Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

n/51

Marty Jones and NAMB's AV conference room equipment.

There is a palpable sense of relief in the room when the company CEO loosens his tie. There’s a moment of respect paid around the conference table, and then top shirt buttons are gratefully tugged open and ties pulled into cockeyed Ys. It can’t be more than 78 degrees in the room, and once it was clear that the air conditioning had well and fully failed, fans were hastily procured and brought in. But it’s still hot.

I keep my tie securely fastened. I’m the vendor in the room.

The next slide comes up, and the narration continues. The corner of this slide reads 11/51. I’ve already read the first eleven, in depth, in my office, and I’ve read the next forty, too. But the CEO wants to deliver them, so I’m listening.

Sort of.

What percentage of me is in this room? Sixty, seventy percent. I’m not necessarily feigning interest; that’s too harsh a term. But, seventeen years into a career of consulting, I can put on a studious expression at will. My soul is twenty-one miles west down I-70, hefting my giggling son in the air for another toss into the deep end of the pool. I can already feel my rotator cuff stinging from the effort, but I don’t mind. My last memory of him, and his sisters, before I left this afternoon was one of pure presence and mindfulness. They are truly themselves in the summer; there’s no artifice of school personas, no submerged intensity. They reach a perfect symmetry of their inner and outer selves, all in balance, all present without shame or conformity. They are the children they are. It’s beautiful.

They’re looking at my tie at this point, and I think about loosening it for a moment, and then – perhaps in honor of that memory – I just don’t. “Can we run that back?” I ask. “Are those assumptions base case or bear case?” More discussion.

I’m not always required to be present in these moments, suit-and-tied in client offices. Most days, when I’m not selling new engagements or reading out existing ones, I can work alongside their summers, shorts and Keens all around as they sprawl about the house with new books or invent new plots involving the TARDIS tent in the basement or add on to the ever-expanding world they’re building in Minecraft. But when I am present in the corporate environment, I’m conscious of how I’m holding it in, toeing the line, obeying the norms –

Speaking of, they’re still looking at my tie. Right; when in Rome. I unfasten the top button my shirt, too, and give my tie a tug. It’s all part of the ritual, the dance…the ojigi.

They’ve done this in school all this time, holding their intensities at bay to be like the others, laughing when the peerage wants it and not laughing when the teacher’s had enough, and otherwise obeying the ojigi of public-school life. They’re not necessarily themselves when they’ve done so, and the contrast between the children I taught for the year and those I see daily over the summer is dramatic.

I know why I do what I do. I enjoy it, first off; it’s mentally engaging for me to help clients tackle thorny issues. I like the people I encounter (mostly) and the compensation I receive for work done (mostly), but that’s all been of my own design. My children trust in me that their school days are spent in equally directed and efficient endeavors. Otherwise, why would you bother? Why not exist in this perfect symmetry at every moment? Why contend with any of the bullshit ojigi at all?

Why not be the people we are all the time?

We don’t get to, of course. There are Important Tasks to Attend To in the Adult World®.  I’m fortunate in that my time-to-be-a-grownup moments are fairly few and far between, but even I have to pretend to be 43 from time to time. But I can see my own purpose for doing so. Even as the slide deck drips languorously over to 12/51, I can contemplate what this engagement means: it’s money in the bank for homeschooling tech, or a fistful of day trips this fall, or in their 529 accounts, or the rainy-day fund. My reward for time spent in ojigi is linear; I know why I’m here, what the pros and cons of my involvement in this moment are. I’m aware of the decision I’m making, and it is made of my own free will.

Theirs isn’t. Education is a long-term investment of their time and effort. Maybe that time and effort docks with the work environment of their future, and it was time well-spent. Maybe it doesn’t, and I’m just burning their childhood hours, these perfect symmetric hours, for nothing. When I do get the chance to remember who they are, skin darkening with each passing day in the sun, laughter a little more organic and less self-conscious as the months roll on, I want nothing more than to preserve the conditions under which they freed themselves to be these people. There are endless days of ties and slides and ojigi ahead of them, but every day I can keep them from that is a day they’ll remember well later. Even when they find their passions and go to them, that’s still not quite the same – and I feel that I will, in some sense, owe them a reckoning of I how I chose to spend these moments on their behalf.

