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Child development, critical thinking, parenting

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From my reading of history–the history of ordinary people living ordinary lives–and my own observation and experience, and contrary to what many “experts” claim, I think that teens of at least near-normal intellectual development would be capable of some basic critical thinking if it was introduced to them and expected of them from the beginning of their lives. But the fact is that the vast majority of authority figures–parents and teachers looming large among them–don’t want critical thinking from kids; they want kids to take what the authority figure says as gospel.

Our society has this utterly bizarre concept that kids can suddenly step into adult roles at some arbitrary point–all of them at the same point for the same action, the points for various actions having no relationship to each other, and in many cases without their ever having any preparation. I have encountered parents who make virtually every decision of any significance for their kids, then send them off to college with the expectation that the kids can suddenly make good decisions. I have encountered parents who never allow their kids to say ”no” to them under any circumstances, then expect the kids to be able to say ”no” to peers, older predators, bad influences. We say that kids have the maturity to understand and form intent to commit murder and should be tried as adults, but they don’t have the maturity to understand and consent to sex.

You don’t learn to make good choices, to say ”no” to pressure, to handle money, to control anger, to responsibly judge whether sex is right in this situation–to do any of the things we expect of ”adults”–overnight, as a function of going off to college or turning 18 or 21 or whatever. You learn those things day by day over many years. You don’t learn critical thinking overnight, and you don’t necessarily learn it in four years of college–or else every college-educated person would be good at it, and we know that isn’t so. You learn critical thinking by, well, learning to think critically, and that can be taught, in an appropriate context for the child’s age and development, from babyhood on.

But teaching a child (in a development-appropriate way) critical thinking involves something that many parents and (in my sad experience) most teachers are unwilling to do: tell the child, openly, clearly, sincerely: ”I might be wrong.” We told our kids we might be wrong throughout their growing-up years.  And we also told them that other adults might be wrong, or in some cases, certainly were wrong (which did not endear us to some of their teachers). The benefit we’ve found is that our kids (now well into adulthood), even during their teen years, have been rather more willing to trust our word on things than seems the average. They know that if we say, “I think that…,” ”I’m pretty sure that…,” or ”Everything I’ve experienced tells me that…,” we mean exactly what we say, no more and no less.

(This previously appeared in part in my Live Journal.)

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Family

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I’ve been trying to think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound smug and doesn’t offend people who aren’t as fortunate. I don’t know if I have succeeded, but here it is:

I am grateful beyond description to the universe, to fate, to any power that might have had a hand in it, for giving me the family I have today.

My family of origin was not a happy one, for reasons that need not be repeated here, but when I hear of the circumstances of some others’ growing-up years, my family looks–especially for its time and place–not so bad at all. As my father, then my brother Dennis, then my mother passed, I was on good terms with all of them, and I miss all of them. And despite our having some political differences (though we have far more core values in common), I have a close relationship with, and much admiration and respect for, my brother Steve and his daughter. I have solid contact with my great-niece and her adoptive sisters, with one nephew’s family, with another nephew.

Jonathan and I see his sister and brother-in-law far too seldom, but we are all compatible and (to the extent I can speak for the others) enjoy each other’s company. My mother-in-law and I are of very different personalities, but we like and respect each other; I felt honored when she once asked me to be the one to accompany her on a short road trip.

In parenting, we seem to have avoided repeating our parents’ mistakes (though we have undoubtedly made our own new and different ones). I am so happy to see that many of my extended family have also done so; some cycles have been broken.

There is no one in his or my extended family that we would not be glad to have a visit with. He has few cousins and I have many, but we would enjoy time with any of them. Sure, there are some we have more in common with (and a few we definitely can’t talk politics with!), but none we don’t want to have contact with. Our kids have friendships with their own cousins and some second cousins.

And closest to home, we have great relationships with our kids, and they with each other.

How did I/we get so lucky? Yes, we try to do our best, and if I may say so, we are good people. But that’s true of many.

I am the most fortunate of humans, and I want to remember that every day.

White Pride

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I don’t understand the concept of “white pride.”

To be fair, I don’t really understand “black pride” or “gay pride” or any of those others as well. But since I am white and straight, I am going to talk about “white pride.”

I have never grasped the idea of being proud of anything other than one’s own accomplishments. I have always been reluctant to say that I am “proud” of my (now adult) children’s achievements or character, because those are theirs, not mine. To say “I am proud of you” seems to take credit for something I didn’t do. Oh, I know that their dad and I contributed to their lives, but that’s just what we were supposed to do, the job of parenting. They are the ones who took our input along with everything else around them and within them, and turned it into wonderfulness.

So how much more strange it seems to me to take pride in things that were done by people who share one incidental, superficial characteristic with me, to take pride in things I made no contribution to at all. And if that characteristic is the color of my skin, my hair, my eyes–something I have absolutely no part in deciding or maintaining–it becomes downright bizarre.

