Learning to Say What You Mean: Parenting 101

I’ve been a parent now for a few years. In fact, I’ve been writing about Christine Gross-Loh’s book for nearly as long as I’ve been a parent. Certainly, there’s lots to learn about being a parent and lots that one can learn from being a parent. To date, there’s one salient lesson that stands above the rest: intentional speech.

Whenever I’m speaking to my kid (or any kid, for that matter), I’m always acutely aware of the words that are coming out of my mouth. For one, this little person is still learning the language, so it’s important that I be as precise as possibly can (within reason). In particular, I’m thinking about idioms.

If you’ve travelled to different parts of the country (or different parts of the world), undoubtedly you’ll have come across some phrases that might sound… odd. For instance, I bet you’ve probably let the frog out of your mouth on an occasion or two (Finnish idiom to say the wrong thing). Or when giving directions, has anyone ever told you that the place you’re trying to go is just a cat’s jump away from the museum (German idiom for something that’s not too far away). Or maybe, you and your friend are walking around a new part of town and your friend says to you, “I sense owls in the moss,” (Swedish idiom for finding/seeing something suspicious).

I could go on, but the point here is that cultures from around the world have created phrases to say something (when they really mean something else) and the same thing has happened in our culture. Have you ever done something at the drop of a hat or met someone who was all bark and no bite? Do you find your boss tends to beat around the bush or maybe sometimes add fuel to the fire? Have you ever wished that someone would break their leg?

Think about what these phrases might sound like to someone who’s just learning English. Break a leg. How rude. Or what about saying that to do something is a piece of cake? What the heck is that supposed to mean? Do I need to eat a piece of cake before you tell me how to drive to the airport or will there be cake at the airport?

For toddlers, it’s hard enough to learn how to maneuver one’s body and learn a “foreign language” (learning one’s first language is *kind of* like learning a foreign language, if you think about it). So, why would we compound the difficulty by simultaneously teaching them idioms? There’ll be plenty of time for them to learn how to feed the donkey sponge cake (thanks Portugal!).

Advertisements

Do You Have Ideas? Great, Write About Them

I came across a great post recently that you might say, is one of my guiding principles here — everyone should write:

You don’t talk about these ideas, even in your own head, because you’ve never put them into words. […] We’re all brimming with opinions on these topics that we may never discuss, even with ourselves. […] Writing crystallizes ideas in ways thinking on its own will never accomplish.

[…]

Sometimes writing is encouraging. You realize you understand a topic better than you thought. The process flushes out all kinds of other ideas you never knew you had hiding upstairs. Now you can apply those insights elsewhere.

Other times it’s painful. Forcing the logic of your thoughts into words can uncover the madness of your ideas. The holes. The flaws. The biases. Thinking “I want this job because it pays a lot of money” is bearable. Seeing the words on paper looks ridiculous. Things the mind tends to gloss over the pen tends to highlight.

These are exactly some of the reasons that I write. Sometimes, you think you have this grand idea and you’ve been carrying it around for months. You think, “if only they would have done it like this, things would be so much better.” However, when you take 10 minutes to sit down and try and write about this thought, you realize, there are a thousand different reasons why they didn’t do it the way you thought and are instead, doing it the way they are doing it.

Of course, there are also those times that when you do sit down to write, you realize that your idea is even better than you had originally thought. OK, maybe that doesn’t happen as often, but fleshing out ideas is an important step in the creative process.

Another important reason why I like to write is because I find that if I keep the ideas in my mind, they continue to swirl around. By extension, this doesn’t leave “room” for other ideas to float in. I know this is kind of limiting, but sometimes, I feel like I need to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page, so that new ideas can make their way in. It seems absurd that there is a “finite” amount of space inside one’s mind, but as it happens, we tend to think about the same stuff over and over. Additionally, I thought I had come across something from Einstein, Franklin, or one of the other famous creatives on the importance of writing everyday (for this very purpose), but I can’t seem to find it. Either way, that’s not what’s important. What’s important – writing something. So, get on with it – write something!

You don’t have to publish what you write, though I find that it helps me to be a bit more focused. If I know that there’s a chance that someone might read what I’m writing (eventually) I’m motivated to be at least a little polished. I know errors will still make it through, but on the whole, the meaning still gets through.

Alright, your turn…

Do Kids Move Back in with Parents Because They’re Trained to be Helpless: Parenting Without Borders, Part 10

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we examined the importance of unstructured “play.”In Part 7 and Part 8, we explored what education is like in East Asia and Finland. In Part 9, we looked at cultural notions of kindness in raising kids. In Part 10, we’ll explore the possibility that parenting might be fostering a sense of helplessness in children today.

