Disparate Youth

An interesting issue came up in our Nurturing Fathers class recently: is there a right time to introduce a concept to your child when they might not otherwise know about it? Some examples: terrorism, drugs, political protest, gender ambiguity, racism.

Granted, this is a disparate list of topics, and the answer is going to be different for each situation (and for each family). But in each case, the parent did not know what, or how much, the child knew or from whom they might have learned it.

I described the scenario a few weeks ago in which I took my daughter, 12, to the doctor and she got tangled up in a list of questions about substance use. She didn’t know what they were about but knew enough about how drugs could be harmful that she was upset by the questions. I felt like I should have prepared the ground for her, given her more of a context for what she was being asked to think about (she doesn’t go to public school, by the by). But what should I have told her? And how much? And when?

So many questions! What’s the best way to approach a difficult topic with your kids?

The first step, because it can determine what course to follow, is to turn it around:

Ask your kids what they know about it. What do they think? How does it make them feel? What’s important here is not to identify the source or cast blame, but to find out what your child has to work with. Listen non-judgmentally, for content and for emotion. You might be surprised at what you learn!

Now, remember not to render value judgments on what they have told you, even if it is inaccurate or offensive. You don’t what them to shut down and quit sharing. Instead, offer to help them to find out the truth behind the subject: look it up together on the internet or at the library. While you do this you can teach them how to discern good sources of information from bad (we know how to do that, right?).

What if your conversation is not pure research, but touches you or your family directly? How do you give difficult information? I came across a helpful post on this very thing.

By approaching the problem in this way, you get to teach your child that it’s possible to learn and process challenging or even scary topics. And you get to spend some time together, to boot.

Thanks to Santigold for the title of this post.

Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year-olds, their older sisters continue to put them –new acquisitions and old favorites alike– in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused on what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma, or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage.

On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, but it also engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

You Don’t Have to Go to College

That’s right. I said it. Just ask Animal Collective.

We were talking to our twelve-year-old about this today. We were roasting hot dogs at McDowell Creek Falls (because having Mondays off is awesome) and having one of those conversations about what she wanted to do when she grew up. This used to be a fun but pretty low-stakes exercise, but as time appears to be accelerating at a frightening rate, it is becoming a little more urgent. Yes, she has a few years to figure these things out. But she’s twelve. Seriously, when did that happen?

Her parents both went to college and were basically the first in our respective families to do so. I remember my grandmother telling me the same thing she had told my mom, that it was just not worth the undertaking. Nevertheless, I did so straight out of high school, applying for the first college that appeared alphabetically in the catalog for Colorado (Adams State College, now a University) and getting accepted. So I went. Ten years later, I received my Master’s degree at the University of New Mexico. By this time I had been in college so long I didn’t really know how to do anything else. I had no plans. But my education shaped me as a person, and I can’t imagine having done anything else. Maybe that was part of the problem.

I believe that anyone who wants to get a college education can and should do so. But I also believe, from having seen the struggles of many friends and acquaintances, that those who don’t want to be there probably shouldn’t be.

As parents, we have made education for our children a central concern. We have put literacy and the love of literature, art, history, nature, and theology at the center of our family culture. We have made some sacrifices toward this goal, including the determination to homeschool our four daughters on my single income. And boy, this is hard. Even for someone with a graduate degree.

But college is not something we are pushing. We want our kids to be happy, fulfilled, well-rounded adults. And while a college degree can be a great, enriching, enjoyable thing (it certainly was for me), and a great number of well-paying careers require one, we want them to know that it’s not the only path.

Following our conversation today, I looked online for some good alternatives to traditional higher education. As usual, some of the best information can be found at The Art of Manliness, home of pro tips on bare-knuckle boxing, beard care, and marriage maintenance. Some of these options came up with my daughter: she had seriously considered joining the Coast Guard, which I have to say was a surprise. Otherwise, they can be put into a few general categories:

  • Other educational avenues. Rather than enrolling in a four-year college, with its time commitment and almost inevitable debt load (and, as the article points out, rising costs have far outstripped a rise in wages for most college-fed jobs), there are other ways. Community college, for one. Online classes. Trade schools. Apprenticeships. There are many ways to learn skills and gain knowledge in a more targeted and cost-effective way.
  • Starting a business. I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, but I have no beef with those who do, especially my aforementioned daughter who has been selling her homemade salves to my wife’s Instagram followers. Good on you!
  • Volunteering. While Peace Corps is still largely recruiting college grads, other organizations such as Americorps and Vista are more flexible around this.
  • Art! Our extremely talented girls can bring their rapidly developing skills in drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, and performance to the world in myriad ways. It is easier now than ever for art to find an appreciative (and ideally paying) audience.

