More on the Interested Child Mindset: On Doing Things Badly and the Cult of Expertise

We live in an age that venerates expertise and success, when children specialize in a single sport by puberty and when family cars accumulate miles transporting kids to and from lessons and tutorials, workshops and competitions. Ten thousand repetitions and probably as many tears are rites of passage for children bred to ambition by ambitious families, and mediocrity is viewed as failure.

We occasionally worry that The Interested Child may in some way contribute to this exhausting program of accomplishing. This regimen frames too many American childhoods and adolescences, starting far too early and ending too often with a hollow emotional thud! barely audible beneath the applause as college acceptances roll in or similar external rewards pile up. I’m not sure what values this promotes in the end, but I have my suspicions.

My grandfather, a reflective educator whose own library was filled with how-to books on subjects that interested him through his life but on which he was no expert, used to cite G. K. Chesterton’s contrarian take on the adulation of expertise: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” (We referred to this adage in a post a few months back.) I have tried to take these words to heart in my own life and parenting, and we are pleased to remind our readers here of their profound wisdom.

My interpretation of Chesterton’s maxim: If someone truly enjoys doing something, then let the pleasure of doing it take precedence over doing it perfectly or even particularly well. Enjoy the doing as an end in itself. It’s okay to let go of the mantra that failure is only a step on the road to success; enjoying something that we don’t do all that well is just fine—contrary to cultural messages that a thing is worth doing only if it yields an impressive line item on a c.v. or a profit.

I can think of only one area where Americans seem to allow themselves wide latitude in performance: golf. Duffers may strive for years to be better, but shooting par remains a distant goal for all but near-professionals. Most golfers are surprisingly philosophical about being average, or a bit worse, but for most golfers (at least the ones I have known) the camaraderie and perhaps the scenery seem to be adequate recompense for “a good walk spoiled” around 18 holes.

Our task is gently to urge our children to try new things and then support them in engaging more deeply with the ones they seem to like. But we must not, in our parental exuberance and our own embrace of the Cult of the Expert, push them where our hearts and hopes, and not theirs, are leading. If they enjoy something, take something away from an experience, then that might be as far as it goes. We can dangle carrots to entice and encourage, but we must not resort to even the most metaphorical of coercive sticks in our quest to help kids learn to identify, follow, and build upon their own interests.

I’ll offer myself as an example here. I have played the guitar for going on fifty years, but I’m not very good and unlikely to get much better. I own a nice instrument and early on I really did practice for the requisite hours to achieve “expertise,” but about thirty years ago I hit a plateau, and now I mostly play when no one else is home. But my limitations as a musician don’t limit the pleasure I take in making music.

We like to think of The Interested Child as a mindset, not a checklist or a roadmap—as a compendium of ideas that might intrigue, not an enumeration of imperatives.

#83. Trace your family history back as far as you can

IDEA #83. Trace your family history back as far as you can. Ask relatives for help; go on line; try a library.

For some children this will be much harder than for others, but all the basic resources needed are a family member or two and perhaps access to a good public library or Internet database. This activity is a wonderful way for children to understand the nature of their own lineage as well as the influence of real historical forces on their own forebears.

For a fortunate few, primarily of English or Northern European heritage, there exists a body of written documentation that may even includes published family histories. Beyond that, however, lies a wealth of genealogical resources and, more important, individuals with genealogical obsessions. A local library or historical society might be able to point the child (or the family) in the direction of people who will happily undertake specific research and whose interest in these matters is deep and whose knowledge is broad. Their guidance or assistance may help the child to locate marriage, birth, immigration, property, and death records, but it may suffice for the child to rely on the oral testimony of family members to construct a limited family tree that at least explains the child’s place in the cosmos.

For some children—adoptees, unaccompanied refugee minors, or others whose family records are hidden or have been obliterated by history—this activity could be much more challenging, and even potentially painful. Much adult guidance is called for in these cases, where it is even possible to run afoul of the law (with regard to statutes covering access to adoption records, for example). And as Alex Haley’s Roots project demonstrated many years ago, discovering the details of the heritage of those who came to America not by choice but by force can be extremely difficult, although resources to assist research in this area are more extensive now than they were thirty years ago.

