Project: preschool homeschooling

Another post that’s probably not that interesting unless you’re considering doing something similar.

Lily is about to turn four. I assumed that most three- and four-year-olds are in preschool, but that’s not the case, even in families with highly educated parents.

Percentage of 3- to 5-year-old children enrolled in preschool programs, by parents’ highest level of education and attendance status: October 2015. SourceClick the figure to expand

We already have full-time in-home childcare for our kids (an au pair from Colombia who’s great with the kids but more interested in chilling than early childhood education). There is no low-cost preschool around us. The idea of spending an additional $250/week to put Lily in morning preschool (this is the low end) wasn’t appealing. Our city has far fewer pre-K spots than children, and we decided not to enter the lottery.

But I was also worried about her arriving in kindergarten at age 5.5 with no particular background in literacy and numeracy. We read aloud and tell stories all the time, and Lily sees other kids at the park, library, and playgroup. I thought we’d do something more like unschooling, where we could do math games and so forth during our regular play. But she hasn’t usually been interested in altering her usual play like that. So I decided to try out something more structured.

What we’ve been doing

For the last month, Lily and I have been doing “lessons” each evening. She’s really into Heidi right now, so I told her in advance we’d be doing lessons like Heidi does, and she was sold.

I probably spend about an hour a week preparing stuff. I enjoy the prep. Usually we do lessons alone in my bedroom while Jeff watches Anna, but on nights when he’s away we do a lesson with both kids (I try to set Anna up with a gluing project that will keep her busy while Lily works on more complicated stuff).

Lily’s way more into it than I expected. Something about the structured time works very differently for her than playtime, and she’s willing to try activities she wouldn’t try during normal play, I think because they feel special.


I really like the preschool activity books from Core Knowledge Foundation, despite my suspicion that this has something to do with Core Curriculum and I am supposed to be opposed to this. We rarely use the actual “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know” book because it’s mostly stories we already know.
The book is intended to last a schoolyear if you do five pages a week. We’ve gone through almost all of the first book in a month because Lily wants to do several pages a day.

For literacy, we’re using a lot of The Measured Mom and This Reading Mama, both of whom have masters in education as well as now teaching their own children, so I find they have solid knowledge of teaching literacy combined with experience tailoring it to individual kids.

I look through the library catalogue for kids’ books on a topic, request some books, and pick them up from the front desk one a week or so. We’ve done things like shapes, coral reefs while we were in Puerto Rico, and spring. If nonfiction books are held specially aside for lesson time, she’s willing to have them read to her even when she wouldn’t choose them during non-lesson time.

I like these videos.

We’ve done some “music lessons” from a Music Together album, like tonal patterns and spinning with scarves to music.


We start by looking at the calendar, talking about any events coming up (when is the weekend? what will we do then? whose birthday is next week?) and singing a song about the day of the week.

Every couple of days, we introduce a new letter (using roughly this order). Lily decorates the letter with something. Here’s S for stars:

And then they go on the bedroom wall, conveniently covering my bad paint job over the place where the insulation was put in.

Then we do letter cups: I give her two cups each labeled with a letter she knows and a stack of pictures of things that start with those letters, and she sorts them into the cups. She doesn’t much like this, but it also seems particularly good for her learning the sounds, so we do just a couple of cards each day, which takes under a minute.

One variant she’s liked is deliberately telling me the wrong one and asking what it would sound like if lemon started with M (or whatever). I figure this is good practice at playing around with sounds, and she can now figure some of them out herself.

Then we might watch a youtube video about something sciencey (some kind of animal, how something is made, etc.)

We finish with a couple of sheets from the activity book. These have various color, shape, pattern, and math games in the first book and more stuff with letters and numbers in the second.

She’s especially excited to practice counting with things like coins and glass gems, which she normally can’t play with around Anna because she still might eat them. I try to get some mileage out of the lure of the forbidden.

Sometimes she’ll produce a skill she wants to learn, like buttoning buttons. But usually she can’t really generate these, and if she tries comes up with things like playing at putting her teddy bears to bed, which she already spends lots of time doing. So we’re both pretty happy with me coming up with almost all the things we do, and her occasionally rejecting ones she doesn’t like.