The larger the group that shares the characteristic, the stranger this is to me. To take pride in being Irish American is less weird–“less,” but weird–to me than to take pride in being of Irish heritage or to take pride in being European American, and those less weird than to take pride in being “white.” Depending on the definition (I’m pretty sure that most people who claim “white pride” would not include as “white” Caucasians such as some [subcontinental] Indians and North Africans), there are hundreds of millions of “white” people alive today. Where is the “pride” in belonging to such a category?

If one is going to take pride in simply belonging to a category, I think that one must also take shame. If one is proud of being white like George Washington, one must also take shame in being white like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. If one wants the pride of belonging to a group that one had no part in joining, one also must bear the shame.

For myself, the pride and the shame of things I have actually done is sufficient for my lifetime.

The Job Market, College, and Job Status

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Generally speaking, the job market is crap. Young people are coming out of college with degrees, many of them with tens of thousands of dollars in loans to pay back, and they can’t find a job. Yet society keeps telling teens they must go to college if they want a good future.

It’s time to stop this madness. And the first step, as I see it, is to start changing the way society looks at jobs.

We must stop judging people’s worth–worth to society but especially worth as human beings–by how much money they make. Maybe some of that is already happening, as ordinary folks find out just how corrupt are some of the people at the top in business–how they are not helping but rather are hurting society as a whole, along with millions of individuals. Along with that, we must praise business leaders who do right for society and for their employees, and we must support their businesses to the extent we can, even if we pay a little more or have a bit more inconvenience.

Next, we must stop judging people’s worth by some arbitrary status we assign to the work we do. And yes, it is arbitrary–it’s a social construct. In some societies teachers have much higher social status than in the U.S. In some societies physicians have lower status than in the U.S. And no matter how many jokes we tell about scum-sucking bottom-feeders, lawyers still have high social status here.

What do we need more of right now, lawyers or plumbers? Journalists or electricians? Accountants or HVAC technicians? In every case, the second one is the answer.  Angie’s List magazine, in a current article, says that with so many tradespeople nearing retirement and fewer young people entering the trades, the labor shortage in such fields as heating and air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, roofing, drywalling, and tiling is acute and will get worse.

So why aren’t we–as a society, but also as parents and teachers–steering more young people away from years in college and into the trades? I think that one important factor is job status.  Too many parents would rather say, “My daughter is a lawyer” than “My daughter is a plumber.” But let’s inject some of the realities of today: wouldn’t they rather say, “My daughter is an employed plumber who just bought a house” than “My daughter the lawyer can’t find a job and has $100,000 in student loans to pay back”?

Pointing students toward the trades got a bad reputation when guidance counselors were doing that for most of their minority students, while they helped less-qualified white students apply to college. That situation absolutely had to change, and where it still exists we must continue to challenge it. But we can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Not every high-school student–of any ethnicity, gender, family background, or socioeconomic class–will find their best future by going to college.  The trades need them; WE need them.

If you can’t get an appointment with a lawyer to draw up your will this week, it can wait till next week. (This is an unrealistic example; there are more than a sufficiency of lawyers out there eager for your legal business!) But if a pipe is broken and you can’t get a plumber, if your power is out and the power company doesn’t have enough electricians, you are, not to put too fine a point on it, SOL. Even if it’s just the cable going out right before your favorite show, or the A/C stopping when it’s 103 F., you are going to suffer if you can’t find a skilled tradesperson quickly.

And workers should have a status that reflects that. “My son the roofer” should be as proudly introduced as “My son the doctor.” High schools should be praised as much for how many students who want to pursue a trade are accepted into trade apprenticeships as for how many who want a degree are accepted into college. Probably they should be praised more for the former, who are almost guaranteed a job at the end of their training, than for the latter, who may join the masses wielding useless degrees in an overcrowded job market!

“Always Safe from Harm”

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Not long ago I resurrected and posted (to LiveJournal and Facebook) something I wrote four years ago:

We are not safe; we never have been; in any future I can imagine, we will not be. No human can guarantee to keep her/himself safe, much less the rest of us. Those who promise to do so are liars. The most someone can truthfully say is that they think they can keep some selected group of people safe from a specific danger under very specific circumstances. If you are requiring someone to tell you otherwise, you are requiring them to lie to you.

Along comes our president and says, in his second inaugural address: “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”

Possibly the hardest fact for any good parent to learn is that we cannot keep our children always safe from harm. No parent (or other caregiver) in the history of the world, no matter how rich or how powerful, no matter how benign their environment, has been able to do that. The lucky kids make it through without serious harm, but much of that is indeed luck–or fate or karma, call it what you will–and has little to do with what their parents do or don’t.

Yes, a society as a whole, especially with the power of its leadership, can make strides in keeping its children safer. But never “always safe”–as I said, we never have been; in any future I can imagine, we will not be. WIpe out all the diseases, abolish car accidents, end all the domestic and other abuse, stop the wars and all the other violence, and there will still be natural disasters.

Can our children–any of them, much less the president’s “all our children”–ever “know that they are … always safe from harm”? Only if we lie to them.

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