Skills for children

Today some friends started asking me what skills Jeff and I wanted our child to learn, and when.  Some ideas that came up:

– Languages.  Some people were advocating going with a language completely different from English (preferably tonal) so as to maximize the child’s language-learning capabilities.  I think we’ll go for Spanish, as I expect it to be more useful than something like Mandarin.  At some point kids seem to realize which language is higher-status/more useful and refuse to use anything else, so we probably have a limited window before she insists we talk English.  But even hearing it and pretending you don’t understand has got to be more useful than never learning it at all.

Jeff has some preference for keeping Spanish as a language the two of us can use to communicate without the child understanding, but in his experience that just means the kid learning the word for “ice cream” really fast.*

– Video/computer games.  Neither Jeff nor I was into this one, so I hadn’t really thought about it.  My understanding is that some people waste years of their lives on gaming, but others feel they got some good things out of it (meeting people, spatial skills, strategy, etc.)  I guess we’ll play this one by ear.

– Computers.  Smartphones and tablets are very appealing to little kids, and we’ll probably let them use a tablet before they’re up to mouse and keyboard level.  People’s objection to this was that tablet use is usually much more passive than things you can do with a full computer.  I figure we won’t have a television, so some fairly passive tablet time is probably fine.

Beyond that, people wanted to know how we would encourage our child to learn to program computers.  Some of them advocated providing computer access only through a command line.  Given the experience of One Laptop Per Child, this isn’t crazy.  They dropped off sealed boxes of tablets in an Ethiopian village where people had never even seen writing.

“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android.”  (“Hacked Android” means “switched on the camera that had been disabled,” but still.)

– Perfect pitch.  I think this is mostly a nuisance to people who have it, so I don’t think it’s worth trying for.  Having a sense of rhythm and relative pitch is certainly something we want, but I expect this will come mostly from the amount of singing and instrument-playing that goes on in our family rather than from formal training.  I like Jeff’s method of learning instruments by messing around rather than drilling.

– Martial arts.  Seems like a good idea. There was debate about whether it’s good enough that you should sign your kid up before they express interest.

– Meditation.  Something I’m in favor of in theory, but have never actually done for more than a few sessions, so I’m unlikely to influence anyone else to do it.

– Math.  I have so little interest or skill in this area that Jeff is going to be responsible for providing the genes and the instruction here.

– Dangerous things.  I am all for this.  I enjoyed this American mother’s take on European parenting:

Imagine my surprise when I came across a kindergartener in the German forest whittling away on a stick with a penknife. His teacher, Wolfgang, lightheartedly dismissed my concern: “No one’s ever lost a finger!”

I also like Teacher Tom’s approach to teaching children to use real tools:

The funny thing about the real hammers is that in all the time we’ve been putting them into the hands of preschoolers, I’ve yet to see a child use one with anything other than respect, both for the tool and his fellow classmates. The same kid who will clonk another one with a plastic hammer, either accidentally, on purpose, or accidentally-on-purpose, will be a study in concentration and safety with a real hammer in his hand. . . .  A plastic hammer is a toy; a real hammer is a responsibility, children know it, and even the youngest, even the most hyperactive, are capable of taking it on.

Some things that didn’t come up, but that I think are important:

– Visual arts/crafts.  This was a major interest of mine as a kid, and it was really nice that my mom was a preschool teacher and our house was stocked with lots of things to make stuff out of.  When I wanted to make a Cinderella costume, draw a treasure map, or learn to weave, the materials were there.  I look forward to providing the same for my kids.

– Recognizing learning disabilities.  A couple of people in our family would have done better if their learning disabilities, speech impairments, etc. had been recognized sooner so they could have gotten help.  I’m amazed that it took the family 18 years to put together “She’s so smart” with “She can’t spell for beans, even after hours of memorizing words” to realize “This isn’t stupidity; it’s dyslexia.”  With the number of educators in the family currently, including one who specializes in early intervention for age 0-3, I feel pretty confident we won’t miss anything major.

– Drug education.  I never experimented with anything beyond alcohol, and by nature of my work I’ve seen horrible things resulting from drug use, so my instinct is to tell my kids, “Don’t touch it!  You’ll end up in jail/a mental ward!”  But this probably isn’t the most effective technique.  Maybe something like requiring them to read and summarize this overview would be more useful.

– Pretty much the same for sex.  I figure we have the next ten years to figure out any actual limits/guidelines to set.

What else should we be thinking about?

*Correction: Jeff says the point of having a secret language for parents is not to have a secret language, but to motivate the child to learn the secret language.


7 thoughts on “Skills for children

  1. Alexander Stanislaw

    I haven’t read the Nurture Assumption, but I’ve been told that it convincingly argues that parental style doesn’t matter that much in terms of how children turn out*. So I would be inclined to not worry too much about trying to optimize my child’s abilities, personality or intelligence. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter how you treat your child, Steven Pinker puts it quite eloquently:

    “Judith Rich Harris is coming out with a book called The Nurture Assumption which argues that parents don’t influence the long-term fates of their children; peers do. The reaction she often gets is, “So are you saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my child?” She points out that this is like someone learning that you can’t change the personality of your spouse and asking, “So are you saying that it doesn’t matter how you treat my spouse?” People seem to think that the only reason to be nice to children is that it will mold their character as adults in the future — as opposed to the common-sense idea that you should be nice to people because it makes life better for them in the present. Child rearing has become a technological matter of which practices grow the best children, as opposed to a human relationship in which the happiness of the child (during childhood) is determined by how the child is treated. She has a wonderful quote: “We may not control our children’s tomorrows, but we surely control their todays, and we have the capacity to make them very, very miserable.”

