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.