Category Archives: Wisdom

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!).

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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?

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.

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?

Children are Finland’s Most Precious Resource: Parenting Without Borders, Part 8

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,  we explored what education is like in East Asia and in Part 8, we’ll look at education in Finland.

There are many fascinating aspects to education in Finland, especially because they’re so counter to many of the ways we understand education in North America (and East Asia, given the last post in this series, for that matter). Here’s the underlying ideal that guides Finnish education [Emphasis Added]:

Children learn best when they are motivated and when they’re given tools to make responsible and effective choices. Teachers and other adults strive to help kids reach their potential by connecting with them, respecting them, and creating optimal conditions for learning. In Finland, children are regarded as the nation’s most precious resource.

In reading the first part of the quote, it might seem strange that other adults also strive to help kids learn, but as the quote closes, it makes sense. If children are the most important aspect to a country, of course all adults would make strive to foster the development of children.

If you’ve ever come across one of those articles that ranks the education systems of different countries, you should be quite familiar with some of the unorthodox methods used in the Finnish education system. For instance: children don’t begin “academic” education until they’re seven years old; every hour is split into 45 minutes for ‘education’ and 15 minutes for recess (even into high school!); Finnish children spend approximately 300 hours (or ~6 weeks) fewer in elementary school than their counterparts in the USA; and they often have no homework. Oh, don’t forget that there aren’t any specialized programs for gifted children, there aren’t private schools, and there aren’t any high-stakes standardized tests (like the gaokao).

When put in that context, it seems extraordinary that Finns consistently are at the top of global rankings in education. It’s not surprising then, that Gross-Loh dedicated an entire chapter to exploring some of the underlying reasons why this might be the case. She found three “secrets”:

  1. Cultivating High-Quality Teaching
  2. A Variety of Classes Enhance Creativity
  3. The Importance of Setting Up Every Kid for Success

Let’s start with the first one — high-quality teaching. Right off the bat, it’s not easy to become a teacher in Finland. Since the 1970s, all teachers were required to have a Master’s degree. Since the 1970s! If we try and equate that to today’s society, that would be like requiring a PhD. Can you imagine if every teacher in the US had to obtain a PhD before being able to teach (even primary school students!)?

If that analogy isn’t enough, how about this one: “Teachers in Finland are as highly respected as medical doctors in the United States.”

Naturally, it follows that Finland invests quite a bit in their teachers — $30 million a year on professional development. Teachers are continually renewing themselves, which kind of reminds me of the self-cultivation piece of East Asian education.

In the second “secret,” there were two pieces that I found particularly important — Finns want their children to be good at learning how to learn and the emphasis on creative study. In high schools, all Finns must take: Finnish, Swedish, English, math, chemistry, physics, biology, geography, history, social studies, handcrafts, arts, home economics, music, and sports. Not only are Finns educated in science (and foreign languages — sheesh, three languages!?), but there is time and emphasis placed on creative subjects. These topics are emphasized just as much as the sciences because, “teachers believe that creative study transfers to a child’s performance in all subjects.”

The opening sentence from the last ‘secret’: “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” Further to that, in Finland, ‘school readiness’ means that the school is ready to receive and meet the needs of the children (rather than the kids needing to be “ready for school”).

The Finnish way of setting up kids for success means trusting them with many responsibilities even in primary school, so they feel a sense of ownership over their own lives and their education.

An excellent example of this, Gross-Loh has a conversation with a student in Grade 5 who is well-versed in matters of the school budget! If I think back to when I was in Grade 5, I don’t even think I knew what a “budget” was, much less that my school had one, and that I could know about its inner workings.

Two last things I wanted to mention —

Near the end of the chapter, there’s a quote that reminded of an image I’ve seen floating around social media: “Instead of emphasizing global competitiveness, or high individual achievement, the concept guiding almost every educational reform and decision [in Finland] has been equity.”

And finally, in case you want to dismiss the achievements in Finland as being impossible to port to the USA, consider that Finland has the same population as the state of Minnesota.

The Quest for a Life of Leisure: Prisoner’s Dilemma in Food Production

In a conversation about “vegan food in the workplace,” I heard a thoughtful comment that reminded me of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Before I paraphrase the comment, here’s a quick video to refresh your memory on the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

So, now that we have a better understanding of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, let’s get back to the comment. Essentially, the person was making the argument that large-scale commercial agriculture and farming is unsustainable, harmful to plants, and harmful to animals. The person was making the point that this problem stemmed from the business models/practices required to sustain them (and not the animals/plants themselves). Further to the person’s point, they explained that we also play a part in this by the way we purchase food. Regardless of whether we buy local, wild-caught food or buy large-scale commercialized food, there’s still an impact on the environment.

Upon hearing this comment, the first thing I thought of was the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Let me explain. There’s a demand for food. Consequently, businesses will satisfy that demand by supplying food. [Econ 101, amirite?] But how businesses satisfy that demand is where things get tricky. They could do so in a number of ways, but let’s simplify it into two: large-scale commercial agricultural production or small-scale local farming. If businesses were to focus on small-scale local farming, they’d be supplying food for the town (or maybe the town and some neighbouring towns). Businesses that focus on large-scale commercial agricultural production aren’t supplying food for a town, they’re supplying food for a country or – countries.

The two-by-two that I see here is that if businesses “cooperated,” they’d be supplying food for the local town(s) and “everyone” would be satisfied (consumers get food, businesses make money, environment is ‘harmed’ as little as possible, etc.). The possible hitch here is that businesses see an opportunity to make more money, so they scale up production into a major agricultural conglomerate (i.e. food for countries). That’s not to imply that this is “bad,” just that the opportunity exists and many businesses seek to seize it. In so doing, that provokes other businesses to do the same – the businesses are “betraying” each other, leading to externalities borne out by things like the environment. [NOTE: I’m aware that this example is very oversimplified and does not represent the state of food in all countries, especially where food shortages exist.]

The irony of the race-to-the-bottom is that, often times, the people running these businesses are all in it for the same thing:

An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

“How long it took you to catch them?” The American asked.

“Only a little while.” The Mexican replied.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The American then asked.

“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” The Mexican said.

“But,” The American then asked, “What do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”

“Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

The American said slowly, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”

And maybe that life of leisure is closer than we think or, maybe, as the above parable suggests, we had that lifestyle before we “betrayed” each other in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In an article I read recently in The Atlantic [Emphasis Added]:

The Ju/’hoansi [of Namibia] not only managed to feed themselves better than many in the industrialized world, but that they did so on the basis of only around two hours foraging a day, and cheerfully spent the rest of their time on more leisurely pursuits such as napping, playing games, and making art.

[…]

Over time, a more sophisticated picture of the Ju/’hoansi’s affluence emerged—one I saw firsthand living in southern Africa for 25 years and one I describe in my recent book. The Ju/’hoansi had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environment and in their knowledge of how to exploit it. This meant that the Ju/’hoansi, like other hunter-gatherers, focused almost myopically on the short term—if the environment always supplied food and materials and the seasons were broadly predictable, what point was there in worrying about the future? This confidence also meant that the Ju/’hoansi did not store food for more than a few days and only expended energy on securing just enough to meet their immediate needs.

The Ju/’hoansi shared their food with one another according to a set of social prescriptions that ensured pretty much everyone, including the young, old, or disabled, got a share. As a result the Ju/’hoansi were also thoroughly egalitarian, mercilessly ribbing anyone that developed delusions of grandeur and seeing no point in accumulating wealth or formalizing systems of exchange.

NOTE: This was cross-posted.