One sees advertisements frequently these days for internet genealogical resources, which sometimes come with high subscription prices and that therefore should not be accessed without adult permission and supervision. These can be helpful for an investigating child or adult with an abiding interest and sufficient resources to cover the cost.

But at some point most children will express a desire to learn more about their lineage and family history, and this is not infrequently the subject of school projects. Whatever the amount of information to be found, the object of the exercise is to help the child in the development of a positive personal heritage and identity.

It can be very interesting to a child to establish that this heritage shows the influences of history—most people’s forebears have been part of one or another of history’s large-scale migrations—and of the cultures from, through, and into which they have passed. Even if specific information or evidence is scarce, sometimes family lore can also be a powerful thing in a child’s life.

#79. Get some friends or relatives together and camp out for a night (or more)

IDEA #79. Get some friends or relatives together and camp out for a night—or more. Make sure you get permission and observe good camping practice—leave no trace!

Camping out is about as fun as an activity can be, but successful overnights in the out-of-doors are the result of some careful thought and planning. Much of this planning has to do with the campers’ understanding of their own capacities as well as practical knowledge.

The first order of business in planning a camp-out is to determine who the participants will be. Good campers are old enough to be independent of the need for comforting adults or frequent trips to the bathroom; fear of the dark is also something of a limiting factor, although sometimes an overnight in a tent with trusted friends or family members can be enough to help dispel this phobia.

Destination and equipment are equally important, as the object is to minimize the risk of having inclement weather or other environmental factors intrude on the participants’ good time. Perhaps a back yard or some public space very close to home seems like a good place to begin (and of course, make sure that anywhere you plan to camp allows such activity). Unless there is absolutely no risk of rain or animal visitation, some kind of tent is required, but this need not be an expensive model from an outdoor-equipment store—hundreds of thousands of pioneers and soldiers have made it through the night under the equivalent of a blanket or tarpaulin tented over a rope strung between two trees or other objects, with the corners somehow fastened down. Sleeping bags or blanket rolls (made by pinning a blanket together into an envelope) keep out the chill. Some sort of small flashlight—to be used for serious business only!—completes the absolute basics.

Of course, if the hike is to distant place, there will also be the need for food and other necessities, including perhaps even recommended tools for dealing with human waste. Camping equipment and camping regulations can be quite elaborate in many locations, and prospective campers who are combining their overnight or nights with some hiking on trails or on public land should check with local authorities before setting out. In some parts of the country there are very strong prohibitions on camping or very serious regulations to be followed.

The need for camping safety cannot be overstated. Camping seems to involve knives and fire more than other activities, and the young camper needs to be instructed in proper use of sharp tools and in the basics of campfire safety. On the whole, fire management and cooking are best done under the supervision of someone wise in the ways of Smokey the Bear and of the specific equipment being used, and local regulations must be strictly observed not only to protect the participants but to protect the environment. A campfire, incidentally, can never be put out thoroughly enough.

Perhaps the most important goal of the thinking child’s camp out is to begin to instill a sense of environmental stewardship into the young camper. For many decades the Leave No Trace movement among outdoorspersons has emphasized the idea that a good camper literally leaves behind no evidence of his or her having been present in an environment. Whether the site of the camp out is a family backyard or a designated campsite in a national park, when the group leaves in the morning there should be no sign at all that they have been there.

#77. Shoot a series of photographs with the goal of capturing one wildly beautiful image of something (or someone).

IDEA #77. Shoot a series of digital photographs (or a roll of film) with the goal of capturing one wildly beautiful image of something (or someone).

Any camera, from a cellphone digital to a single-use disposable camera (although the combination of initial cost and film-processing fees can run up a significant tab) can be used to take award-winning photographs. If the youngster has little experience in the visual arts, the first step might be for him or her to simply become accustomed to looking at the world through the viewfinder, not snapping pictures but getting used to the idea of the visual world broken into smaller units, framed.SMO Library view

Another first step might be to look at great photographs. Any issue of the National Geographic magazine is a miniature museum of photographic excellence, and many art galleries display photographs. The public library should have photography magazines as well as books of photographic art. Simply looking at beautiful photographs is a wonderful way to begin to understand the potential of the medium to do more than record snapshots of friends and relations.

