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I had a great discussion on Sunday with a group of young adults about the morality/wisdom of telling your children that Father Christmas exists and delivers their presents each year.

 

Is it a form of lying? Is it, rather, a kind of mythology or fairy-tale that does no more harm than reading them bedtime stories, and actually does them good in helping them to develop their imagination and sense of wonder? Is it simply harmless? Or does it lead to a traumatic break in child-parent trust when they finally realise that the reality they have been told about by their parents is simply not true?

And – an extra question for Christian parents – if you are telling them stories about Santa Claus and Jesus at the same time, with the same awe-struck tone of voice, does it mean that the Jesus stories crumble as easily as the Santa ones a few years later?

I think your answer partly depends on your own experience. Some people never really believed in Santa anyway; there was some sixth sense that told them it was just a story, an act of make-believe. Some people really are traumatised when they discover The Big Lie that everyone around them has been conspiratorially involved in; and there is a questioning of what it means to trust their parents.

Others, much more low-key, remember a sense of disappointment and minor shock when they found out – they made a connection for themselves, or a big brother or sister told them, or they found the presents in their parents’ wardrobe the week before.

The other issue that came up was the fact that your decision as parents has an influence on others. Does it mean that your enlightened three-year old goes into the play group and tells all the other children it’s all a load of nonsense – to the consternation of the other parents?

Me? I can’t remember ever believing it – Santa Claus; reindeer; coming down the chimney; etc. I’m not saying I never did, I just can’t remember; and I can’t remember a moment of discovering it wasn’t true. My memories, perhaps quite late (5 or 6 years old?) are longing to fall asleep, knowing that mum and dad wouldn’t bring the presents in before then.

Comments please! Did it traumatise you? What do you tell your own children about Santa?

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When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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TV time should be limited for children, and under-threes should be kept away from television altogether – writes Sarah Boseley.

These are the conclusions of a recent report.

A review of the evidence in the Archives Of Disease in Childhood says children’s obsession with TV, computers and screen games is causing developmental damage as well as long-term physical harm. Doctors at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which co-owns the journal with the British Medical Journal group, say they are concerned. Guidelines in the US, Canada and Australia already urge limits on children’s screen time, but there are none yet in Britain.

The review was written by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, author of a book on the subject, following a speech he gave to the RCPCH’s annual conference. On average, he says, a British teenager spends six hours a day looking at screens at home – not including any time at school. In North America, it is nearer eight hours. But, says Sigman, negative effects on health kick in after about two hours of sitting still, with increased long-term risks of obesity and heart problems.

The critical time for brain growth is the first three years of life, he says. That is when babies and small children need to interact with their parents, eye to eye, and not with a screen.

Prof Mitch Blair, officer for health promotion at the college, said: “Whether it’s mobile phones, games consoles, TVs or laptops, advances in technology mean children are exposed to screens for longer amounts of time than ever before. We are becoming increasingly concerned, as are paediatricians in several other countries, as to how this affects the rapidly developing brain in children and young people.”

The US department of health and human services now specifically cites the reduction of screen time as a health priority, aiming “to increase the proportion of children aged 0 to two years who view no television or videos on an average weekday” and increase the proportion of older children up to 18 who have no more than two hours’ screen time a day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also issued guidance, saying “media – both foreground and background – have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years”. The Canadian Paediatric Society says no child should be allowed to have a television, computer or video game equipment in his or her bedroom.

Sigman goes further, suggesting no screen time for the under-threes, rising gradually to a maximum of two hours for the over-16s. Parents should “encourage” no screens in the bedroom, he says, and be aware that their own viewing habits will influence their children.

But what can you do?

The RCPH’s Professor Blair said there were some simple steps parents could take, “such as limiting toddler exposure as much as possible, keeping TVs and computers out of children’s bedrooms, restricting prolonged periods of screen time (we would recommend less than two hours a day) and choosing programmes that have an educational element.”

But Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet, said it was hard for parents to compete with technology. “It would be great if someone could invent a lock that could automatically ensure a daily shut down of all the different devices in and around the home after a designated period. Until such a thing is invented, it’s going to be an ongoing battle to keep on top of everything,” she said.

Any thoughts from parents? Is the no TV ideal possible? Is it realistic? Is it even desirable?

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Following on from the Evian pro-life campaign in May, I saw an astonishing poster at Leicester Square tube this afternoon. In a single image, it manages to proclaim the humanity of the unborn child, the vulnerability of this child, and its utter dependence on the goodness of those adults in whose care it finds itself – and on the rest of society.

So there is the tag-line, superimposed on the pregnant mother’s tummy: “Her baby can’t ask you for help, but we can”. A pro-life charity couldn’t have designed a more effective advert.

I wonder if in some small way this will help to change people’s perceptions of the unborn child, to raise consciousness; or at least prod people to join the dots in their moral thinking: Why, as a society, do we want to put money and resources into helping vulnerable children in the womb, when at the same time we are taking away their lives through abortion? Whatever your moral view, it doesn’t make logical sense.