The challenge for me is getting the right amount of tasks she doesn’t much like. When a task is unpleasant or too hard, she moves into goofiness (climbing on me, jumping on the bed) as a defense. Currently my method is to go with the goofiness for a little while (enjoy the jumping and climbing), ask her to do a tiny bit more of the task, and then move on to something else.


  • I expected we’d do fifteen minutes each evening maybe 5 days a week, taking breaks for things like vacation. In practice, Lily wants 30 minutes, every day. On weekends she asks for extra lessons. I think a lot of what she loves is focused one-on-one time with me, which she usually doesn’t get because Jeff is her default parent and I’m Anna’s default parent.
  • She likes worksheets more than I expected. I thought of worksheets as the enemy, but apparently some kids really like them, and I’m happy that the ones are based on sound understanding of child development instead of creating cute pictures that adults will like.
  • I thought we would use a very “child-led” method. Now that I know more about the difference between “child-led” and “child-centered”, I see that the latter is more what I’m going for. From my vantage point as an adult, I think Lily will really enjoy being able to read, and that it’s worth some less-fun parts to get there sooner. Rather than waiting for her to spontaneously be interested in learning letters, I’ll lead that process. But the activities are centered on her interests. E.g. her favorite letter activity is “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”, where baby (lower-case) letters fall out of a tree and the matching upper-case letters come pick them up and put them to bed. She loves rescue and care-taking play, so this works for her. (She invented the part where she literally tucks all the letter cards into my bed.)
  • She hates drawing. The pre-writing stuff is going very slowly as I try to give her little successes with drawing a few dots, circles, and lines in different orientations.


We’re both enjoying this more than I thought. We’ve been able to keep it at a speed where she’s picking up new things but usually feeling accomplished rather than stressed about it. I’m excited to cover All The Things (we haven’t done dinosaurs! or the water cycle! or continents!) and I have to keep reminding myself there’s time.

It’s likely that one or both of us will get less interested in the lessons as time goes on. But even if it peters out after a few months, I’ll feel better that she knows a lot of stuff she’d normally get in a preschool.


Notes on visiting Puerto Rico

These are some notes on our first major vacation since having kids. Probably not that interesting unless you’re considering a similar trip.

(Note that it feels a bit weird to write about a significant, totally optional, expense. Jeff and I decide each year what percentage of our income to donate. The nice thing about this is that the remainder is for us to spend however we wish, including on fun things.)

I’ve spent this week with Jeff, the kids, and my parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Upshot: I’m happy that we went someplace where low-key hanging out at the house and in the neighborhood was a pleasant way to spend the week. We mostly did normal stuff we do at home, but with beaches instead of snow. This worked particularly well with little kids.

General reasons we chose it:

  • San Juan is a 500-year-old city with interesting buildings and history
  • Nice weather, except during hurricane season
  • There were cheap direct flights from Boston, though only at inconvenient times.
  • There’s enough to do in San Juan that we didn’t need to take any car rides longer than 15 minutes

Part of the US:

  • don’t need passport
  • money is the same
  • cell phones work the same
  • We enjoyed practicing our Spanish, but most people you encounter speak enough English to communicate fine, and many are fluent.
  • There’s a lot of interchange between the mainland and the island, so a surprisingly large fraction of waitstaff and Uber drivers who asked where we were from had visited Boston.
  • Even kids Lily and Anna met were bilingual a surprising amount of the time.


  • Crime is high for an American city, similar to New Orleans.
  • Feels a lot safer than our time in Quito, Ecuador, where pickpocketing/theft was a major problem.
  • As a woman I had zero problems walking around alone, no street harassment.


  • The Puerto Rican economy depends heavily on tourism, and people here seem to like having tourists around (particularly after Hurricane Maria). People on the sidewalk who heard us discussing where to go would stop and offer directions unsolicited. Uber drivers often gave us advice on places to visit and foods to try. One of them spotted us the day after he’d driven us somewhere and stopped to ask if we’d had a nice time. Another promptly and cheerfully brought my phone back after I left it in his car, despite it being after he was done working for the day. People say hello to you on the street. No one seems to be in a hurry.
  • It feels similar to where I live (Somerville, MA) in its blend of hipsters and older working-class people, but with fewer hipsters.
  • There’s no smoking in public places.
  • We’re in a residential neighborhood, but it’s quite a bit noisier than our neighborhood at home. The frogs, roosters, etc. are loudish at night even in a fairly urban area. The houses are close enough that we could hear a neighbor snoring at siesta time, but I found it charming. An apartment in a high-rise would probably be quieter.
  • It feels pleasingly tropical, with little lizards in the garden, beaches shaded by coconut trees, and brightly-colored buildings in the old city.