Landscapes, candid, portraits, close-ups—all kinds of subject matter lends itself to beautiful, even moving photography. The child may want to ration the images he or she creates (especially if a film camera is involved), or perhaps the exercise of taking a series of photographs of a single subject would be worthwhile. A photodocumentary, although not quite fulfilling the notion of a single beautiful image, could also be a great project—a series of photographs or friends at play or of a neighborhood activity, or a family portrait gallery showing relatives at work.

If the child has access to a digital camera, the ability to capture a huge multiplicity of images can be used to help the child develop an “eye” through self-critique. Which images “work,” and which do not? What are the elements of a great photograph?

When in the end the beautiful photograph has been made, the final and perhaps most satisfying project will be to decide where and how it will be displayed, or to whom it might be given. (And do not forget that there are any number of photographic competitions in which to enter the image. Some are even for young photographers only.

School and the Interested Child

Another school year begins, and for some children this means a period of dissonance in the transition between the relative freedom of summer break and the regimentation of the school year. Even for home-schooled or un-schooled students, life in the months that comprise for others the academic year is probably more scheduled and more circumscribed than vacation time.

We are a family of schoolteachers, and so for us it is not an article of faith that school is a place of oppression and stultification where rote learning and dreary routine either squelch intellectual curiosity or kill the young soul. As independent school folks we aren’t bound by the kinds of state testing regimes that do truly impinge on the freedom of most public school teachers and students, but we do answer to our superiors and our marketplace. Nonetheless, we believe in school.

Some years back I was contacted by the parent of one of our kids’ classmates. She was concerned—upset, even—that her daughter was completing her assigned work with time to spare each evening. What did I think of this, and what did we do about it at our house, where the same situation, she was sure, obtained? (And it did.) Among independent school parents in Boston(ish), as in most ambitious urban(ish) communities, a nearly unendurable homework load is the sign of a righteous—that is, rigorous—and worthy education, the marker of a “good” school.

I’m afraid I gave the wrong answer, which was that we were delighted that our son had extra time in the evening to be a part of our family and to pursue his own interests. How great that he could be a kid, sitting in the living room and chatting as we watched television, and that he could consume the books he was taking out of the library by the bagful. The conversation soon ended.

We are not fans of extreme homework ordeals, although we were not entirely unhappy when they have occurred for our children from time to time (sometimes as the well deserved result of some inattention to assignment sheets), and we are especially not fans of homework that is repetitive or assigned simply to be homework. We sincerely hope that your child doesn’t have much of this, and we urge families to be assertive with teachers when homework loads are oppressive and destructive to family values and student confidence and happiness. Research is beginning to suggest that excessive homework, or even homework at all, is a poor learning tool, but this notion is so counter to prevailing cultural beliefs that it’s a tough position to defend. Few schools have the courage to embrace the principle of diminished homework.

We are fans of the idea that children should be allowed the space and resources to be interested even amidst the exigencies of a busy school year. It can be difficult, but we urge families and children alike to make a priority of carving out time, a few minutes a day even, to pursue personal interests, hobbies, and areas of curiosity even against a backdrop of homework and schedule of classes and extracurriculars. (And let me add, as a former college counselor, that the “extracurriculars” that matter are those about which a student can speak and write with honest passion. The “best” extracurricular is the one that most engages and inspires the student; for the child with real interest, there isn’t any hierarchy of activities, most-impressive-to-least. Don’t believe your neighbors or the cocktail party “experts” when they try to tell you there is.)

We also offer this tidbit, based on sixty-plus years of observation in our own classrooms: That the most successful students are actually those who are able to look at the material they are studying and find in it—in each topic, and even in each assignment—something that piques their interest, that allows them to bring their own personal curiosity to bear. This can be a stretch (“Do problems 1– 17, odd” may not exactly set a child’s mind on fire), but somewhere in every topic and every task many students are able to find some tiny (or larger) nugget of interest, something to spur engagement and even original thought, and this engagement and originality are the hallmarks of a successful student.