As we roll on to 13/51, comfortably aware of my own motivations in this moment, I look out the window. There’s plenty of sun left in the day.

Advertisements

Matsaaruti

561

The fantastic Gifted Problems Tumblr posted this exchange last week, and it stopped me in my tracks. It’s really rare that someone takes a descriptive challenge that has approximated nailing custard to a wall for decades and says, “here, let me pop that in the freezer for an hour, and put it in a frame. By the way, here’s a pair of picture hangers and a tack hammer.” But, indirectly, that’s just what this exchange did: neatly hang a problem that haunts many gifted kids (and adults). When you do something right, it’s because of your ‘giftedness’ – as if it were one of Allie Brosh’s Alots, a beast that sits apart from you and does amazing things. When you do something wrong, however…well, that’s entirely on you.

That, in turn, has a lot to do with how we perceive failure – and gifted individuals deal with a great deal of failure in a lifetime, regardless of what the popular belief might be. We fail at large goals and small, otherwordly attempts and mundane tasks. We fail over and over again. But if we allow kids even a hint of owning the schism that’s hinted at in the Gifted Problems exchange – that credit for our triumphs is due our ‘condition,’ while blame for our failures is due ‘ourselves,’ we’re pointing them down the wrong road. Triumph and failure belong to our fully integrated selves: I own both, for better or worse.

There’s more of the ‘better’ in that last sentence than you might initially think. Failure’s important for everyone in life, and GT kids (and adults) are no exception. Failure can do so much more for us, in many ways, than success can: it can teach, it can provoke, it can inquire, it can test. Failing at anything will tell you everything you need to know about your relationship with that activity. Specifically, how failure feels in each of its instances provides us with deep and rich insight into our passion level for trying again.

And that feeling is unique to each specific failure. There are a million flavors of failure for GT kids (and adults). In much the same way that the Inuit have a dizzying array of words for snow,  I like to think of failures in very specific and individual ways; not every failure is a garden-variety one. Here’s just a few of my favorite varieties.

  • Fehlure: failing at something you’re expected to be good at, simply because you couldn’t care less about it.
  • Fauxlure: actually pretending to be terrible at something just so people will stop asking you to do it for them.
  • Frailure: a stunning-upset failure at something you’re normally good at, simply because you’ve been stretched thin doing everything else.
  • Flailure: being tossed into something you’ve never done before and being expected to do well at it, despite having no experience at all.
  • Foelure: a bitter draught, this one involves failing at something high-profile in the presence of your sworn nemesis or arch-enemy.
  • Foolure: a close cousin to fauxlure, but in this case, you’re hiding some genuine skills you’ll pull out at the eleventh hour.
  • Feelure: another close cousin to fauxlure; this time, you’re not going to do it because normally you’d be paid to do it.
  • Feylure: expectations aside, nothing short of being able to do actual magic would have saved this one from being a disaster.
  • Feralure: you’ve abandoned any pretense of trying to pull this one out with skill and intellect, and now you’re just going at it with brute force
  • Freelure: the end state of fauxlure, when you’re finally left alone from being asked to do whatever it is.

My favorite, however, is fillure. Fillure is a failure that immediately floods you with confidence, inspiration, and excitement; that’s not how it’s done, fillure quietly informs, but you’re on the right track. Fillure pulls you to your feet and sends you back to the keyboard or the kitchen, the rink or the research, with renewed vigor. When you’ve found fillure in your life, you’ve probably found your passion – or at least one of them. And over time, as you say it aloud, it really does start to sound a lot less like failure…and a whole lot more like its own condition.

To my own kids, and to all GT kids (and, really,everyone), then, I would say: know your snow. Not every snowfall is a travail, and not every failure is a disaster. For the Inuit, auniq (“ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese”) is a danger; matsaaruti (“‘wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners”) is a tool. Failure will present itself over and over again, sometimes as a trap, sometimes as a test, sometimes as a teacher, and sometimes as a tool. Greet it on your own terms, name it in the moment for the role it possesses in that moment – and know that this meeting will not be the last.