  • Uber worked great, actually better than in Boston or the Bay. We never waited more than 3 minutes for a car.
  • Carseats are not really a thing – drivers are confused if you try to install them.
  • My parents rented a car and spent a day driving around the island.
  • Driving is similar to a northeastern US city like Boston, but with worse potholes.
  • I took a city bus once and that was fine too.


  • There is Zika here. Even in a house with screens we got bitten quite a bit, so definitely don’t count on avoiding mosquito bites.
  • We had the routine vaccines already, including Hep A. The CDC says you should probably get a typhoid vaccine, but our doctor’s office was confused and wouldn’t give us one, so we didn’t get one.
  • Many tourists drink the water. Some of us had iced drinks and popsicles with no ill effects, and boiled the water at home. The kids had no unboiled water.


  • $1750: 4 round trip plane tickets from Boston
  • $1192 2-bedroom Airbnb 7 days (we actually paid $1680 for a 3-bedroom because of traveling with my parents, but this is the price for an Airbnb I think we would have gotten if traveling with just 4 of us)
  • $120: Ubers (1 or 2 round trips each day)
  • $315: groceries (3/4 of meals and snacks) and restaurants – we would have spent about $140 at home.
  • $51: entertainment (kayak rental, museum entrances)
  • $75 childcare: what we would have spent on babysitting if not traveling with my parents
    Total: $3363 more than we’d have spent otherwise, or $120/person/day for the 4 in our immediate family.

It’s worked well for us as a low-key place to go with young kids. There are more exciting things you could do here if you’re traveling without kids (water sports, hiking, dancing/clubbing).

Many US stores and brands are here, which might be good or bad depending on what you want. Lily currently subsists largely on English muffins, so it was nice to be able to buy them at the local supermarket. Restaurants usually have a kids’ menu with grilled cheese, etc.

We’ve stayed in an AirBnb and kept a relaxed schedule, with expeditions around San Juan in the morning and evening and afternoons napping at home. I’m happy we got a standalone house with a garden, where we enjoyed eating and looking at lizards and plants, rather than an apartment. This way even time noodling around the house with kids felt like we were enjoying vacation.

Part of the reason to go with my parents was so they could do some childcare and Jeff and I could have some time without the kids. We only did this for one morning while Jeff and I went kayaking and swimming without the kids. I took some afternoons to explore alone while Jeff stayed with the napping kids. A trip with just two adults would have worked fine, maybe with some time from a babysitter.

The waves and riptides can be strong on the oceanfront. Our favorite place to go was the Condado Lagoon – the lagoon side has very gentle water, and the swimming area on the other side of the street is protected from large waves by a breakwater. We didn’t see the lagoon’s manatees but did find lots of coral washed up on the shore. On Mondays the place was pretty deserted, but on other days there was a food kiosk and a kayak and paddleboard rental.

Favorite Spanish overheard: the dad we heard in the park telling his son that, lamentablemente, they would need go to home in 2 minutes. “Lamentably” is my new favorite parenting expression.

Notes on Oneida community

Passages I highlighted about the Oneida community from Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings. The Oneida Community was a Christian communal society founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York.

“At the community’s peak, three hundred Oneida “Perfectionists” lived an intensely intimate, intellectual existence in a rambling, Italianate mansion. They saw their community as an earthly branch of the Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of portal through which the millennium would come to earth. Under the influence of their utopian forebears, the Perfectionists renounced private property, raised their children collectively, embraced gender equality, perfected a novel form of birth control, experimented with every health fad of their day, pursued rigorous self-improvement, practiced a complex system of free love, and initiated an unprecedented experiment in eugenics.”


Early decision from the founder on cooking:

“When it occurred to him that the practice of eating three hot meals a day subjected women “almost universally to the worst of slavery,” he simply stopped it. The thirty-odd members of the Putney community ate one sit-down meal in the morning and then foraged for themselves from an open pantry “as appetite or fancy may suggest.” The door to the pantry was marked with a card bearing the motto “Health, Comfort, Economy, and Woman’s Rights.””