    I wish that my parents had taken Pinker and Harris’ advice.

    *With respect to intelligence, personality and educational acheivement. One of the most convincing arguments is that adopted children turn out more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents along many axes.

  2. Ben

    Alexander, I haven’t read it either, but based on the Wiki summary:

    1) It appears to focus solely on personality. This is more likely to be genetic than things like what skills you have.

    2) The studies they cite show no observable parental effects only on average and for axes of variation that psychologists ran studies on.
    a) I would be extremely surprised if psychologists ran studies on most of the ways in which parents differ (rather than, for instance, ways in which parents can be easily measured to differ);
    b) Julia could choose to differ from other parents in ways and magnitudes so different from average that studies wouldn’t pick them up even if they were looking;
    hence I don’t think the leap from “on average, many easily-observed variables of parents don’t correlate with children’s outcomes” to “nothing that Julia does will have any causal effect on her child” is justified.

    3) Critical response to the book has been described as “mixed”, with many psychologists asserting that Harris ignores important evidence.

    4) The field of psychology is not known for its epistemic standards in general.

    I think these factors all point towards putting a higher weight on common-sense models of parenting than the conclusions of The Nurture Assumption.

  3. Alexander Stanislaw


    1) Fair enough, although surely genetics will influence what skills a child will be likely to want pick up?

    2) My position is that within the normal range of parenting, a parent is most able to affect their child’s well-being and their relationship with their child. Trying to optimize children is very difficult. You seem to think that it can be done through parenting that lies outside of the normal range. Could you be more specific?

    3) Well yes there is going to be disagreement on any topic, I’m interested in what the quality of the arguments are. Kagan points out that parents of difference races have children with different personalities even when living in the same town. This is not under dispute: parents matter because they pass their genes onto their children. What is under dispute is that parenting style significantly impacts cognitive ability and personality. Frank Farley says that we need more data and longer term studies, which is reasonable, however that doesn’t mean we can’t act off of the strength of the existing data. Parents actively obsess, to an unhealthy level imo, over how they are going to give their child the best chance of success. Given the existing data, I think that it would be wise to not worry so much about optimizing your child, and to think more about how to develop a healthy relationship with your child that will make their life more enjoyable. Wendy William’s critique is almost entirely on how she thinks parents will respond to Harris’ thesis: namely they will stop caring about their children, which sounds pretty absurd to me. She claims to have some contradictory data, but I couldn’t find any links or references.

    There are different common-sense models of parenting. I think that the Nurture assumption model (cultivate a healthy relationship with your child, don’t obsess over optimizing their characteristics, give them opportunities for exploring their interests and support them but don’t force them into anything) is one that many people would agree with already. What is your common sense model? One common sense model that I see often – put your child into extra-lessons early on, put your child into lots of extra-curricular activities, find precisely the right balance between authoritarianism and permissiveness – is largely a modern phenomenon.

  4. Julia Post author

    Our goal here is less to produce The Best Adult Ever and more to have an enjoyable next few decades. I do think parental influence (other than genetics) is less than the most ambitious parents think it is, and I do mostly buy Bryan Caplan’s argument that this means you can relax a bit, let your kid watch TV, etc. But we don’t plan to let them be raised by wolves.

    1. Alexander Stanislaw

      Okay, and sorry for the tone/presumptuousness.

      To answer the question then:

      Social skills: I realize most people don’t need help with this but something that I only learned in college was how to go from being acquaintances with someone (talking to them when I see them in school or in karate lessons and getting along with them, but not going out of my way to contact them otherwise) to actually being friends with them; which involves more initiative in asking them to hang out and do stuff.

      Being nice to people: Children can be very mean to each other and pick up very bad social habits.

      Learning how to practice: Something that my music teachers never told me was that in order to get better, its not enough to practice – you have to practice music that is just at the edge of your abilities and play unfamiliar pieces. Playing the pieces you already know over and over again will not make you get better. This generalizes to practicing other skills, if you’re too comfortable when practicing then you are not practicing effectively.

      1. Hunter

        As an aside, CfAR has a very good module called turbocharging training that covers how to practice. It includes what you said, but also covers things like the importance of feedback, how and when to divide skills into separate sub-skills ect.

  5. detteyoung

    This sparked a really interesting discussion over Saturday morning breakfast, thank you!

    I’d like my child to be able to enjoy physical activity. I’m not sure how to avoid the typical experience of formal Physical Education etc being un-fun, or of being forced into team sports if they don’t enjoy them. Hopefully we can model being active as an enjoyable thing, and try a lot of options to find what they love.

    For me, one question is whether I can help my child grow skills I don’t have. I’m not great at arty or musical things (ukulele is great because musical numpties like me can do surprisingly well). We will see what general enthusiasm and support will do, but I wonder whether going for formal teaching on some of these things would help or hinder (by turning ‘thing I like’ into ‘thing I have to do’)



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