Certainty

fork-in-the-road-2-paths

Summer’s finally here in Colorado, with our occasional winter lookback days at long last behind us, and the traditional school experiment is drawing to a close for us. E attended the WATS rec0gnition ceremony last weekend, where three trips to the stage reminded of what we already know: there’s no point whatsoever in her attending middle school. H has thrived this year with more individualized time for math, and more time to stretch out her writing and critical thinking skills, so she’s coming home full-time in the fall, too. As for A, we’ve barely been able to coax him through the last few months of school. He’s done with it – the structure, the order of coursework, the tiny recesses and the shovel-it-in lunch period and the every-minute, every-day challenge of being an emotionally intense kid in a setting that was never designed for him. I couldn’t watch him go back in the fall if he was in love with traditional schooling, and he’s not.

Their classmates are having their own last hurrahs. Our elementary school feeds two traditional public middle schools in the area, plus a charter or two and a collegiate academy, so in the class H and E visit for part of the day, there are goodbyes going on, too. We’re having ours, too – seeing off parents we’ve fought the good fight with for the past several years. They’ve made their decisions, and some are comfortable with them, and some want to hear some validation comments. Then it comes to be our turn, and the conversation turns to homeschooling, and I just know they’re not quite sure what to say.

And sometimes, the question surfaces, in the midst of all of this discussion of choices and strategies and forks taken. It’s not spoken – not overtly, at least. But it’s there, in a hundred raised eyebrows and sidelong comments: “how do you know you’re doing the right thing?”

We don’t.

Not really, anyway; no more than anyone ever knows that what they’re doing is the right choice. Can I look twenty years into their futures and tell whether this is the right move? Absolutely not. I couldn’t have predicted ten percent of what’s happened in my own life, from college graduation to today, and I was fully in charge of that; I certainly can’t predict how life’s fortunes and chance crossings and transformational events and global trends are going to impact the lives of my kids.

Here’s what I do know. I do know that there’s a chance that the economy gets significantly better, at some point, but even if it does, the globalization of the middle class is here to stay. My college-educated kids won’t be competing just with kids from Modesto and Miami and Moline; they’ll be competing with kids from Munich and Madurai and Malang, too. Will a traditional schooling path prepare them for that kind of competition? It might. But based on what I’ve seen, it’s questionable. The reality is this: there are more college graduates, worldwide, than can possibly be employed in comfortable air-conditioned knowledge-worker positions. We just don’t need that many of those jobs. Mine will need to find their own route, and I’m not sure that route is the same one everyone else is taking.

I do know that creativity and critical thinking and technological savvy and ad hoc collaboration are a part of the future for them. They’re a part of my existence, now, and I have what could be convincingly argued to be a Millennial-style job. Those factors are only going to become more important as my kids enter the workforce. It’s not that these concepts aren’t being taught in school, but they’re not being taught and nourished and encouraged nearly enough. Right now, they’re adjunct goals. I’d argue they’re the main goals.

I do know that their lives are going to be led by passion. That cartoon with the on-off switch? The one labeled COMPLETELY OBSESSED in the ON position, and UTTERLY DISINTERESTED in the OFF position? That’s my kids. And I’m not planning to parent them entirely by that on-off switch. What I need to do is to keep their intellects active while introducing the idea, over time, that everyone’s got less-than-thrilling things to do, floors to mop, dishwashers to unload, DMV lines to sit in. But the more time they spend in one long DMV line during traditional schooling, the less time they have to keep their passions burning. I’ve watched the fires dwindle to diminished flames, then mere flickers, then cooling embers, before Kathy and I jumped into the process and started frantically fanning those embers. I’d rather not go through that again.

I do know that there is more to a child’s life than standardized tests, and there is more to a child’s life than cinderblock walls and cut-rate food and hurry-up-and-wait. I’ve run across cool spring grass with my daughter as a hot air balloon descended in the field near our house, tiny faces pressed enviously to the windows of the neighborhood elementary school close by. I’ve decided that the aquarium is simply a more fun place to learn about marine ecosystems than a classroom – or even our home – might be, and off we’ve gone. I’ve talked with them at length over lunches that they could relax and eat, rather than try and scarf down their food within a twenty-minute window (minus lining-up time, of course).

