There are very few things published on LRC that I take umbrage with day-to-day. While not everything written is of the highest quality, the perspectives are generally laudable. Sometimes, though, things slip through that drive me crazy. Karen DeCoster is the usual suspect. In her zeal for exercise and living her uber-individualist lifestyle (which I wholeheartedly support and applaud) she has on many occasions denounced things due to her personal bias which come across as supremely condescending and obnoxious, cf. her consistent pattering on about video games and the boogey man of the sedentary lifestyle. But, be that as it may, this morning her blog about the nature of children’s toys and parents’ essentially over-thinking the problem of children’s playing is insightful if written with her customary bombast.
The poor children nowadays – every activity is planned and every toy has to have a ‘science’ (gimmick) behind it. No action can be performed without a helmet, a safety lecture, an adult present, reflective clothing, anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, gobs of 50 SPF sunblock, or perhaps some full-body armor.
As the father of a nearly 5 year old girl I’ve been guilty of a little of this at times. It’s hard not to be when she is your only child (and gods know we’ve tried to have another). I’m an inveterate geek, musician and scientist so buying things like USB microscopes, basic musical instruments and learning software comes naturally. While I’m ever hoping when I sit down to play with her Magnext collection that she’ll make some cool icosohedron, she invariably makes a cube with two arms on it and calls it a robot, which performs all forms of interesting and weird things.
I’ve also watched her play ‘robots’ with a cardboard tube, a parmesan cheese grater and a fishing net. Nothing surprises me anymore and her imagination while free-form playing about the house. She loves her robots. Don’t ask me why, her fascination with them pre-dates seeing Wall-E for the first time.
Sunday morning both Camille and I were dragging a bit and my daughter was a little bored with us after breakfast, so she went into the living room, got out her dominos and opened up a Candy Shop. Both Camille and I sat down and acted as customers for her various imaginary confectionery delights. I felt like I’d stepped into a Monty Python skit, especially as we were being watched by her collection of tree frogs. As a part-time dad due to working arrangements I always want to try and add in some math or something into these times. I can’t help it. We did break out the real money(well, legal, anyways) as opposed to the Boggle cubes we were using as currency and did some change-making exercises.
The point is that nothing is an either/or arrangement. Learning happens all the time, even when we don’t want it too (kids are the bane of one’s potty mouth) and the opportunities are always there. The question, as always, is ‘what to do with the time that is given to us.’ Education is not a monolithic thing that happens only when one travels to a structured place which demands that you learn what they are willing to teach you at that moment in time. That, to me, is the opposite of education. It doesn’t take large sums of money or buildings or a degree that took 20 years of indoctrination to garner to teach a child how to learn things. They know how to learn, the question is what are they learning and at what pace. The whole of human knowledge exists at your fingertips today, what need is there for a brick and mortar school other than b/c the mother is at work?
To be successful at this, first you have to be cognizant of the example you set with your behavior. Your children will pick up your values. So if you want them to value reading, then you not only should read to them but do so on your own time. If you want them to be responsible then you have to show them that by not shirking your responsibilities. If you don’t want them to solve their problems with violence, then you cannot do so yourself, ever. If you want them to value learning new things then you need to learn both with and near them.
Second and more importantly, it takes time. Not hours and hours, but the right time and attention at the right moment when the child is receptive and interested. You can’t force that. Guide? Certainly. But mandate? Forget it.
All of this is in service of helping her to become the person she wants to be when she figures that out. It’s our job to provide that infrastructure and show her the options available to her.
I love listening to the strange and wonderful things that come out of my daughter’s mouth. I hope that it will continue for as long as possible. Not for my sake, but for hers.