Last weekend I witnessed a couple with a newborn baby standing around a fountain. A precocious little girl of 5 or thereabouts approached the couple, she was infatuated with the baby. The fountain was hardly the Trevi Fountain (No, the photo below isn’t the Venetian in Vegas), but soon the fellow gave the little girl a nickel and instructed her to toss it into the fountain.
“Close your eyes first. Really tightly. Make a wish!Â Remember, if you don’t close your eyes tightly and keep the wish to yourself, IT WON’T COME TRUE!”
He repeated these instructions insistently as the girl scrunched her eyes, her fists clenched. Then she threw the coin into the fountain and opened her eyes, frowning from the concentration involved. She really believed…
I don’t know why, but her earnest expression and determination touched me.Â Maybe I thought it wasn’t this stranger’s place to plant a seed of superstitious stupidity into the kid’s head. Maybe I recalled an image of my mother telling me to pick up the silverware she dropped in the restaurant she worked in, because this was “good luck”. Maybe I thought of the hours I would spend in the garden, searching for a four-leaf clover after my father told me it was “good luck”.
My parents told me some silly whoppers – ghosts really exist, and Lucky my pet guinea pig was “living in the shed” for some two years…
Do skeptics tell their children these sorts of things? Do skeptics tell their kids about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny? Where does this lie on the continuum of fairy tale to bullshit?
Perhaps telling these stories is merely perpetuating a cute custom, or is it laying the foundation for future magical thinking? Many of the wrong and stupid things we’re ‘taught’ end up slithering into that fuzzy, hard to re-wire thing called our socialization. Then it becomes ‘normal’, or even ‘knowledge’.
If we’re religious, at what point have we moved from sharing a parable to telling lies for god? If we retell fables, at what stage do we go from keeping folklore alive to telling lies about the universe?
Or are they not lies but ignorance?
Dealing with folklore is a complex issue, some might say problem, for anthropologists, and especially cultural anthropologists. We have an emphasis on describing behavior, not prescribing it.Â It’s all good and well to watch the ceremonies and rituals, but at what point do you say that the sick man would be better off in the capital city’s hospital than being lashed with tree branches?
At what point do you observe and preserve the tradition, and at what point do you start saying, “That wasn’t a “witch” you just tied to a post and burned to death. That was a woman; someone’s wife,Â mother, sister and daughter.”
I’m sure we all have our own opinions on these matters, and indeed, it should be left to the discretion of parents to shape the beliefs of their kids, and more importantly, encourage the development of the individual’s critical thinking skills. Hopefully this education isn’t influenced by strangers, or at least stupid strangers. Hopefully this education isn’t influenced by stupid parents either.
I’d be pissed off if the above turd ‘taught’ this old wives’ tale to my child. But if you caught him out, it could be an opportunity to teach some reason and rationale.
Whatever we think, it’s hard to look beyond our own culture and time…