Early excuses. Toys and schools.
Looking through children’s toy catalogs I’m always struck by the language. Scattered throughout the pictures of all sorts of toys, plastic or wood, bright colors or neutral colors, puzzles, trucks, dolls or whatever, there are special snippets of language designed to tell me something important. But what are they telling me? Phrases like “kickstart your child’s play,” “support your child’s development,” and “piano keys that play music and encourage creativity.” They make me suspicious. The first sounds violent, the next obvious, and the last sounds absurd. Since when did piano keys not play music or discourage creativity? Phrases like “helps your baby develop from a crawler to a walker through adaptive technology” are possibly reassuring to those concerned their children might instead develop from a crawler to a swimmer, or perhaps an orthodontist. Phrases like “differentiate among colors and sizes” make me imagine my toddler sorting white and brown eggs into large, extra large and jumbo sizes in an egg factory.
Looking through pamphlets for preschools I see more language that reminds me of the toy catalogs. I’m assured by more than one institution that sensory tables and their messy play “provide endless ways to develop and learn”. They stress that “play based learning” is a powerful method to absorb and process information and they hasten to add they also have formal instruction. As the children in question get older the language shifts more toward instruction. Similarly, the toy catalogs for older children focus more on the instruction and less on the play - and less on the fun.
But - toys are fun. People like to have fun. That’s sort of what fun is. And when someone tries to sell me toys with a long list of explanations and justifications for why these toys have value above and beyond being fun, well, I recognize these as excuses. The implication is that the fun is not the value and has to be excused with some other value, e.g., the lesson, the content, the learning, you know… the important stuff. “Yes, we made the toy fun but that was just to lure the child in. Please trust us that it’s really about important stuff.” I like the word “excuse” because it’s less polite than “justification” and it highlights, for me, the discomfort I have when I read the language and feel I’m being sold something. I especially like the word “excuse” because it’s uncomfortable enough to highlight some of my own excuses to myself.
Later excuses. My kids’ play.
I have a bunch of kids, my kids have a bunch of varied things they like to do, and I’ve noticed some consistent language used when others discuss some of those things. And some consistent excuses.
One child showed an early love of art and a talent for it as well. She spent endless hours not “practicing” or “studying” or “learning” but just “arting” or doing whatever she felt like doing in the way of art. Most people would react to her and her art with questions about long term goals for her art, about “growing up to do art”, about “doing art to make money”, about a career as an artist, and especially about displaying her art, her skill, and herself to others. Art is a fairly respectable thing, but not like being a doctor you know, so it needs some excuses. “What are you going to do with your art?” That is, “since you clearly have this skill, how do you intend to make this a focus of the person you need to grow up to be?” Because knowing what you want to be when you grow up is one of the great excuses. This same person also is an insatiable reader, consuming written material and retaining it, faster than almost anyone I ever met. I have heard few people - but there have been a few - ask her to what greater purpose she was going to apply her reading. Reading is pretty darn respectable. It doesn’t need as many excuses.
Another child showed real enthusiasm and talent for chess. Chess is a game that gets a lot of respect. The strategy, analysis and problem solving skills required to master it are not questioned. Chess doesn’t need excuses. However, when his appetite for chess was sated and his hard focus on it waned then some minor excuses were needed to excuse the lack of interest. Tricky things these excuses. He also showed a lot of interest in some complicated card games, in particular Yu-Gi-Oh and later Magic The Gathering. These aren’t as respectable and need more excuses. Yu-Gi-Oh is a game that requires a lot of basic arithmetic and reading skills for the typical player age range, and I found myself mentioning these excuses often when describing this game. Math and reading are strong excuses and you get a lot of points if you can refer to them. The age range of Magic is older, so math and reading don’t cut it any more, but you can compete with others and talk about your performance and you can actually win money in some cases. And money is a great excuse. If you can tell grandparents that an activity involves math or reading or winning money then it makes everybody happy. And we quickly pick up the importance of making these excuses. On a trip to a surgeon, the surgeon asked him, “So, how’s school?” “Fine,” he responded. The surgeon followed up, “What are your plans?” and he replied, “Oh, real estate and law.” The surgeon nodded with a smile. I didn’t laugh. I knew he was interested in these areas, but plans? So, later I asked him how he had exactly those answers ready to say so smoothly. He replied, “That’s what they like to hear.” Real estate and law are great excuses.
And then there are some pernicious excuses, like The Great Play Excuse. This is a fairly enlightened excuse. It happens when someone is challenging a particular play activity, probably one that doesn’t have especially strong excuses in the opinion of the challenger, and you feel compelled to defend the play by saying something like, “It’s not that this particular activity is worthy, or that he or she will keep doing this forever, but they are practicing skills that will be applicable to other more worthy tasks in the future.” Everyone nods because this sounds very reasonable. And it is. And it’s also an excuse. Or The Talent Excuse, which I’ve used several times in my examples here without mentioning it explicitly, whereby you justify doing something just because you’re good at it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that people are allowed to do things they’re lousy at.