It may be axiomatic in some quarters that school is a drag, a damper on the spirit, but it doesn’t have to be this. Just as we urge the Interested Child to engage with new activities and new ideas, so do we urge him or her to engage with school—at the same time as he or she continues to engage with his or her own continuing exploration of the world and all that it offers.

The Ferguson Syllabus: Talking About Social Justice with Kids

Readers of this blog may or not take an active interest in issues of social justice, which tend to reside (as we confess that we do) on the progressive end of the political spectrum. But it would be hard for anyone in the parenting or educational business to have missed the tsunami of responses to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the shooting by police of Michael Brown.

The shooting and the subsequent community unrest have highlighted any number of issues, from the nature of policing to the extent to which racism is bred in the bone of American society. For high-minded rationalists, the civil unrest is a symptom of something complex and nuanced, and for those who lead from the heart in response to the death of a young, unarmed African American man, these events are indicative of a deep and festering wound in the soul of American society.

For the parents and teachers of interested children, the Ferguson situation seems to require some kind of response; children who pay attention to current events will have questions from which it is hard to turn away. This matter has very much been on the minds of educators, who have tried hard–ourselves among them–to consider the most honest and direct ways of responding to these questions while balancing a teacher’s responsibility to promote thoughtful inquiry against the equally compelling civic obligation to call out injustice and advocate for justice.

To this end–and I know that some of our readers here are in the home-school world and may not be attuned to discourse in the traditional school community–we would like to call attention here to a gathering resource for talking to and teaching kids of various ages, developmental stages, and perspectives about the events that we now refer to simply as “Ferguson.”

If you are familiar with Twitter–and it’s actually a pretty worthy resource for information and ideas relating to educational interests–you may know and understand the “hashtag” concept: that certain topics can be tracked or searched for by hashtag, which is simply a topic name, compressed to a single character string, preceded by the pound sign (#). Thus, anyone with a Twitter account can search or follow the tag (for example) #RedSoxNation (caps optional) to keep tabs on what Boston Red Sox fans are thinking about. Trending events, whether in the news, sports, or entertainment areas, quickly generate their own hashtags, and #Ferguson has been virally popular in recent days.

Educators, eager to gather resources or teaching about “Ferguson,” have created the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus as an identifier for ideas, materials, readings, and approaches to bringing Ferguson-related issues and events into their classrooms. For parents of interested children, as well, a search on #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter will yield useful resources. And if you are home-schooling your child, then the resource will be doubly valuable.

The District of Columbia public school system has also created a handbook of teacher resources on this topic, many of which could be adapted for home use.

We try to stay away from politics here, but the fact is that the events in Ferguson have struck a chord in educational circles that seem to require a response, and so we offer the #FergusonSyllabus as one way for those who are raising and who work with interested children to explore the many serious questions the events in Missouri have been raising for so many of us.

Incidentally, if this inspires you to take the plunge into Twitter, you can follow us there @interestedchild.

#76. Find an old or historical map and compare it with a modern map of the same place

IDEA #76. Find an old or historical map in a book or at a museum or library and spend some serious time studying it—then compare it with a modern map of the same place. What features do you see? How has the place changed over the years? What theories can you come up with as to why these changes have occurred?

Maps are not only informative but also beautiful, and old maps, especially those made in the days before modern printing technology replaced the human mapmaker’s steady hand and designer’s eye, have a seductive force. A map is above all the graphic representation of a place, and fine ones can evoke that place through detail and color; even a modern highway map has the power to suggest both flow and movement and the nature of human settlement patterns accommodating themselves to nature.

A good library will have plenty of atlases and other books containing maps, and some may even have a separate collection of maps. If no hand-drawn antique is available, find a pre-World War II National Geographic Society map and enjoys its wealth of detail as well as the extreme clarity with which the makers assembled the many elements into an information-rich thing of beauty. A modern map, even from the same source, is likely to show differences. Europe, for example, will have different borders and country names and even city-name spellings, while a map of your neighborhood or county will show new streets and roads at the very least. The force of history—the number and location of rail lines, for example, or the appearance of limited-access highways—will be clearly evident.