Yes, the title of this post is a tad clickbait-y, but after reading the final chapter in Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders, I can’t help but think that the reams of university students who’ve landed in their parents’ basements upon receiving their diplomas has something to do with the way they’ve been reared. Of course, there are many other factors at play (including things like the economy and recessions, etc.), but I don’t think that this ideas is too fantastical.

Remember the anecdote from Part 9: “In 1970, the primary goal stated by most college freshmen was to develop a meaningful life philosophy; in 2005, it was to become comfortably rich.” Well, there’s also a big difference in the way that kids are treated at home (even within a given country).

In 1950, an eleven-year-old growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn was responsible for waking up on time, making his own breakfast, and getting himself out the door. […] He also did the family shopping: going to a corner grocer to buy bread or rolls, or to pick up milk.

Contrast that with today’s America:

“I pretty much do all the chores in the house,” [says a mother of three pre-teens aged nine, eleven, and twelve].

According to the author of The Anthropology of Childhood, it’s “absolutely universal” for children to want to help adults in their communities. We think that sheltering kids from work will help them succeed in all those extracurriculars and allow them more time to complete all that homework. The issue here is that while kids want to help, we’re unintentionally squashing that motivation.

When we ignore our children’s eagerness to participate when they are younger, they internalize the idea that contributing is unimportant and they are helpless. They also begin to expect that things will be done for them.

This shouldn’t come as news to anyone who’s read the work of pediatrician Dr. Spock:

Chores, even if not perfectly done, help children gain good self-esteem and make them feel like they are contributing to the family.

And isn’t that what most people want for their kids, anyways? A well-developed sense of self-esteem and a healthy desire to contribute to the world around them? Simply asking children to do chores isn’t enough — it needs to be part of our expectations (or boundaries?). They key here is not necessarily that kids are learning how to contribute to the home, but that they’re learning to feel responsible for themselves. This fosters a sense of self-reliance, so that when they’re older, they know that they’ll be able to figure things out and maybe more importantly, that they’re responsible for figuring things out for themselves.

To illustrate the contrast in cultures, Gross-Loh shares a stunning example of a five-year-old in Japan [Emphasis Added]:

[They] prepare an entire meal for their parents at school and had them do everything by themselves, from paring the potatoes to cutting the meat and carrots for the stew with chef’s knives. Because the social expectation in Japan was that children were capable of acting responsibly and doing chores, the kids had daily practice in helping out at school. Our kids were getting clear and frequent messages about how highly and valued it was to be helpful, self-reliant, and responsible from just about everyone — teachers, friends’ parents, and even from their own friends.

How many parents in North America do you think would let their five-year-olds use a paring knife, much less a chef’s knife? Another poignant quote from the chapter: “When people talk only about what they’re protecting their kids from, they’re not thinking about what they’re depriving them of.” If we don’t give our little ones the chance to fail, how will they learn to succeed?

Brief related tangent — I came across a delightful article recently where a father’s daily question to his kids was, “What did you fail at today?” The idea behind it being that failure is a necessary part of growth.

~

Building on some of the points on autonomy and self-reliance in this chapter, Gross-Loh also explained the way we ask our children to do things matters. Think about how you like to be asked to do something. If someone is off-handedly demanding your attention while you (and they) are engaged in other tasks, are you interested in complying? Probably not. Now imagine you’re a 5-year old. Do you think you’d be more or less likely to comply?

Would You Go to the Gym, If It Would Save a Life?

That’s what Jen-Hsien Chiu thinks.

Chiu, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, developed Phabit – a “smart pot” that will nurture a plant, depending on whether or not you stick to your habit.

There’s actually some nuance to it. Users of the app complete a personality quiz that puts them into one of four buckets: obliger, questioner, rebel, and upholder. The idea being that the app will challenge each group of people differently.

On its face, it certainly seems like an innovative way to help us form better habits. However, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of “holding something hostage,” especially another lifeform. I realize that to some, it’s just a plant, but there’s a growing body of evidence substantiating the sentience of plants.

Plant sentience aside (for the moment), let’s look at it purely from a habit forming perspective. Recall from Charles Duhigg’s excellent book, The Power of Habit:

Studies have shown that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want.

As I said previously:

That’s really important because this thinking wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, folks will tell you that you need to focus on the cue, while others will say you need to focus on the reward. As Duhigg suggests, you can focus on whichever aspect you want, so long as you’ve diagnosed the habit.