After the woman he loved married someone else, Noyes decided that “complex marriage” in groups was the proper way for Christians to live. He was a virgin at the time.

“By the 1860s, with three hundred people living at Oneida and Wallingford, the Perfectionists’ struggle against “the marriage system” was going surprisingly well. While moralizing critics described the community as an “orgy” or “brothel” or “harem” or “seraglio” or “whoredom,” the Perfectionists insisted upon their own conservatism. Their erotic delight, they pointed out, came with all the usual pledges and sacrifices of the marriage bed. Any two Oneida lovers, by dint of their membership in the community, were obligated to support each other through sickness and health, to hold all of their wealth in common, and to care for any offspring born of their coupling. . . . Sex, as practiced within the community, was understood as a sacrament—“a more perfect symbol of [a union with Christ] than eating bread and drinking wine,” as Noyes put it.

“Every adult in the community was loosely ranked according to a system of “ascending” and “descending fellowship.” To hasten spiritual growth, novices were encouraged to go to bed with those who were more enlightened. In practice, this meant that the young or recently converted slept with older, more experienced Perfectionists. . . . [such as the founder, Noyes].

“At Oneida, unlike at so many other sexed-up religious enclaves, the May–December loving went both ways. “Spiritually ascendant” older women erotically baptized teenage boys. Given that the mechanics of male continence were difficult for young men to master, receiving their sexual education from postmenopausal women offered one practical benefit: there could be no risk of an unplanned pregnancy.”

Seems to me this still holds benefit for Noyes, though. If the young men are paired with older women, it leaves young women available for older men.


Women in the community designed a costume suited to work:

“The result was a long-sleeved blouse and a matching knee-length skirt worn over loose “pantalets.” They called it “the uniform of a vital society.” After some snickering, all of the women in the community adopted it. This so-called short dress was soon supplemented with elastic sneakers, which, like true utopians, they called “the final shoe.”

…The women at Oneida cut their hair shoulder length or shorter, a style then associated with adolescent girls. While their sisters in the World routinely spent an hour arranging combs, pins, and extensions atop their heads, the women of Oneida boasted that they went directly from bed to the breakfast table. “Any fashion which requires women to devote considerable time to hair-dressing,” they announced in the community paper, “is a degradation and a nuisance.”

“In the 1860s, a group of community women started an “express service” to convey visitors and packages back and forth between the mansion and the nearby train depot. The venture presented local non-Perfectionists with the jarring sight of “unattended” women in sporty dresses and childlike haircuts loading parcels, wrangling horses, and operating a prosperous enterprise.”


“Labor “bees” were common at every utopian colony of the era, but the Perfectionists raised them to an art. They held bees for every large task—brick making, planting, broom corn harvesting, bag stitching, vegetable picking, and fruit preserving. “Working in storm,” as they called it, made tedious jobs go fast and gave the communists an economic edge over their neighbors. Neither “isolated” householders nor wage-paying bosses could quadruple or halve their workforce from day to day. The Circular regularly trumpeted the efficiencies of the system. Four thousand quarts of strawberries were picked in a single day. A barn was raised in a weekend. A large trap order was filled in one night. One “storming company” was tasked with stitching the bindings of nine hundred religious pamphlets. They ran out of printed matter so quickly that they went looking for other things to sew, turning their needles upon a large heap of flour sacks in need of darning. Laboring in “mixed company”—especially when combined with breaks for cake or brief bouts of fiddle-accompanied contra dancing—helped give tiresome undertakings a flirtatious, festal atmosphere.”


“In July 1852, at the height of the Observer-stoked outcry over complex marriage, the communists opened their gates to a skeptical public, inviting people to come in and be impressed. That event, a free “strawberry festival,” was the first of countless subsequent picnics, performances, and concerts, all of which were orchestrated for the pleasure of the World. The outreach worked. The Perfectionists’ upstate neighbors gradually became their best defense against periodic attacks by crusading politicians and churchmen. When the district attorney in Utica agitated for the community’s expulsion, a prominent local businessman wrote Noyes, promising that “the people in this vicinity will not consent to have you disperse.”