These things might be enough for me.

In the end, it’s a world of uncertainty. Our generation was famously reminded that it’s an imperfect world, and that screws fall out. So I have no perfect response for the raised eyebrows and the veiled questions, other than to say that I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do.

But I’m not sure what they’re doing is the right thing, either.

Resolute

holding-hands

I spent yesterday morning holding the hand of Resiliency in a darkened auditorium. There were tough moments – many of them, in fact – but Resiliency got through them with quiet grace, as she always does. She broke down later, in the car, and got up again; broke down again later, in the restaurant, and got up again. Resiliency knows that these moments are coming, and she’s gotten better about them over the years, and I love her for doing so.

It’s not easy, I’ve learned by watching from afar, to be a twin. Even when the word itself is meaningless, as it is in our family – they’re fraternal, not identical – it’s impossible to shake. They have been described as twins since birth, given the label over and over again, and been acknowledged as such on every sports team, in the getting-to-know-you round of every first day of school, ever. They have been fed this concept of sameness, of mirrored existence, since they left the hospital.

They are not twins to me. They never have been. They are two children born on the same day that share loving parents and a two-story suburban home. They both like black olives, and they both like pedicures, and they both like Doctor Who and Muse and sea salt-caramel gelato and pandas and footrubs. But they are not twins and never will be, and I know that, and they know that. They are as different as night as day, and they each have their own challenges and burdens to bear. Yesterday, I spent the day celebrating the triumphs of one, and supporting the emotions of the other.

H is our 2e daughter. She is our empath, and our joy fountain, and the canary in the emotional coalmine of day-to-day existence. She struggles with dyscalculia and task sequencing every day. Things we take for granted, like glancing at an analog clock, are work for her. Some days numbers don’t come easily for her, and other days they don’t come at all. She must contend every day with this concept of being a ‘twin’ to someone who does not share her challenges. So when she takes her seat next to me in the auditorium, and E walks tentatively to the stage, still learning to navigate open-toed heels, to accept her high-score certificate for the Colorado state EXPLORE test in science, I squeeze her hand.

She squeezes back. It’s not the iron grip of civility under tension. It’s a reassuring squeeze; Dad, I’m OK. 

For many gifted kids, resiliency is bouncing back from a bad game in chess club, or a robotics assignment that refuses to compile, or a crushing snub for the school poetry annual. H’s is a different type of resiliency. She rises every day knowing that math will be no easier today than it was for her yesterday, that it might make sense but probably will not, but that she must try anyway. Dyscalculia never goes away. Superhuman effort grinds it down to the status of an impediment rather than a disability. It is not a condition that rewards such effort, but merely offers a grudging nod of oppositional approval before retreating to its cave for the night. A level of exertion that, for most of us, would produce growth and confidence merely means a day without tears and frustration. As a society, we tend to view resiliency in terms of its role in enabling forward progress in our lives. The narrative of resiliency in our country is that of rising above our challenges, enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune only to surmount them in the olive wreaths of victory. For H, resiliency is fighting numbers and clocks and money – inexhaustible and omnipresent – to a draw, every day, only to rise and try again tomorrow.

I don’t know what that’s like. What I do know is that I have watched her fall over and over again, and I have watched with hope and pride and love as she has risen each time. It is not a resiliency that many gifted parents know, but for those with 2e children, it is every bit as vital and inspirational as any other flavor.

As she stared resolutely forward, genuinely happy for E, I squeezed back – because I love her for her calm resolve, and because she is the bravest person I know.

Time for A Cool Change

just_beyond_the_sunset_by_annmariebone-d5k2jnv

And now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change.

– Little River Band

I spent the last week taking H and E to Colonial Williamsburg for the first time. Their teacher, along with some kids from their class, went on a class trip this week, so we decided to take the opportunity (with not much going on at school) to head there ourselves. My aunt lives in Colonial Williamsburg, so we flew into Newport News, VA and stayed with her while we toured the sites around the town. Because she lives there, we were also able to get great discounts on tickets, and the weather was wonderful in April.

