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What are the most important things I can teach my child?
It’s said that you don’t want to give someone a fish, but to teach them how to fish. Well, if modern parenting doctrine is followed, you don’t just want to teach them how to fish, you want to instill a deep and relentless hunger for fish and an expectation that they should not only learn how but keep iterating on the process until one day they’ve built a fishing trawler out of LEGOs and deploy it in the creek behind the house. Or else they might not get into Brown. Or something.
I don’t know if I agree with that. My wife and I work in tech companies and have found some of the recent studies on changing requirements in corporate offices to be true: less rote skills, less individual contributor specialists, more creativity, more ability to play one of many roles in a team, higher requirements for social intelligence, an overall need for more math fluency.
I don’t have a lot of patience for memory-based learning or basic skill drills. My kids like to play (go figure!), so we focus on fundamental enablers such as math fluency indirectly, like through Connect Four or Chess. We focus on reading and comprehension by letting the old one read to the young one, and listen in as she tries to explain the nuance of “bad people” to him in toddler language. We try to teach him that building his train tracks is, in the long term, more fulfilling than playing godzilla and just destroying them in 15 seconds. Although that’s a nice payoff when you have the urge to rebuild.
One thing that’s become more important as they’ve gotten older: the ability to listen and process instruction and the ability to focus on a harder than average problem. The kids are 2 and 5, so this seems weird. But if you’re going to have them in any classes such as swim (this started at 6 months) or soccer (18 months) or gymnastics its really nice if they can avoid being that kid who is bouncing off the walls and can’t follow along. My 5-year-old is attending a school where she’s given timed math quizzes and basically has to go full bore shut the world out focus for 5 minutes to get through it. This isn’t a major thing, but it was different and took some attention at home to get the mindset right. We went with bridging activities like chess and slightly more challenging-than-she-was-ready-for puzzles to help her practice locking in. She’s doing better at it now but we probably should have started when she was 4.
If you keep up with the latest in educational circles about why they think privileged kids test so far ahead of underprivileged kids in grade school, they think it might have to do with the well-to-do kids already knowing the basics by the time they get to class, so everything is a little easier and they can do more creative, play-based things that stretch them out rather than box them in. This is true in our daughter’s school. Kids who finish faster are treated to a host of play-based and creative activities while the other kids muddle through the drill. It’s not great, but it’s just the way it is.
At some point, there has to be an appetite for digging deeper into stuff and there has to be an easy on-ramp for that. We’ve found that there’s a correlation between how easy we make that (by having accessible books, crayons, LEGOs, games, etc) and how inclined she is to dig deeper into something rather than a stress-relieving activity, like puddle stomping (we do a lot of puddle stomping!). Part of the discovery process for us was realizing that she’s just phenomenally better at learning than we’ll ever be at teaching. Our job has evolved to asking dumb but (hopefully) provocative questions and getting out of her way.
I have no idea if she’ll remain curious and creative and continue to enjoy school and learning new stuff at home. But she’s into it so far and I’m hoping the dumb but provocative questions thing scales well.
Jonathan Brill is a writer whose work has been published by Forbes, Time, and the Huffington Post. You can read more from Quora here:
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