. . . .”An illustration on the cover of the magazine Puck depicted a clutch of scowling churchmen gesturing toward the peaceable commune. “Oh, dreadful!” reads the caption. “They dwell in peace and harmony, and have no church scandals. They must be wiped out.””


“A community notice from 1858 declared that “child-bearing, when it is undertaken, should be a voluntary affair, one in which the choice of the mother, and the sympathy of all good influences should concur.”

“The community’s unusual method of birth control was surprisingly effective. Among roughly two hundred sexually busy adults, there was, on average, about one accidental pregnancy each year, a rate that compares favorably with that of modern birth control pills. Those few men who were unable to master male continence were paired with those women who were, in the poignant euphemism of the day, “past the time of life.” In 1852, the Circular boasted that “the increase of population by birth, in our forty families, for the last four years, has been considerably less than the progeny of Queen Victoria alone.””


“As the community prospered, the Children’s House became increasingly deluxe. A large, steam-heated playroom was outfitted with indoor seesaws, balance beams, swings, and a miniaturized wood shop in which a group of boys attempted to build themselves a “flying machine.”

. . . .The children conducted their own sort of self-governance. In 1851, they raised their small hands in support of a series of resolutions denouncing their homemade dolls as a medium of “the mothering spirit”: “This doll-spirit that seduces us from Community spirit in regard to helping the family and that prevents us from being in earnest to get an education is the same spirit that seduces women to allow themselves to be so taken up with their children that they have not time to attend to Christ, and get an education for heaven.” After a discussion about their “idolatrous” toys, the children voted to put their dolls to the flame. The little boys were particularly “loud in their clamors for the great massacre.” Following the vote, a group of nine- and ten-year-old girls stripped their dolls of the bloomer-style outfits they had sewn for them and, one by one, tossed the toys into the woodstove. When the burning was over, “all hands rejoiced in the condemnation.””


After thirty years of a deliberately limited birthrate and cautious recruitment from outside, Noyes announced the start of a positive eugenics program (“stirpiculture”, from the Latin for “stem,” as “eugenics” wasn’t coined for another twenty years) in 1869.

“The ability to actually achieve “scientific combination”—as opposed to the “promiscuous scrambling” of the World—was opened by the twin innovations of male continence and complex marriage. In hindsight, Noyes’s hat trick of erotic experiments form a chain. Male continence, first inspired by Harriet Noyes’s birthing traumas, created the possibility of complex marriage. And it was complex marriage, the community’s civically oriented ménage à trois-cent, that made their experiment in controlled breeding possible.

For a time, selections were made by a six-member committee that included two Yale-educated physicians. Mostly the selections were left up to Noyes and his inner circle. Like breeders of flowers or dogs, the Perfectionists had to choose which traits they were aiming for. While the intelligence and health of the volunteers were taken into account, the main criterion was a highly subjective notion of spiritual inspiration. On the dubious assumption that good sex makes good babies, mutual attraction between volunteers was considered a plus. Practically speaking, the Perfectionists had their ideal target close at hand. “The existence of Noyes,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “simplified the breeding problem for the Communists, the question as to what sort of men they should strive to breed being settled at once by the desirability of breeding another Noyes.” Not surprisingly, Noyes personally fathered a sixth of all the “stirpicults.” Ultimately, a total of fifty-three women and thirty-eight men were selected. They pledged themselves as “ ‘living sacrifices’ to God and true Communism” and went upstairs in pairs.

“Between 1869 and 1879, forty-five “stirpicults” were born. They were raised and nursed by their biological mothers for nine months and then transferred to the nursery of the Children’s House, where they were cared for by specially selected teachers and generally fussed over by the entire community. The biological parents renounced all rights of parenthood.