It was a fabulous experience. (For those of you who have visited, you will recognize the activities.) The girls rented costumes from the visitors center – white colonial dresses with pink and purple sashes – and we headed into the town itself. When we rented the costumes, the girls were given a type of scavenger hunt to complete in the town: learning colonial manners at the Geddy House, learning how to plant a turnip seed in the community garden, and delivering a letter with a request from the post office to the printing office. Everywhere we went, the actors would stop and talk to H and E, inquiring how they were doing, and giving us information about the period. One kind lady helped us put their bonnets on correctly (since I had no clue how they were supposed to go on.) We took a relaxing carriage ride around town, and walked the evening ghost tour under a beautiful and spooky full moon on a cool night. Every day around 3:30, there was live theater in the streets, which recreated events in the town around the time of the Revolutionary War. The girls were enthralled by the open-air acting; the second day ended with the cannons firing followed by the fife-and-drum march. We learned about the different trades, how things were made, and how everyone dressed (including the wig shop, which was fascinating.)

Looking back on it now, the best thing I did in terms of planning the trip was not to make a plan at all. I would describe touring with gifted, intense kids as a “speed up-slow down” process. I never knew for sure what was going to excite them, but when they were interested in something from an intellectual, emotional, imaginational, or sensory viewpoint, they would stay right there until they were done. In the case of observing and learning about glassblowing, that turned out to be several hours of a morning for E. We woke up one particularly cool morning and decided that would be a good day to see glassblowing; being around the hot ovens is pleasantly warming when it’s cool outside, and, conversely, can be oppressive when it’s hot. Both the girls were transfixed by the process. Then H spent the better part of an afternoon learning about fashion: corsets, stays, dress styles, bonnets, hats for all occasions, wigs, and shoes. There were other things that I thought they would be more interested in, but weren’t. Sometimes this was because they were hungry, or tired, or just mentally worn out. So, we moved along quickly if they weren’t feeling it, and took frequent breaks at my aunt’s house for lunch, snacks, and relaxing/reading time.

The fourth day we were there, we woke up to find it drizzly and cool – not great weather for touring outside. So, we headed to the Yankee Candle store by my aunt’s house (really, it’s more of a mall since it’s one of their flagship stores.) We saw the Christmas store inside with the twinkling lights on the ceiling while it snowed every 4 minutes – seriously! – they made their own candles, smelled every possible scent, and tasted fudge and popcorn. It was an intense kid’s dream. When we finally emerged, the sun was coming out, and we spent some time relaxing on the porch before heading out to Colonial Williamsburg again.

On our first night back home together, we all ate dinner at the table, then sat outside around our firepit, eating s’mores and listening to music, while the kids spun their tales from the week. The full moon rose over the house, and we danced and laughed until late in the evening, with nothing in particular to get up early for the next day.

I returned invigorated for the coming year. I realized that my main source of frustration these days is trying to fit my unscheduled family into a scheduled life. We’re an unscheduled bunch: Dave and I both have flexible jobs with deadlines, but we can move the work around where it makes sense in the day or the week, and ebb and flow somewhat with our energy and interest levels. A pops out of bed at 6 am, ready to go. By 1 pm, he doesn’t want to sit – he wants to go run around. H works best starting mid-morning, with frequent breaks. E works best in the evening, staying up late and sleeping in.

The friction enters the picture when I am trying to fit our unscheduled family life into the school life, which is structured and scheduled. In our house, intensities aren’t on a schedule, and I’ve grown weary of scheduling them when I don’t have any reason to do so. I’m ready for life to speed up and slow down naturally. It’s time for a cool change.

Redstone Willow

willow

Minecraft stole into my house with the grace of a cat burglar.

It began as a topic of discussion among the kids in the car; who was playing, who was not playing (I can take a hint as well as the next parent), and what untold delights awaited those LUCKY CHILDREN (ahem) who had access to their OWN SERVER. Over time, as these discussions got more frequent, I began to give them a rear-view mirror smile, the patented Dad grin that says “I hear every word you’re saying, and right now, I’m working out how to rig this to parental advantage.” The hints stepped up further over time, and the wide-eyed stories of the glories of Minecraft grew more evangelical after every Mojang-centric playdate, until the fervor reached a pitch I couldn’t ignore much longer. The timing worked out, actually. They’d grown weary of Wizard 101, and Free Realms, and I was looking around for something that could replace both – and, ideally, add more creativity to the gaming equation. But, like all modern parents, the choice presented itself when it comes to the new end-all, be-all video game: am I a willow or an oak?