Now returning to Phabit – do you think seeing a wilted plant on your desk would raise your level of awareness, with regard to your shirking your goals? If I had to say, I’m probably going to guess the answer is yes. So, purely from a “science of habits”-perspective, Phabit certainly seems like it’s a great way to get people thinking about their habits.

Let’s revisit the plant sentience aspect.

If we presume that plants are sentient (and the evidence certainly points in that direction), then we must consider the ramifications of literally holding another life hostage to our actions. There are two possible outcomes I want to mention: empathy and PTSD.

Empathy. One might argue that by subjecting one’s self to this could foster a sense of empathy (i.e. I feel bad because *I’m* hurting the plant). One might also argue that the “continued killing of plants” (through not completing one’s daily goals) could potentially promote emotional numbing and maybe begin to strip someone of their empathy.

PTSD. Dovetailing with the point on empathy above, I suppose it’s possible that someone might begin to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress from “killing” a plant (or multiple plants, depending on how things go). I realize that this might sound absurd in the abstract, but if we presume plant sentience, killing a plant would fall on the same continuum as killing another being. Granted, the ramifications to one’s psychological wellbeing might not be as severe as if one were to kill an animal or another human being, but when we invent things, it’s incumbent upon us to consider the possible ramifications from as many sides as possible.

Your Invention is about to Launch: Did You Consider ALL Ramifications?

Do you think it’d be wonderful to have government departments with such lofty titles like the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Plenty, and the Ministry of Love? OK, maybe that’s a bit too on the nose, as most people have probably read (and/or heard of) 1984. The point I’m trying to make:

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Huh? Let me explain.

You’re a burgeoning, young social entrepreneur who can’t wait to set the world on fire with this idea you’ve been cultivating for years. This invention has all the hallmarks of a game-changer in its industry and will surely have a spillover effect into other industries. It will revolutionize the way business takes place for years to come. You know that as soon as your invention goes to market, the world will be a better place. Finally, the day is here and your invention goes live. There is an enormous uptake rate. People start using it instantly – across the world. You’re so happy and can’t believe how quickly people have adapted to making it part of their daily lives. You always hoped and thought they would, but to see it actually happening – wow!

Two months later, you start to notice something peculiar in how your invention is being used. You notice that people are starting to use the invention in a way that you hadn’t intended and that this is starting to have an adverse effect in some areas. Weeks pass and you see that the trend has continued. People are continuing to use your invention in the “wrong” way and as a result, some people are starting to get hurt. More weeks pass and you realize that your invention, while if used in the way you intended is wonderful, has become a main driver of pain and suffering in the world.

Recognizing this, you wish with all your might that you could go back to the day before you launched the invention to undo it. Take it all back. Unfortunately, the proverbial cat is out of the bag and there’s no going back. The internet is here to stay…

I share this anecdote on account of something I read in The New Yorker recently:

In an influential piece that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1972, Brand prophesied that, when computers became widely available, everyone would become a “computer bum” and “more empowered as individuals and co-operators.” This, he further predicted, could enhance “the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and human interaction.” No longer would it be the editors at the Times and the Washington Post and the producers at CBS News who decided what the public did (or didn’t) learn. No longer would the suits at the entertainment companies determine what the public did (or didn’t) hear.

“The Internet was supposed to be a boon for artists,” Taplin observes. “It was supposed to eliminate the ‘gatekeepers’—the big studios and record companies that decide which movies and music get widespread distribution.” Silicon Valley, Foer writes, was supposed to be a liberating force—“the disruptive agent that shatters the grip of the sclerotic, self-perpetuating mediocrity that constitutes the American elite.”

Fifty years ago, people thought computers would bring us closer together in a way that we hadn’t imagined. Certainly, we can say that that’s the case, but we must also say that they’ve brought us closer together in a way that we hadn’t imagined!

When we aspire to bring things into the world through entrepreneurship (or) intrapreneurship, it’s extremely important that there be someone there to play the role of “devil’s advocate” to consider ways in which this “wonderful idea” might literally set the world on fire. Optimism is great, but without a healthy dose of pessimism in the planning process, we might be closer to a Ministry of Plenty than we’d like to believe.

NOTE: This was cross-posted.

Beauty: Eye of the Beholder or Eye of the Culture?

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the MOSÏACANADA150 exhibit. It was quite an experience to see these wonderful artistic exploits up close and personal. In particular, the crown jewel of the exhibitionMother Earth: The Legend of Aataentsic. Upon seeing it, I was immediately struck by the *inherent* beauty of the exhibit. And then I wondered – is this exhibit beautiful to me because I’ve been trained/influenced through cultural norms as to what’s beautiful or is the exhibit actually, inherently beautiful?