To use maps comparatively in this way is to understand how humans perform one of our elemental acts: interacting with land. Since the beginning of history humans have felt a need to represent their presence and the presence of things they have created on the land. In addition, maps have always portrayed the resources humans need—rivers, oceans, forests—as well as the obstacles to the realization of aspirations—those same rivers, oceans, and forests as well as mountains and, since the rise of empires and nation states, borders. On a community or regional scale, a topographic map may explain why Main Street has such an odd kink or why the Center Line Road has such a prosaic and puzzling (center line of what?) name.

Of course, any comparative analysis also expands map-reading skill, an essential ability even in the age of Global Positioning Systems. The individual who is able to make the leap between understanding two-dimensional representation and three-dimensional reality will always, literally and figuratively, know where he or she is, and, given a few clues from a map that correspond to what can be seen, he or she will be able to find the way home—even across boundaries of time and history.

A Serious Interlude: Issues of Security and Privilege for Interested Children

The Interested Child proceeds from a number of assumptions, but then so does the way we speak of childhood in our society. “We believe that children are our future,” we sing, and we like to believe that this belief is common across the spectrum of humanity, especially in the industrial democracies that have defined the world we live in and shaped the way in which we envision childhood. Children are special, are learners, are to be protected and nurtured and looked after as they make their way through an educational system designed to prepare them for the world they will inherit as adults.

But the fact is that not every child in our society is on this path. Millions live in poverty and attend schools that are underfunded and underappreciated in every way. Segregation has returned to the American public school system, holding hands with an over-reliance on standardized testing and an under-reliance on the good will and dedication of teachers. We are gripped by reports of events in which young people, in particular young men of color, are gunned down by forces allegedly representing law and order while going about their business, unarmed and unprepared for the swift violence that escalates in the blink of an eye to end their lives.

Some of my friends on Facebook tell the story: How as parents of color they feel increasingly insecure allowing their children out in the world, how every parent of an African American male must have “the talk” with their son about how to comport himself when confronted by official suspicion, how to channel, nearly 60 years after Number 42 took the field for the Dodgers, the patience and resilience of Jackie Robinson when stalked or harassed or accused. While self-deluded reactionaries congratulate themselves on living in a “post-racial” society (whatever that even means), people on the front lines of building a multi-racial society—parents, teachers, children—know that the struggle for equal opportunity and equal rights continues undiminished.

At the heart of this struggle lies the matter of privilege—call it race privilege, skin privilege, whatever. It may be distressing to have this brought up on a blog site devoted to developing the curiosity and intellectual and creative passion of children, but events this week in Missouri, whatever the “facts,” are a reminder that interested children, even if they may be created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, are not always treated equally. It’s far too complex a topic to address here in great detail, but parents of the economically and socially dominant races and classes owe it to themselves and their interested children to take up the question of the unearned privilege that comes with race and class, privilege that some us of gain only by accident of birth and lineage.

Part of the recognition of what this unearned privilege means is an acknowledgment that not everyone has it, and that the assumptions and presumptions that we make about the world and how it works do not apply to everyone. To teach a child this, to help him or her develop the humility and circumspection to move through the world fully invested in and open to their own experience as well as the experience and perspectives of others, is to give a gift of inestimable proportion.

Some readers will take offense at this suggestion, I am sure, but what better way to help a child develop the habits of mind and soul to navigate and appreciate the many cultures and possibilities of this earth than by opening his or her mind to the idea that not everyone does or can expect the same things of life, regardless of their intelligence or interests or will? What better way to help a child develop the empathy and understanding that can help him or her contribute humbly and fully through a lifetime toward making this world a better, safer, and even more wondrous place?

#74. Find the closest piece of Native American territory to where you live and pay a visit

IDEA #74. Find the closest piece of Native American territory to where you live and pay a visit. Perhaps it’s a large reservation, or just a casino. Stepping onto what is legally Indian territory is a good reminder that half a millennium ago the whole continent had that status, and that American Indian people today represent a vibrant and important part of our population.