I’d never heard of Sparks, which is running the campaign. So I guess that makes it a successful campaign! It’s a charity ‘For children’s health’, and the vision statement at the top of the website reads, ‘Help more babies be born healthy’. Yes indeed!

You can see their website here. The Bump Campaign page is here. And all the other bump posters of pregnant mothers are here.

I’m not promoting the charity, because I don’t know what its attitude to abortion and selective screening is, or where the money actually goes. Here are the aims from the ‘about’ page:

As a leading children’s medical research charity we are dedicated to funding and championing pioneering research into a range of conditions affecting babies, children and mums-to-be.

Since 1991, we have committed over £23 million into pioneering research projects across a wide spectrum of medical conditions including childhood cancers, cerebral palsy, premature birth and spina bifida. In total, the charity has funded 233 research projects in more than 80 hospitals and universities across the UK.

Through the research we fund, we aim to improve the quality of life for children and families affected by serious illness or disability today, whilst seeking ways to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future.

The medical breakthroughs we make possible, make a difference not only across the UK but for thousands of children and families around the world.

The key phrase is: seeking “to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future”. Prevention, for many in the UK, means selective termination or embryo screening that results in the destruction of discarded embryos.

If anyone from Sparks ever reads this and can reassure me that the goals of the charity are strictly to help children with medical conditions and not to screen out unhealthy children, then I will be very happy to endorse them! I’m just being cautious because there is so much moral ambiguity in a lot of medical research today.

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Since the 40 Days for Life vigil during Lent, I have been thinking not so much about the morality of abortion, but more about its effects on individual women and men, and on society as a whole. I read for the second time the seminal book by Theresa Burke, Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion – I’ll try to post about this later, together with something about Rachel’s Vineyard.

But the book that really hit me was a collection of personal experiences from Australia collected together by Melinda Tankard Reist, called Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion.

In some ways it is a much harder read than Forbidden Grief, because there is not the faith perspective, so many of the women find no resolution or reconciliation, just an outpouring of grief with nowhere to go. Even this heartbreaking acknowledgement of what they have truly been experiencing, however, seems a gain, compared to suffering in silence or having their grief denied.

Reist put an advert in various Australian magazines and newspapers asking for women who would share their experiences of the effects an abortion had had on their lives.

Two hundred and fifty responded, and many said that for the first time in their lives just seeing the heading of the advertisement (‘Abortion Grief’) had itself given them permission to open up, perhaps for the first time, what they had been going through. Eighteen stories then found their way into the book, to represent the breadth and depth of the responses, with many more quoted in Reist’s Introduction.

Reist’s Introduction sets out some of the convictions she had as a pro-life feminist before she started – convictions that were reinforced as the project came to fruition.

The women who tell their stories here have all suffered abortion-related grief: a depth of grief they were not prepared for and which many still carry.

But they go unheard. Emotional trauma after an abortion is treated with disdain; dismissed by abortion’s advocates as an invention…

Conventional wisdom has it that abortion is mostly trouble-free. Because of this, those who are troubled are made – indeed, often forced to be – invisible.

The grief of the women documented in this book is real. But their stories, and the stories of women like them, have been disqualified – even by those who say we must listen to women’s voices and credit women’s experiences.

Attitudes towards women overwhelmed by grief following abortion demonstrate a cruel indifference to women’s pain. Their suffering is considered a figment of their imagination; their guilt and remorse a byproduct of social/religious conditioning. In short, they are an embarrassment.

There is another constraint on their expression of grief. The politics surrounding abortion has drowned out the voices of women harmed by it. Women whose lives are shattered by the abortion experience… are cast aside as over-sensitive, psychologically unstable, big teams of socially constructed guilt. Their experience is trivialised.

A woman’s abortion pain is discounted and minimised due to the prevailing view that a termination is really no big deal, ‘just a currette’, an easy fix. Abortion is promoted by many who dominate the discourse on the subject as a procedure without repercussions. Because of this, attempts to discuss women’s abortion suffering have been constrained.

Suffering post-aborted women feel a resentment towards a society which ignores or neglects their suffering. They are not allowed to acknowledge or mourn their loss openly. The disdain for women suffering after-abortion trauma sends the message: you’re only upset because you’ve chosen to get upset…

This sort of response to women’s abortion-related suffering makes them feel they’re being melodramatic, over-sensitive, attention-seeking. But many women are suffering emotionally from a procedure which was portrayed as emotionally benign. They are filled with feelings of self-loss, daily haunted by their abortion experience…

Their arms feel empty, they don’t like looking at babies, they often cry. They ask: What would my baby have looked like? Was it a boy or a girl? Would-have-been birthdays are quietly marked year after year.

As Margaret Nicol points out in her important work on maternal grief, it is a myth that a mother only bonds with her child after birth. A woman never forgets the pregnancy and the baby that might have been. When the baby is lost and there are no memories of visible reminders of the baby, ‘The feeling of emptiness and nothingness becomes pervasive and it is this an easy and anxious avoid that makes women wonder if they’re going crazy.’

I’m sorry the book is not more widely available in this country. There are a just three copies here on Amazon UK from other sellers as I write.