“In 1891, after the breakup of the community, Anita Newcomb McGee, a final-year medical student at Johns Hopkins who specialized in gynecology, studied the stirpicults for a report in the American Anthropologist. By then, the eldest were twenty-two. McGee found that most of them had been impressive students, with both boys and girls earning scholarships to top universities. With a single exception, all were perfectly healthy. Many were unusually tall. They were highly literate, and when they convened at the Mansion House each summer, they entertained themselves with debate competitions and concerts. With the exception of Noyes and a few other lawyers and clergymen, the volunteer parents had all originally been farmers, laborers, and craftspeople. All but one of the stirpicults (a machinist) pursued nonmanual professions. Among the eldest boys in the group—those for whom a career could reasonably be predicted in 1891—there were medical students, law students, businessmen, a math prodigy, and a successful musician. The eldest girls, in the estimation of Dr. McGee, were also bound for intellectual careers. One was a scholar of Greek at a women’s college; another was studying the new kindergarten system. Of course, much, if not all, of the stirpicults’ success in life can be attributed to their carefully administered upbringing in the Children’s House and the intellectual, self-improving tenor of the community in which they were raised.

Ironically, the stirpicults’ main “failing” was a distinct lack of faith.”

One interesting thing about this is that it goes against a lot of modern findings that institutions are terrible places to raise young children 24/7. It seems that a community of loving and motivated adults was able to do a very good job at institutional childrearing. I don’t know much about kibbutizim but that would also be an interesting area to look about this.


Ultimately the community disbanded after failing to find a suitable leader to replace the aging Noyes (he tried to install his son, who was a flop.) Many younger members wanted to try monogamous marriage. Noyes fled to Canada in 1879 after it looked likely that the town would charge him with statutory rape, and the community ended complex marriage at his recommendation. The community lasted two more years before disbanding. The transition from group marriage to monogamy was extremely difficult, as members who had thrown themselves into arrangements radically different from mainstream nineteenth-century society now tried to live in a halfway arrangement neither here nor there, in the blended family to end all blended families.

In the same year, an unpopular ex-member assassinated president Garfield. I’d be curious to know whether this association, even by  a member the community found unpleasant and unstable, would have done them in if they hadn’t already been disbanding.


The book covers five American utopian movements, of which I found Oneida and the Shakers the most interesting. If you liked these passages, I’d recommend the rest of the book.

First steps toward altruism for children

Lily’s started to voice interest in poverty. “There are no poor people in this country,” she asserted the other day. I assured her there are. Yesterday she asked if there are poor people living near us. Yes, I told her. “Maybe we could visit them!” she said hopefully.

So here I am, researching where we can drop off donations for local low-income children. (I figure her circle of ethical concern is pretty small, and we’ll start with the next level out.) Giving goods instead of money, and giving locally at all, is the kind of thing I’ve written against for years. I desperately don’t want her to get stuck at this stage, of only giving to people whose situations resemble hers and in ways that are convenient for her rather than useful for them. But she’s three. I’ll start where she is.

She saw me looking at the website and asked what it was. I explain that we can give money or clothes to children near us who don’t have things they need. I tell her she can do this if she wants. “Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow after dinner,” she says, sounding suspiciously like my “Not today, thanks,” every time I walk past a sidewalk fundraiser.

Soon we’ll do this same routine with environmentalism. Her school will teach her to never let faucets drip, to use efficient lightbulbs, to recycle. These are things children can affect, but I’m scared about how many of them stay here. If she’s anything like me, she’ll try to optimize the salient things (how much energy does a hot shower use? did I clean this peanut butter jar well enough before recycling?) when there are much better things she could be using her time, attention, and willpower on.

I want her to feel that she can take part in making things better. I also want her to understand, eventually, that optimizing your personal consumption and habits are horrifyingly far from adequate. They are good at helping you feel better. They are not good at fixing the world’s problems.

No answers here, just questions. I’ll let you know if we find things that seem to work.

More on this topic from Thing of Things: Effective altruism and children

Valentine exchange

When’s the last time you got nice mail? It’s time for the valentine exchange!

  • If you want to participate, email me at at gmail by Sunday, Feb 3. Include your mailing address.
  • On Feb 4, I will send you a list of about 4 other people. Please send each of them a valentine by Wednesday, Feb 7. They can be storebought, homemade, whatever.
  • Enjoy checking the mail!

Photo on


Today I heard another example of  “I would never have guessed in a million years that this person experienced mental illness” (because the person was affable and successful in business). When I heard it about myself, I used to take it as a compliment. It meant I was passing, that if I was depressed I was at least hiding it well.

Now I feel this kind of statement conveys less about the person being talked about and more about the speaker. Not being aware that people with mental illness can run Silicon Valley businesses, or manage their symptoms, or hide their symptoms, or be authentically happy some of the time and wretched at other times, strikes me as kind of ignorant.