This might well be a family activity, especially if the nearest Native American destination is a either far away or a standalone gaming casino. But it is more than a little healthy as well as humbling to be reminded that American Indians are still very much a part of the American landscape and that they maintain sovereign control over at least some territory in about forty states. As inadequate and even pernicious as the reservation system may be, it is a part of the national experience. A trip that includes travel on reservation land is essential for giving children an understanding that the Native Americans who seem to disappear from history books some time around 1890 are still very much present in our society.

It is critically important that travel to Indian land be undertaken in a spirit of healthy interest and respect. It may be possible to support Native American enterprise by making purchases at Indian-owned stores or gas stations (in some areas state taxes are not applied to purchases on reservation land), and there may be cultural events or institutions with an educational or entertainment mission. The bane of American Indian tourism is that so many Americans seem unable to move past the stereotypes of Indian customs that have long been prevalent in our entertainment media and even in our schools. Sadly, some Native Americans who rely on tourism have found it expedient to play into those stereotypes out of sheer inability to overcome the apparently inexhaustible ignorance of visitors; we hope that no readers of this blog would be party to such a travesty.

There is also the matter of what social scientists call “appropriation of culture”: the utilization of Indian-made objects with cultural or spiritual significance by members of the dominant culture as entertainment or decoration—e.g., Indian devotional objects used as ornaments in homes and automobiles. How or even whether a white person can respectfully own and display an Indian-made “dream catcher,” for example, would be a great adult–child conversation in conjunction with this activity, and this might even be a question that could be broached to a Native American seller of such objects.

White America has a long and unfortunate record of dismissing—and much worse—Native American cultures and people. The interested child of any age or race who is willing to make an effort to correct, or at least repudiate, this history, will be deepening his or her own understanding of an important issue as well as helping our society make progress toward a better place.

#71. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a magazine about history (past or current) or archaeology

IDEA #71. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a magazine about history (past or current) or archaeology. Old copies of the now-defunct American Heritage would be a natural choice, but there are plenty of current magazines about specific aspects of history—wars, ancient civilizations—that are pretty easy to find.

To whatever degree the past creates the present, a knowledge of the subtleties of history (as opposed to the collection of facts that often passes for history instruction in school) can be helpful in understanding how governments and societies make decisions, or at least how they can arrive at various predicaments. In history the persistence of certain issues and problems is known as continuity, and anyone who pushes their own study of history past the superficial level soon discovers that the problems of socioeconomics, ethnicity, foreign policy, religious conflict, and taxation that vex the world today also vexed the world a century or a millennium (or three) ago.

Magazines of history (as well as documentary programming on television, it must be added, although these are not the focus here for reasons that will appear below) provide multiple windows into small and specific aspects of history—a single person, place, or event, or a specific historical issue or trend. As these magazines are intended to entertain as well as to inform, the writing tends to be a good deal livelier than textbook prose and the overall coverage richer in terms of the inclusion of quotations and, above all, visual material. The best of the history magazines—and the classic American Heritage is the grand-daddy of the genre—solicit articles from the best writers of history and biography, and careful attention to design means that everything about the magazines is attractive and of high quality—so high as to make one wonder whether textbooks need be a dull as they usually are. Smithsonian is a fine example of such a publication.

The argument for going through an entire issue is that the activity will provide first and foremost an idea of the rich menu of material that such periodicals offer and secondly an increased probability of the young reader finding something of real interest; in addition, even the advertisements in such magazines can be fun, offering books, objects, and experiences that may be a bit out of the ordinary.

A couple of hours in front of The History Channel might have some of the same effect as reading a whole magazine, but to be blunt the quality can be uneven and sometimes younger viewers can find themselves watching an infomercial or a program that is distinctly pseudoscientific (aliens and UFOs make regular appearances on several “history” channels) without knowing it. We approve of the concept of the channel but believe it should be watched in at least loosely supervised doses.

Another point in favor of history magazines is that they last in physical form nearly forever, and, along with back issues of those being currently published, there are a number of bygone periodicals with a historical focus—Horizon chief among these—that are worthy of attention even forty years after their first appearance. Horizon, like American Heritage, first appeared in hardbound editions with superlative production values and excellent writing.

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