As it happens, I’m not the first one to have such a wondering:

The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in philosophical aesthetics.

So, it looks like I’ve stumbled upon a fight of the centur(ies)? Here’s a bit more from the above link:

Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice. It is a primary theme among ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and medieval philosophers, and was central to eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought, as represented in treatments by such thinkers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Burke, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Hanslick, and Santayana. By the beginning of the twentieth century, beauty was in decline as a subject of philosophical inquiry, and also as a primary goal of the arts. However, there were signs of revived interest by the early 2000s.

The article on Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the quintessential question (and the very same one that I had): is beauty objective or subjective? The discussion is fascinating, especially if you’re into heady quotes from philosophical giants like Hume and Kant. I recognize that not everyone will geek out on this, so let’s skip to the penultimate paragraph [Emphasis Added]:

Alexander Nehamas, in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007), characterizes beauty as an invitation to further experiences, a way that things invite us in, while also possibly fending us off. The beautiful object invites us to explore and interpret, but it also requires us to explore and interpret: beauty is not to be regarded as an instantaneously apprehensible feature of surface. And Nehamas, like Hume and Kant, though in another register, considers beauty to have an irreducibly social dimension. Beauty is something we share, or something we want to share, and shared experiences of beauty are particularly intense forms of communication. Thus, the experience of beauty is not primarily within the skull of the experiencer, but connects observers and objects such as works of art and literature in communities of appreciation.

So, maybe my writing of this post about “Mother Earth” is a way of sharing the experience with all of you or inviting you to share the experience with me. If you live in the Ottawa-area, you’ve still got 6+ weeks to visit Jacques-Cartier Park and enjoy the ‘beauty’ in all its splendour.

Building Society on a Foundation of Kindness: Parenting Without Borders, Part 9

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we examined the importance of unstructured “play.” In Part 7 and Part 8, we explored what education is like in East Asia and Finland. In Part 9, we’ll look at cultural notions about rearing our children to be kind.

If you’ve been following this series, no doubt there may have been some things that have made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. And if that hasn’t been the case up to this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if this chapter is the one that finally does it.

One of the first anecdotes, while it shouldn’t be, is still a bit shocking [Emphasis Added]: “In 1970, the primary goal stated by most college freshmen was to develop a meaningful life philosophy; in 2005, it was to become comfortably rich.” It’s no wonder that the way we treat each other in today’s society may seem a bit different than the way we treated each other 50 years ago (“-isms” like racism and sexism aside, of course). As a quick aside — how different would society look like today if the goal of 90% of university students was to develop a meaningful life philosophy, rather than to get rich?

Near the beginning of this chapter, Gross-Loh recounts how some of the parents she knows are emphasizing (possibly unintentionally), individuality over community awareness. What does that mean? Well, for example, she retells the story of a mother of a three-year-old rushing to comfort her son after her son had thrown a wooden toy and hit Gross-Loh’s son in the head. The idea behind this is that the other parent was trying to get her son to understand the feelings he felt that precipitated the chucking of the wooden toy at the other kid.

Allowing children to behave as they want to until they feel like acting differently actually makes our kids more miserable and less compassionate. Children who have too few boundaries often flail around for a solid surface to ground them.

Consequently, it’s up to us — as parents — to set these boundaries and more importantly, enforce them. Building on this idea of boundaries…

Believe it or not, research shows that children are born with a sense of kindness, but that’s not enough. If this sense of kindness isn’t fostered and reinforced by parents, it can be “overwritten.” Similarly, research has shown that kids are happier when they’re giving something to someone else than when they receive it. That shouldn’t be too surprising (spending your bonus on your coworker will make you happier than spending it on yourself!). An important aspect of this is incentives. If we reward kids for sharing through incentives, we may unintentionally dissuade them from developing a sense of internalizing the virtue of sharing (thereby dissociating sharing from its innate spontaneity and instead, teaching our children to expect an external reward whenever they share).

Two more things I wanted to highlight from this chapter —

Parents who teach their children to speak with authenticity and honesty but do not simultaneously teach them the art of being considerate send their children the message that it is always better to be honest to your true self even if it means hurting someone.

And finally, a difference in orientation in American and Japanese cultures:

While American mothers often orient their babies to things apart from themselves, such as objects, Japanese mothers more often orient their babies to themselves, encouraging a constant awareness of relationships and the impact of one’s actions on other people.

[…]

In disagreements that warrant adult intervention, kids are asked what they think the other person felt that motivated him.

Can you imagine how different American society would be, if every kid is taught the value and importance of considering the underlying motivations of the actions of their friends and other people?