Quick aside: I grew up in a no-video-games household. My parents’ reaction to the September 1977 U.S. launch of the Atari 2600 was truly something to behold, a cross between John Lithgow in Footloose and Jason Miller in The Exorcist. I genuinely felt bad for them in retrospect; I’m not sure how I would have handled the arrival of an entirely new childhood time-wasting technology, either. What I do know, from raising three kids myself, is that if you demonize anything, that thing instantly becomes a must-have. (We really should put salmon filets and homework up in a high cabinet and declare them off-limits.) I’m a case study in that. I lived eighteen videogame-free years in my home growing up, sneaking time on Yar’s Revenge and Pitfall at my friends’ houses; when I went off to college, I promptly blew my first retail-store paycheck on a Sega Genesis.

That was the oak route, one I got a good firsthand look at. So we’ve opted to be willows, submitting to the wind but not breaking. Here’s the thing: like most things in life, your kids are going to play videogames. Don’t try and deny it. It’s going to happen. Getting in front of that train ends just like you’d think getting in front of a train would. Are you the we-don’t-have-a-TV family? They’ll be playing on a laptop. No laptop? It’ll be an iPad. No iPad? No iPhone? They’ll be That Kid at sleepovers. “I know it’s three-thirty in the morning, but CAN’T WE PLAY MARIO KART AGAIN?”

The trick is not to outlaw videogames, but to manage them, and I’ll be honest: as management tasks go, Minecraft is pretty benign. If I judged it strictly by its presentation, I’d actually be pretty surprised that they’re into it: the graphics look like two crappy 80s arcade games had a goat-child, the sound is just as bad, and the server-side mods can be wonky (think NetWare 3.12 wonky). But by God, they take to the gameplay like it was a triple-fudge Oreo dusted with fairy glitter. There’s something about the possibility of unlimited creation that engages them at some very primal level, and they’d probably play it six hours a day if I let them. Maybe that’s what concerns parents about Minecraft – that it does seem so obsession-prone in its nature, and that their kids, left alone, will want to play it six hours a day. How’s that going to be managed? What’s the answer to that request?

Well, every once in a while, the answer should probably be yes. One of my favorite phrases around our house is “everything in moderation, including moderation.” Once in a great while, if it would truly balm your soul to eat a carton of ice cream, or take a three-hour nap in the sun, or sample every chocolate milk stout on the market in one afternoon – or play six hours of Minecraft – I think you should do it. Not every day; it’s not a round table, and Moderation sits at the head of it. But every once in a while, especially if they’ve truly rocked the other aspects of their growth and development that week, I’ll let them go to town. Once in a great while, mind you. Because if ‘a great while’ got to be too often…

…well, that’s a slippery slope. Buffalo Mama wrote a post a while back entitled “But What If All The Kid Wants to Do is Play Video Games?” It’s a core question in unschooling: what if something becomes everything? Well, I’m not sure I would let anything become my children’s everything, no matter what it was. Everythings, in general, are bad in a house of intensities, because if something is an everything, everything else gets squeezed out completely. It’s one reason we do Adventure Lunches over the summer, and try out Indian and Greek and Korean and Moroccan food, chasing sushi with rice-paper ice cream balls and vegetable korma with gulab jamun: because left alone, humans fall into ruts. For kids, that’s doubly true, and for intense kids, even moreso. It’s easy to let them become chicken tender-eating, sidewalk-Razoring, Mario Kart-driving, Phineas and Ferb-watching automatons, so we continuously break that ice as it emerges with baba ganoush and indoor skydiving and Portal and Doctor Who and a zillion other life variations that keep them evolving.