What if they want to go to college after all? That’s just fine. The next conversation will be about not taking out student loans. I have some cautionary tales about that.

In Defense of Screenless Media

I have written on various occasions, including recently, about screen time for children and exactly how much we should freak out about it. As much as I’d like all our kids to be able to spend their days in the outdoors, collecting songbird feathers and building hideouts out of sticks and moss, the fact is that we mostly live indoors, and inside those places, we need to cook dinner and study for online classes and stuff. And while we’re doing those things, it can be VERY USEFUL for our children to be occupied with a movie/video game/computerized learning opportunity.

What if, like Morpheus, I told you that there is a third way. A screenless form of media that can be engaging, educational, AND leave you with time to collect your thoughts, do chores, and/or catch up on important parenting-related social media discussions.

They call it…an audiobook.

Yes, audiobooks have been around for a while. Prior to their digital incarnation on platforms like Audible, they used to be called (depending on how far back you want to go) “books on tape,” “radio plays,” or “a person telling a story to some other people.”

We use audiobooks heavily in our already book-crammed household. We started the same way I would recommend you start out, which was to check out CDs from the public library. I believe we started with The Chronicles of Narnia and never looked back.

There continues to be a fierce debate over the value of audiobooks versus the paper kind (and that’s without even pulling ebooks into it). The jury is out over whether listening to a book “counts” as reading it: and this is grown adults arguing about these things. I would certainly expect to hear the objection that children are missing out on crucial literacy skills if they can’t see the words on the page. And I get that. I think children should have real books as well. Tons of them.

Excellent. So let’s move on. Here are some advantages found in audiobook listening.

  • Vocabulary expansion. Case in point: last night my six-year-old told her sister, “I hope you can overcome the ominousness of going potty,” before giggling at length to herself. Audiobooks.
  • Storytelling is at the heart of literacy. We have words in order to tell each other stories (as well as to warn about sabertooth tigers, I’m sure). We can practice many crucial pre-reading skills using audiobooks, such as oral language, phonological awareness and listening comprehension. Kids will also learn the structure of stories and the many arcs of meaning embedded in how language is put together.
  • Listening to a story leaves room in the brain (my scientific term) to engage in other activities. My kids like to draw, build with blocks or work with modeling clay while an audiobook is on.
  • Accents. I’m not sure if this is more an advantage than a warning. Many of the books we listen to are read by British performers, and I’m afraid this has left its mark on the kids’ verbal development. I can tell when my ten-year-old is upset about something when she starts to mumble in a posh English accent. And they can all do a passable Irish brogue, a thing I cannot claim for myself.

Finally, while your children are absorbed in an audiobook, you may be able to go to the bathroom by yourself. Have I sold it?

 

On Chores, Revisited

A couple years ago I wrote about our first attempt to institute chores for the family. In that article, I described how my wife and I had decided to approach chores and how they aligned with the values of our family. I wrote, “In my house chores are presented simply as expectations: they are what needs to happen in order for the home to run smoothly. There is a place for everyone to chip in, and we emphasize the importance of each chore in our day-to-day home life.”

Reading back on this, I see that this theory still holds up. In the article, I also detailed the chores chart I had made, with chores listed on a whiteboard and movable magnets for each child, to be rotated according to age level and need. This means that each child would have different chores from day to day. I can only imagine, when designing this system, what I was thinking: that the variety would keep them from being bored, or the novelty would be exciting, or something.

Well, that just didn’t work.

It wasn’t a disaster or anything. It was just too complicated for the kids (the little ones especially), and too much homework for the adults (ie: me). We gave it a go. But soon the kids were complaining about their own assigned chores or coveting those of their sisters (or just refusing to participate in my rigged game). At the same time, the magnets started falling apart and wouldn’t, you know, magnetize anymore. So after a few weeks, my brilliant chores chart fell by the wayside. Okay, it actually just fell off.