But hang on: I just found these excerpts from the book here – well worth looking at:

Excerpt 1: “This Wasn’t Really Counseling At All”


Excerpt 2: Disclosure and Coercion


Excerpt 3: “They Didn’t Prepare Me for the Horror”


Excerpt 4: “A Conspiracy of Silence”

I don’t know much about Reist. You can see her website here.

And just in case you see this and don’t see a follow up post about Rachel’s Vineyard, you can see their website here, which offers support to women and men who have suffered an abortion. The Good Counsel Network help-page is here (they are based in London). And the ARCH website is here (Abortion Recovery Care and Helpline) – I don’t know much about them, but I saw a leaflet for their services recently.

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Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton was on Desert Island Discs recently. You can listen here.

She was born with a degenerative condition and her parents were told she would not survive infancy. Now in her mid-fifties and a cross-bench peer, she’s spent her adult life campaigning for equality for disabled people and was one of the leading voices behind the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

There were some fascinating insights about living with a serious disability, and what it means for her as a person, and for society.

She was asked about the loss of privacy that comes through needing the help of a carer for everyday life. She said (I’m paraphrasing, and writing from memory) that privacy is not just about physical space, but much more about preserving your interior privacy – keeping that inner space you need for yourself, one that can never be taken from you, whatever is happening on the outside.

And then this got her speaking more generally about the experience of having a number of people over many years help her and care for her. It gives you an insight, she said, into what people are really like, much more than if you were on ‘equal’ terms with them in your physical abilities. You are ‘being cared for’, and someone is coming into your private space, but being in a position of ‘carer’ exposes not just you to them but also them to you in a way that wouldn’t normally happen in everyday society. You see the reality of the person they are through the way they treat you.

I’m reading into her comments a little more than she actually said, but I think it is justified. She was saying, in effect, that your lack of autonomy, which might seem to isolate you and put you at a distance from the autonomous development of relationships that usually takes place, in fact allows a degree of communion between persons, of vulnerability, insight and even intimacy, that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You see more and share more because of the relationship of need and dependence. Autonomy isn’t the only way in which people can freely share their lives with each other and be brought into a profound relationship. Autonomy, in other words, doesn’t define you as a person.

Pope John Paul II touched on these questions in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[There is a] mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is “not to be used”? The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others.

We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection […].

At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. [Para 19]

And in the following paragraph [20] he continues:

This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.

Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual.

In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

I’m not saying that Baroness Campbell would agree with all this – I’m just following my own train of thought from Desert Island Discs to Pope John Paul II.

Another lovely story that came across later in the programme was this: She said that as a child with a severe disability, nevertheless her parents loved her with an unconditional love, and never tired of telling her that she was beautiful; and this knowledge of their love and of her beauty has sustained her throughout her life and given her the courage and confidence to overcome the huge difficulties she has faced. I like the two sides of this, equally important but sometimes separated from each other: being loved by another – a subjective reality; and being beautiful – an objective or a transcendent reality. Your dignity, your worth, your goodness, your beauty: in the eyes of another (because they happen to be there), and in the eyes of God (because he made you to be who you are). For the common good, and for the rights of each individual, society needs both the subjective and the objective affirmations of human worth.

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I grew up in Harpenden, a small town off the M1 about half an hour north of London, with St Albans just a few miles to the south, and Luton to the north. I was back there at the weekend and took a walk along the River Lea, where I used to play as a kid. It was a place for swimming, fighting, fishing, general splashing around, and finding hidden treasure. Now and then it was a place of danger and nasty accidents – usually caused by the broken bottles on the river bed, or some unseen stretch of barbed wire.

The River Lea in Harpenden

Harpenden is only a few miles from the source in Leagrave, on the edge of Luton, so the river is only about 12 feet wide – not much more than a stream. But the walk got me thinking about its huge historical significance. I was oblivious to this as a child.

In the late ninth century the River Lea formed one part of the boundary between the Danelaw, the eastern area occupied by the Vikings, and Saxon England to the west. West of the Lea was the territory that King Alfred managed to hold, and to the east the Vikings had the run of the place. This was all codified in a treaty between Alfred and Gurthrum. So Harpenden (or the few hamlets in the area in the late ninth century) was right at the ‘national’ boundary between England and Scandinavia, between Saxon and Viking.

The Lea, with its course much altered over the centuries, runs through the Olympic Park at Stratford, and into the Thames near the Millennium Dome. You could never guess at its historical significance today, but there are a few remaining boundaries that betray its larger meaning. Part of the border between Essex and Hertfordshire, for example, follows the river’s course. And it’s interesting that when they were cutting off the Diocese of Brentwood from Westminster, the dividing line through east London is marked by the River Lea. So the ecclesiastical boundaries of the twentieth century reflect over a thousand years of territorial dispute, compromise, and eventual agreement.

Just for the record, I was born on the right side of the River Lea (Alfred’s/Westminster’s) at Tottenham Court Road, and lived on the Saxon side of the small valley that cuts through the eastern edge of Harpenden!

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