What I have learned on the videogame front is to bend like a willow, rather than break like an oak, and thus it came to be that they became LUCKY KIDS with their OWN SERVER. And you know what? Their intellectual and creative development hasn’t faltered in the slightest; if anything, it’s grown, and given them a new means of socialization as well. I’ve seen how this game can bring kids together; operating a Minecraft server has been the 2013 equivalent of owning a trampoline or a swimming pool in the 1970s. The other kids come around to play – virtually, in this case – and there’s something to be said for watching how other kids approach the tasks of resource collection and construction. They build together, and they build apart, but there’s a line of companionship and shared passion that runs through all of it.

It’s not everything for them, but it’s a something that I’m cool with, and I haven’t seen their interest in other somethings diminish. Oh, and we get to talk about other stuff in the car now. Win/win.

Millennial Spearhunting

2_3_atlatl-l

An atlatl is a remarkable thing.

I’ve actually held one of the earliest known examples in my hands (with latex gloves), and while I know I’m probably ascribing otherworldly qualities to it, the thing just exuded confidence. It had been held, and flicked, thousands of times at a very early, distant point in human prehistory. At one point, this device I now held had made all the difference for one hunting family. Using it had changed everything about their spear throws – velocity, accuracy, and, ultimately, killing power. Once the atlatl appeared on the scene in the Combe Sauniere in France, it spread like wildfire, throughout Europe and over the Bering land bridge into North America, for one simple reason. It was a transformational piece of hunting technology, made effective through training and practice. To hunt without it was to go forth at a severe competitive disadvantage in sourcing food: overnight, the playing field for daily nutrition changed, all because of one simple device.

Why do I bring this up? Because my kids are going to have one – the modern version, anyway – and they’re going to learn to use it, right by my side. Your kids might; given that you’re reading our blog, their chances are excellent. Most kids in public school won’t – and the ultimate outcome for them doesn’t look pretty. This fact is driven by two emerging fractures in modern education, which are collectively driving a widening wedge between school and life.

The first fracture is technological. A little backstory: in 1977, my father brought home one of the earliest dedicated word processors, a great big humming machine the size of a filing cabinet, complete with eight-inch floppy disks. It was pretty amazing at the time, and he even let me do a little schoolwork on it – against Caterpillar corporate policy, I’m sure, but whatever. I found it thoroughly fascinating. For the first time, documents could be stored digitally and edited endlessly before committing them to paper. But despite how revolutionary this moment was, just three years later, our family owned its functional equivalent, in the form of an Apple II. Two years after that, Apple IIs showed up in our junior high computer lab. Total elapsed time from my first look at the technology to its public-school adoption: five years.

Cue the starry-eyed optimism of the 1980s. At the time, we really thought that this process would only accelerate over time, to the point where schools would adopt real-world work processes and technologies faster and faster, until they virtually mirrored each other. But, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that patient zero, in the form of the Apple II, was really as good as it ever got – and then only because Apple was shoving dollars at the educational market as fast as they could be spent. Over time, what was in public-school computer labs fell further and further behind what was being used in business; even Apple abandoned its educational mission, in large part. Today, I walk into our public school, and there are some of the last CRT-based, 1024×768 tube monitors on Earth. You couldn’t go out and buy a CRT monitor today if you wanted to.

The contrast between school and homeschool is pretty stark. We don’t even use flatscreen monitors exclusively in homeschooling any more. The iPad’s become our go-to tech of choice in our house, for everything from Dragonbox to Khan Academy videos to Algebra Touch. For more advanced work that does involve monitor time, we’re aiming for a directly transparent relationship between what we use professionally (Mathematica, SPSS, Google Docs/Word/Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, SlideRocket) and what they learn to use at home. Because this is what we hunt with. These products are the atlatls of our day. In ten years, our daughters will be out on the veldt of the modern labor market, armed only with what we’ve given them – and it’s our job to make sure they’re ready.