(Meanwhile, people usually understand that “I don’t think of you as black” or “You don’t look Jewish” are not actually compliments.)

21% of Americans between 18 and 49 meet criteria for a mental illness each year. And it fluctuates over time – someone who met criteria for an illness last year might have fewer systems this year, so the percentage of people who have had a mental illness at some point is higher than that. You probably also know people like me whose combination of symptoms never technically met the definition of a disorder, but who sure weren’t doing well. We’re everywhere. And yet most of these people don’t have significant impairment – they’re still working, raising families, being members of Congress, etc.

Years ago I was shocked when my coworker, an older woman I revered, mentioned that she was in recovery from addiction. It didn’t square with my image of her, so I tried to hide my surprise and said nothing. I wish now I had said, “Congratulations,” that I had done something to honor her hard work and her ongoing success.

There’s nothing wrong with being surprised when you learn something that updates your sense of a person. But use it to better understand the world (now I know some blue-eyed people are Jewish! Now I know successful entrepreneurs can still develop life-threatening depression!) and not to convey your surprise directly to the person in question. It’s not fun to hear something that sounds like, “Wow, I didn’t know people like you could seem so normal!”

What parenting taught me about risk

(Content note: talk about danger to children)

I remember wondering how parenthood would change me. One change I notice is that I pay more attention to how wonderful and fragile the world’s systems are.

One of the first things most people notice about a baby is how easy it would be to damage them. Their skulls don’t even cover their brains all the way. When we first lived with new parents, on day seven the mother announced with awe, “We kept him alive for a whole week!” I know that child mortality is only .7% in the US, but if I didn’t know that I’d assume I had something like a 60% chance of keeping each child alive. The more you think about their tiny organs, all the moving parts, the more miraculous it seems that it all more or less works.

Then as they get older you have to decide how much to communicate with them about risk. Mostly we don’t tell them about dangers, except those that are so accessible to children  streets, stairs, poking their eyes — that we need the child’s help to avoid them. Lily gets very concerned about some of these, so I try to only tell her what she needs to know.

And yet she picks up on it. Recently I asked Lily to keep an eye on her younger sister while I got something from the basement. When I got back after a two-minute absence, Lily updated me: “I kept an eye on Anna, and she did not die.” Which is exactly what I wonder about every time I come up the stairs in this situation: is silence good or bad? How long would it take for a child to asphyxiate if she swallowed something?

When we told her about how sticking metal into outlets can burn you, Lily taped hers shut.

But I notice the flip side too. Part of educating children about the world is teaching them about how things work and how complex and wonderful the world is.

All these things that just felt like background suddenly stand out to me now that I’m explaining them to the kids. We loves books that describe systems, like how the postal system works.

(This is just page one of something like three about all the steps a letter goes through.) The postal system is amazingly cheap and reliable! We put a letter in a box on the corner and trust that it will reach its destination unread and untampered with. You can go a long time taking this for granted, unless you’ve spent time in a place where the mail system doesn’t work like this.

Stores are amazing! These vast supply chains bring us stuff we want to buy! Roads! We go places in really fast vehicles propelled by explosions and don’t crash that often! Clothes! Making clothes by hand used to take a really large portion of women’s time, and now we can just buy them for a few dollars! Heating! Basically everyone has been cold all winter forever, but now we can just tell our thermostat how warm we want our house to be!

As a parent, you’re both presenting the functionality of the world to your child (“There goes the firetruck to help someone! Woo, wooo, hear the siren!”) while scanning the world for danger and disfunction (Holy shit, it wouldn’t take much for our house to burn down). And I still think about the brokenness of the systems — what kind of life did the garment workers have? What invisible things happened to bring us these things from these stores?

Steven Pinker’s essay on the Second Law of Thermodynamics summed this up for me. Brokenness and chaos is the natural state of the world. It’s only by the collective effort of billions of people over many thousands of years that things are this good. Civilization is imperfect and fragile. Growing up in nice neighborhoods in a nice country, you can miss this. But even here, anywhere we are, one of our chief tasks is to protect against chaos and destruction. To make the world as safe as we want our children to believe it is. Another task is to enjoy the beauty of the world while we have it, but that kind of rests on doing a reasonable job at the first task.