I don’t remember how much time went by in the interim, but eventually, my wife struck upon a way to make the chores list work within the structure of her homeschooling day. Instead of rotating chores, each child now had their own laminated sheet with a list of duties. They could mark them off as they went with a pen, or draw pictures around them, or pull them down and lose them under the sofa. Their choice!

Anyway, having a stable and routine set of chores turned out to be just the ticket. My wife divided them into two sections: morning, before school, and after lunch, before “rest time” (that period of one to two hours where the kids can have downtime with an audiobook, a DVD, or some reading). It took a while to get it going, but by now it is almost in their muscle memory. They know the expectations and, though they sometimes just don’t want to do it (who doesn’t), it had made chores into what we intended: they’re just what we do to help the household work.

My favorite part is that the list makes it easy to succeed: “wake up” is an item; as is “eat breakfast.” Amazing how the points add up.

 

 

Transitions

A couple of recent changes have come to our house. One is that my wife, in addition to her full-time homeschooling duties, has been leaving town every other weekend to help her sister. The other is that I have rearranged my schedule in order to have an extra day off. The upshot, for purposes of our family, is that I have been parenting solo quite a bit. Now that this is a more or less regular thing, I find that it is…complicated.

I have written on several occasions that being the dad in our particular household means that I figure out what the routines are and carry them out. In other words, their mother writes the script (and revises, stages, and restages it) and I simply try to follow it.

So, I’m pretty good at making bedtime happen, and I have enough of a repertoire built up to make food for all three meals (and mostly different food, at that! Or at least, in different combinations). I carry out the housekeeping and repairs for which there is no time in the course of a homeschooling day. And as long as I don’t have to improvise too much, it’s fine. As long as nothing unexpected or unusual happens. Nothing different. No worries, right?

One way I know that this is the new normal is that, for my daughters, it has lost all novelty. This weekend I have been told numerous times that I’m not doing things right, and that “they wouldn’t behave like that if Mom was home.” I can only agree.

This experience has brought home the different ways that men and women nurture. And simply how different people do it. Try as I might, I can’t duplicate what their mother does that works. I’m lenient in some areas and strikingly uptight in others. Surely it has always been this way, but for some reason, the repetition brings it out. “Wait, I have, like, a thing that I do?”

I’m not feeling terribly successful these days, as the transition continues apace. But I’m trying to be comfortable with that. It’s the nature of transitions.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to watch an old Popeye cartoon before dinner. Don’t tell Mom.

 

The Family Taste

A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children.

In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid, I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.”

Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into English. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

Bored Games

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

Summer School

So, school is almost out. Summer is almost upon us. What are you going to do with your children now that they are home every day? Allow me to make a suggestion: start them in school.

Okay, let’s take a few deep breaths. I’ll take them with you. Ready? Now let me explain. What better time for your kids to learn than when they don’t have to go to school all day? If anything, all of the structure of their school day—all the moving from one place to another, all the sitting down and lining up and walking and standing and waiting, not to mention all of those other kids—has been in the way of their learning all along. Heck, even the teachers have been distracting them from their natural inclination to learn.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s what educator John Holt has to say about it, in his book Learning All The Time:

“I can sum up in five to seven words what I eventually learned as a teacher. The seven-word version is: Learning is not the product of teaching. The five-word version is: Teaching does not make learning. As I mentioned before, organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what, and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to one hundred percent false.”

What makes children learn, then? Having opportunities to do so. Having the time, space, and materials to gather information, observe their world, experiment, try out ideas, make things. And as a parent, you are the ideal person to provide these opportunities. Writes Holt:

“What adults can do for children is to make more and more of that world and the people in it accessible and transparent to them. The key word is access: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go—cities, countries, streets, buildings. We can also make available tools, books, records, toys, and other resources. On the whole, kids are more interested in the things that adults really use than in the little things we buy especially for them. I mean, anyone who has seen little kids in the kitchen knows that they would rather play with the pots and pans than anything made by Fisher-Price or Lego or name whatever you will.”

So there you go: you can be the one to provide this access to learning. And Summer vacation is the best time to do it. You can take them outside: on neighborhood walks, to the park, to the swimming pool, to the river, to the beach, to the city. And you can provide their textbooks and visual aids and tools: at the library, at the museum. In the backyard, in the kitchen. In the garage.

School’s out! Now finally they can get down to some learning.