the myth of childhood

June 5th, 2008

I'm always perplexed when people say things like you know five years ago I was into Britney Spears. Boy was I stupid back then *self deprecating laugh*. Why would you say that? Aren't your observations and conclusions from 5 years ago valid anymore? Surely if you had reason to like her music then, you still have reason today? Maybe it's not your favorite anymore, but why would you want to cut yourself off from your own past? By induction, whatever beliefs you hold today will be equally laughable five years from now.

This is the kind of thing people say about childhood. They say they didn't like something then that they do like now, and say they were just being silly. Parents say things like when you grow up, you'll see, as if childhood is just a protracted waiting room, where everything is fake, before you can actually step into the real world and trust your instincts. Or they say when I was your age, I thought so too, as if that's going to convince me that even though they apparently were completely wrong at the time, they have a grip on things now. Above all, it's as if some people have completely forgotten what it's like to be a kid.

The absolute majority of conclusions I reached in childhood still stand today. I had good reason to reach those conclusions at the time, it wasn't on a whim. Some of them need to be revised now and again in light of new facts, but my process hasn't changed at all. You collect data by analyzing the factors that effect certain results and if the trend is consistent, it's a no brainer. In essence, a basic scientific process, although less rigorous and precise than the scientific method. Sometimes groups of factors form so called network effects that change the perspective on a certain question, but that is relatively uncommon. In any case, as long as you're open to new facts, you'll always be on top of things.

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It's fun when kids challenge adults. Physical sports obviously discriminate against kids for their size and inferior strength. But a sport like chess doesn't, and in chess kids routinely compete and win against adults. How do adults respond to that? That'a amazing! Why is that amazing? It's certainly rare that someone has such a wealth of talent in some particular field, but it's hardly unexpected. Kids are not intellectually inferior to adults, they just have far less experience and knowledge in their favor.

A lot of parents underestimate their kids and don't realize that they actually have another fully functional person. Kids hate being treated as children, because it's a euphemism for treatment that's plain insulting. Kids have to be smart, if for no other reason than the difficult environment they grow up in. The first thing you have to learn as a kid is how to live in a dictatorship. I mean, sure the dictator smiles at you and thinks you're cute (and them underestimating the opposition is totally in your favor), but at the end of the day it's your freedom that's on the line here. One of the first things you learn is that you can suck up all you want, but if they mean no they won't budge.

Any kid worth his salt knows that repeated success comes through deception. Kids have far richer lives than parents know about. If you want to do something they don't want you to do, you can get your way as long as they don't know about it. But once they find out and you get that question have you been doing this even though we told you not to? you don't need the Soviet ambassador to explain that those missiles in Cuba need to go.

This isn't a game, this is your life. What we do out of necessity. They have all the power, so you have to appear to act in good faith. But you have an advantage: you know how they think. If they tell you don't do this and you get caught, you know that the second time being told not to do something is perfectly safe. No repercussions will come from this. The condemnation-punishment pattern is very obvious, and perfectly easy to predict which straw will be the final one to bring punishment. Parents could mix it up and stop being predictable, but frankly they're not clever enough.

So when parents don't want you to have access to something they think they can put it out of your reach and that will do it. What they don't realize is that between you coming home from school and them coming home from work there are buckets of time to figure out how to get it. And what's more, you're far more motivated than they are.

Kids don't care about political parties, but they do understand politics very well. The question is: how do I get what I want even when I'm relatively powerless? Some kids are extraordinarily talented at this, they basically exert power through a battle plan of crying, sulking and nagging. And to exert power from a position of such disadvantage is an artform in itself.

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Another thing parents don't understand is that kids love to use their mind, and that doesn't mean doing extra homework. This is just epic amnesia, seeing as how no parent ever filled their spare time with more homework. When a kid tells you I'm bored, what can I do? you answer why don't you read a book. FAIL. You know, this is your fault. Since you are the self-appointed dictator of this kid's life, it's you who's limiting his options.

Kids enjoy being mobile. They hate walking, they prefer running around, climbing trees, playing games. You're not helping when all you're good for is taking a walk and doing some talking. Kids have a lot of things that rank higher than talking, there'll be plenty of time for talking later.

Life is an epic of learning and using your mind. It starts with putting the right shape of block in the right hole and pretty much keeps going until you end up an office drone. Whenever possible, kids like to learn with their hands. This is why it's good for kids to have a lot of toys and a lot of different toys. It's the kind of hands on learning that we would love to do ourselves, but unfortunately you can't open up an atom and play with the pieces.

In physics class, the question once was: suppose you have a ball coming at you from the right and you want to strike it to place it straight ahead (ie. divert it 90 degrees), at what angle should you strike it? It was shocking to see that certain people rather inexperienced in the field of ball mechanics didn't know that the answer is: slightly to the right to counteract the existing motion. Meanwhile, I was embarrassed to give the right answer cause it was so obvious. Sports is just about the best physics lab you could imagine, studying dynamics hands on. Meanwhile, no kid would ever come up with the idea of the gym where you watch tv and pedal a bike that doesn't move.

So it's not a question of whether kids want to learn. They do. You just have to let it be on their terms. Remember what kids don't have enough of? Experience. So use yours and figure out how you can stimulate them. For that matter, if they figure it out for themselves, get involved. If it's a video game, ask what it is about the game that is challenging, what it is that keeps them coming back to it.

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It isn't a matter of intellect. It's a matter of experience and above all, emotion. Small wonder, since emotional stability is what adults struggle with themselves. So don't treat your kid as a child, treat him as an equally intelligent person who needs encouragement and a push in the right direction. This is really easy, cause you have all the power, but you still have to understand this person's motives and intentions, or you'll probably fail. Do yourself a favor and use gravity whenever you can (ie. align your common interests).

Lots of mistakes will be made on both sides, so don't dwell on the past, just figure out what happened and learn from it. With great power comes great responsibility, so use it for good.

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2 Responses to "the myth of childhood"

  1. erik says:

    I agree with this, and that's one of the reasons I think I would be an awesome parent.

    You know, if I wanted to have kids.

  2. Matt says:

    I'm reminded of Daniel Quinn's novel My Ishmael. Among other things, he postulates that an abolition of institutionalized schools would greatly increase knowledge retention in children. Kids learn their first language relatively very quickly -- because they want to, They want to talk and to understand. But if you were to coop kids up in a school to teach them to talk, as opposed to letting them experience it on their own, they wouldn't learn nearly as quickly.
    The solution: set 'em free. Allow kids to roam their respective towns and learn what they want to. The people with an interest in architecture will be the ones who learn math, etc. Our readers will chose to learn English, literature, grammar, etc. Instead of throwing every field of knowledge at our uninterested kids all day, let them actually learn and experience the parts they want to.
    Anyway, I agree with the entry, and I'm already hooked on this blog.