The second fracture is sociological, and I reference it, increasingly, to explain why I’m involved in homeschooling as a father. It’s simple: we’ve become confused about what the ancestral role of a father is, and what the alternative role is.  Ten thousand years ago, the only fathers who didn’t take their sons (and daughters!) hunting were crippled or dead – and even then, their children went forth with uncles and cousins and grandfathers. This was done for one simple reason: there is no way to learn to hunt in the abstract. It’s not something you could read up on (not that hunting techniques were being documented beyond the wishful) or discuss into skilfulness around the campfire. Hunting, like so many things, was learned by doing. Fathers took their children hunting, because to do so was to teach them how to survive in the world1.

And then – rather suddenly on the scale of history – fathers (in particular) grew comfortable with outsourcing those tasks. That began as the Industrial Revolution took hold and showed us a world in which children could learn life skills en masse, just like the products being produced in the factories of the day. It’s no coincidence that the rise of industrial America from 1876 – 1900 overlapped with the beginning of the Progressive Movement in education, spanning from the 1890s to the 1930s. During that time, the United States saw a dramatic expansion in the number of schools and students served, especially in the fast-growing metropolitan cities. Learning became an assembly-line task, and just as the education of any one child became unimportant compared to the need to educate large volumes of children, so too did the need for a family member to teach fall by the wayside. The tasks to be mastered were common to all, and so the process of teaching became one that a third party could take on. At the same time, the ability of parents to involve their children in their work vanished, shattered on the factory floors of the age. For every family, at some point in history, there was a singular moment when work and education split: fathers went off to work one morning, and children to school, the two divided along a fracture between the real world and the educational system’s abstraction of that world.

In the earliest days, that fracture was small, or even – for those children who left school in the afternoon and went directly to work in a factory or on a farm – nonexistent. But over time, it’s widened, exacerbated by the technological divide. With each passing year, school has fallen further and further behind the realities of modern working life; today our kids are learning roughly all the same things they learned in 1980. There’s Palmer-method cursive to be practiced and wedding-cake long division to be waded through and a seemingly never-ending fountain of facts to be memorized – despite the fact that we live in an era of texting and Evernote and ubiquitous calculators and a human knowledge base exploding exponentially year by year2. These kids are heaving spears by hand in the atlatl age.

Worse, we’re not talking just about the fracture between our public-school education and the working world in our own nation: we’re talking about the fracture between our public-school education and the preparation necessary to compete in a global economy. Being from a Cat family, I distinctly remember the arrival of that word processor coinciding with my father’s grim pronouncement that Cat had lost a deal to Komatsu for the first time. It made an impression on me at the time: new thinking and new tech will be necessary now. The good news? We had an atlatl. The bad news? Everyone else had one, too. Yet, in the intervening decades, we haven’t taken the globalized economy seriously in the most important of venues – our educational system – and as a result, we fall further and further behind every year. And we just don’t care. If we did, we’d be doing something about it. 

Once upon a time, the risk of having an obsolete survival skillset was simply too great to take on, and mothers and fathers taught their children. It’s our belief that we are there once again, on the cusp of a great disjunction in how they are to make their way in this rapidly-evolving world, and that parents – fathers and mothers alike – need to face that fact head-on. Public education is providing neither the tools nor the training necessary to hunt effectively – so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do so. To the extent possible, they see what we use to make a life for ourselves: coding languages and wireless hotspots and knowledge management systems and tablet tech. I let them watch me work up client market pursuit models and brand positioning plans and collateral deployment schedules. They ask questions, and I answer them directly.

If we’d lived ten thousands years ago, those questions would’ve frightened away something large and tasty that we as a family probably needed for the night’s repast. I’d have to caution them, then; questions have their place and time, and crouched in the brush, atlatl in hand, is not the time. Is hunting with my children alongside me as efficient as hunting alone? No, it’s not; anyone who’s ever visited Costco alone, or with kids in tow, knows this difference intimately. But by hunting with them, I show them the skills that they need to learn, and in the end, we all eat – together.

___________________________________________

1 The original ‘quality time.’ 

2Yes, I know that the counterargument is that human knowledge has always exceeded the learning and retention capacity of any one individual. That old saw gets wheeled out every time this datapoint is mentioned. But that argument starts to lose its weight when the exponential nature of ongoing knowledge growth is considered. It’s like saying that there’s no need to worry about a coming hundred-year tsunami based on experience managing a few inches of water in a post-thunderstorm flooded basement.