I want to stress that I don’t think these excuses are bad things. This is how we express value and justify our choices. And that’s great. I’m using this label “excuse” to sensitize myself to a whole class of language I use to imply what’s valuable without being explicit; to highlight my own conscious and unconscious actions that communicate to everyone else what my values are, but most especially to my children. Especially because it was the word “excuse” that triggered an epiphany for me about what I expect from my children and from Hudson Valley Sudbury School.
A big excuse. My kids’ school.
I’ve had, and have, a bunch of children in the Hudson Valley Sudbury School for some time now. And I’ve gone through multiple variations of how I talk to others about the school. I’ve worked through lots of thoughts about what I want from the school myself. I’m not one of the Sudbury parents who spends a lot of time doubting if Sudbury is a good choice. I’m straight up blunt that I’m a huge fan.
Without getting preachy about Sudbury, I have to lay a foundation for my language. I did fairly well in public school. I aced almost everything, and went on to do well in higher education. But my single biggest characterization of my public school school experience was that it just wasted so much of my time. I met a few good teachers, was exposed to a few interesting topics I might otherwise not have been, but almost all of my formal school experience sucked up almost all of the time I was trying to spend on my own activities. Without a doubt, those activities, the ones I followed my nose to, proved to be the basis of my college and professional career, but I had to slog thru the swamp of the rest of it anyway. At least that’s how I look at it. Thus while Sudbury has many advantages, one outstanding factor is simply that the institution will waste as little of my children's time as possible, and leave it for them, individually and collectively to decide what to do with the limited time they have.
Sometimes in a discussion of HVSS I’m pressed to defend this or that aspect - “How will they ever learn math? How will they learn to read? How can they get exposed to enough stuff? Who’s going to direct them? How can you trust them? It must be chaos! Etc. Ad nauseum.” You know the list. It’s possible to defend each of these questions robustly, but the most particular and pernicious challenge goes something like, “What do mean they just get to run around having fun all the time? How is having fun going to relate to The Real World? When are they going to get down to the really important stuff?” You know, the stuff other than having fun. And so there is another excellent answer I learned. I would often reply, “My kids have just one job at that school and that is to figure out what they want to do.” They have plenty of time. They really only have to do that one thing and I’d be thrilled. Just figure out what you want to do. I point out that I have professionally interviewed some high scoring college graduates who didn’t have any idea what they wanted to do, nor even knew that they were allowed to want anything at all. These very smart people would sit across from me and answer questions like they were taking a quiz and never turn on, never engage. Their education never left them the time to get so bored that they had to dig themselves out of the boredom with the only tools they could actually call their own: their own desire. And I never hired any of those people because I knew they weren’t going to help me solve many problems that wouldn’t get solved without them. Expressed this way, many people understand this concern. Most parents have this vague nagging cloud hanging over them: “What will my kid do? Like, eventually.” And you know what? Almost always people are really impressed with this answer; with this excuse: You have to figure out what you want to do.
And that was my epiphany. Even when I was doing my best to leave my kids as free as I could to take away what they would from their experience in school, I was still defining the standard for that experience. And that’s OK. I’m a parent. We communicate standards, among other things. This most excellent excuse was my best response for almost ten years. But then I had a moment of clarity of what i wanted even more that they take away from the experience. I wanted them to have fun. But why?
My Current Excuse. Know Thyself.
It’s lovely to find a thing that you like, something you like to do, someone you like to be, or someone you like to be with. But one day you're going to wake up and the world won’t look the same, and food won’t taste the same, and your passions will have shifted while you were busy fulfilling them; even making the big bucks, or winning the big awards, or accomplishing whatever you had set out to accomplish. A day may come, will come, when you don't know what you want. Many such days may occur. And that’s OK. You may be ten, fifteen, thirty, forty-five or seventy years old. You may have just scored a major victory in your field or you may have been depressingly unproductive lately. And then, things change. So what do you do? Well, what did you do the first time? What is your previous experience falling into a passion?
What’s fun? What feels good? What do you want to do? How do you know what you want to do? Do you recognize passion in yourself? How do you recognize passion? Maybe these seem like simple questions. Maybe they seem silly. More and more I think these are the most important questions one can examine. And more and more I’m interested in my children having the opportunity to answer this question.This one question is central to your existential definition.
So what do you do? Well, hopefully you have some practice at sniffing around looking for some passion. Hopefully you have multiple experiences of what it's like to be looking for an interest and randomly or purposely walking into one so that you have some practice in recognizing an interest when it appears. Hopefully you had some time to be with yourself as yourself had some experiences of joy and fun and passion. But let me stress, I’m not primarily concerned with which experiences my kids have or which thing they’ve landed on right now. I want my kids to have a chance to become sensitive to what it feels like to fall in love, to fall in love with yourself, to recognize a passion and take hold of it. A particular passion itself is not my hope for them. I want them to have the chance to learn something about recognizing mutual passion between themselves and the world when it comes along. I want them to learn self-awareness of desirable opportunity knocking on their door, and have some practice answering.
That’s my current excuse and I’m sticking with it for now.