use today change how we see ourselves. While the nerds used to be the ones so devoted to data and being labeled “techies,” all of us now are attached to screens and are able to recite reams of data available at our fingertips, one Google search away. Duff McDonald used the revenge of the nerds narrative to explain how IT nerds won control of business away from the MBA jocks. “Science — specifically, computer science — is cool again,” McDonald observed. “It’s Mark Zuckerberg’s world now.”

We even consume our entertainment with the ravenous appetites of nerds. We are a society of binge viewers, consuming entire series runs over a single sleep-deprived weekend. Social media and websites promote lists of shows that are binge-worthy. The ability to recite verbatim lines from a favorite program is no longer the mark of a nerd, but a share-worthy fan.

We are working at my college to build up an Innovation Lab, where our students can learn how create new technologies through play. I can’t help but think that we are becoming more and more dependent upon the people who are able to dissect otherwise opaque technologies. It used to be that drivers could fix their own cars by looking under the hood. Now, though, underneath the hood is a mystery to so many of us. We need a mechanic to plug our car into a computer to determine whether that “check engine” light is really something to worry about.

I remember when my son was a three-year old who had taken the lid off of the toilet tank because he wanted to find out where the water comes from and goes. It’s great that as a ten-year old, he still wants to uncover how hidden technologies work, and that there may be classes, games, and other outlets that may give him the chance to find out. How can we uncover more opportunities for students to be able to look under the hood? How do we persuade them to want to do just that?

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Move over Soccer Mom ...


Hillary Clinton is receiving attention again for weighing in on the current vaccine debate. She tweeted, “The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.” However, the attention she is getting is not for her vaccine views but her hashtag: “#GrandmothersKnowBest.” Political blogs are discussing her use of the grandma role as a political maneuver for the upcoming Presidential election.   

Apparently, Clinton has taken to referring to her granddaughter Charlotte regularly during political appearances. After the birth, she even claimed a “grandmother glow.” While Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard finds her grandmother comments “creepy” and others joke about a “Granny State” (though I wonder whether they would say the same about a man in the role of an elder statesman), her use of her role as grandmother doesn’t surprise or disturb me. Sure, you can describe it as a political maneuver to try to make her appear more warm and human. She may also just enjoy talking about her granddaughter (my own mom rarely makes an appearance without referring to her own grandchildren), but I think she recognizes the power of a potentially new political force: Move over soccer mom, make way for grandma.

I’ve talked about grandparenting before in my previous posts and, as I myself embark upon the adventure of intergenerational living, the subject is certainly on my mind in a most personal way. However, I’ve also begun research in this area. Contemporary cultural notions of grandparents are changing. Cultural, economic, technological, and social factors are giving rise to a new generation of grandparents as baby boomers age. Thanks to rising percentages of longevity, grandparents have more time to develop relationships with their grandchildren. Apps like FaceTime and Skype allow my parents to spend time with my sister’s children, even though they are across the country. Language itself is shifting, as children have adopted new words to refer to their great grandparents on a regular basis (“gigi” is becoming a popular endearment for the great grandmother). Children more often have opportunities to establish relationships with grandparents that last long past their adolescent years.

Clinton and others should recognize this emerging group, which comes with not just voting power but also wisdom and the ability to connect with and influence two generations of their living descendents. If politicians are known to pander to political constituencies, it should be no surprise that grandparents can become a political force. Do Clinton’s critics harbor an innate bias that the elderly are more vulnerable? Are grandmas supposed to be all nurturing, with no political motive to act publically? I’m glad Clinton is acknowledging her inner grandma. I hope I get the chance one day, too. Maybe “grandmapPhD” will be my future?  


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Multigenerational Living


My grandmother passed away this week. She was 95 and had led a long life and her death was not unexpected. During the funeral, we were all sharing our memories and I was struck by how my stories lessened over time. My grandparents moved from New York to Florida in their retirement years and while I had weekly visits during my childhood, I saw them significantly less in their later years. 

My children, though, will likely have a different experience with their grandparents. This week we embarked on our move toward intergenerational living. We are selling/just sold our separate homes and moved together to a large almost 200-year old house where we will all live together. I am sure we are not the first multi-generational family this house has witnessed. In earlier historical periods, families often lived inter-generationally (that term wouldn’t have even been needed).

This was not a quick decision for us but one that all the adults deliberated on for three years. We were watching friends and family take care of elder relatives, sometimes in distant locations, and saw that future as worrisome. We also recognize how much help and assistance my parents offer to our children while my husband and I balance work and home. We all get along well but would that change in close quarters? We made the decision to try it and fell in love with this new house. Suddenly, within a few months, we were all living together. Surprisingly, the adjustment has been easier than we expected.  The hardest challenges are over the small things (whose knife sets should we give priority counter space too).  However, we recognize that sorting out these new relationships will take time. The first time I heard my father talk sharply to my son, my “mother hen” came out, though my son needed the “talking to”. We like having each other around to consult with, hang out, be an extra pair of hands. We are learning when to step into each other’s businesses and when to stay out.  Sometimes “factions” appear among surprising members of the household (my husband and my father; my son and my mother) and they change constantly.

The children, though, have had the easiest adjustment. A key moment happened a few weeks ago when we were departing for a vacation and my daughter asked why her grandparents were not going?  “You said the WHOLE family was going,” my shocked daughter told me.

My daughter’s latest drawing below has Papa and Nana as a clear part of her family but on a separately line below her immediate family.  I wonder how much longer until the order and hierarchy of her picture image of her family shifts and changes to react to our new living arrangement. In the meantime, here’s to our try at intergenerational living.


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Building a Bear


It’s now my “break,” when I do not need to be in the office every day and can use this relaxing time to focus on writing all the reports I never have time to do (oh, yes, and working on my research). Of course, it’s also an opportunity for focused time with the children as well, so when my daughters suggested an afternoon at “Build a Bear,” I was agreeable.

What an experience.

For those who never have had the pleasure, you go in, pick an unstuffed animal from a bin, then proceed down a series of paths where you get to “stuff” your bear (or, in our case, a Frozen Olaf snowman and an Anna Bear), wash your bear, select expensive clothing to accessorize your bear (sunglasses and black patent leather shoes for us), and partake in an elaborate ritual of putting a heart in your bear to endow it with love. A sign hangs in the store that tells us “You are not born a bear, you become one” (I have visions of de Beauvoir rolling over in her grave).

Going through this made me think about the shift in the production and consumption of toys. In earlier periods, one would not purchase a stuffed doll or bear; one would sew it. Children probably saw their dolls made by their mothers and grandmothers. They learned how to make a doll. Most children were lucky to have one or two dolls in a lifetime, instead of yet another bear to add to their overflowing toy boxes. The ritual of love that the store emulates draws on the love of a person making this gift for a child.

In contrast, my girls experienced the commoditized production experience. This is not to say that they didn’t have a good time. They loved helping to “make” their bear. However, a few days later, as I read to them the Ramona series by Beverly Clearly, my daughters had no idea what the characters meant when they talked about sewing. They’ve never seen anyone sew before (not even a button). In trying to explain sewing to them, I tried to connect it to making their bears, but that made no sense to them. Their bears were sewn long before they saw them. In fact, the Build-A-Bear experience more resembles the assembly line of the modern factory than craft production.

I can see the appeal of stores like these. As purchasing moves online and malls decline, these types of places give you a reason to go to the store and provide an experience that connects you to the product you are buying. Yet, what is lost in mimicking the “maker” experience, as opposed to actually creating something? Perhaps I’d be better off teaching them to sew. Of course, we’d have to learn together.

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