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What I’m Learning: Day 20/365

“[What’s exciting is] the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.” -Isaac Asimov

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (Pgs 212-235/Book now finished)

On our culture’s tendency to underestimate the abilities and autonomy of children:

I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.

On trustful parenting:

Trustful parents trust their children to play and explore on their own, to make their own decisions, to take risks, and to learn from their mistakes. Trustful parents do not meausre or try to direct their children’s development, because they trust children to do so on their own. Trustful parents are not negligent parents. They provide not just freedom, but also the sustenance, love, respect, moral examples, and environmental conditions required for healthy development. They support, rather than try to direct, children’s development, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested.

On the message that trustful parenting sends to our children:

You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.

On the myth that children are best protected against future unemployment by orienting their childhood activities around schooling rather than play:

The world of employment is less stable now than it was a few decades ago. It’s impossible to predict what jobs will be available in the future or what job skills will be required…Companies and whole industries sprout up and disappear with unsettling frequency. A result of all this is that parents worry about their children’s abilities to make a living more than they did in times past, and this contributes to their increased tendency to view childhood as a time of resume building rather than a time of play. Somehow, parents believe, if they can get their children into the right adult-directed extracurricular or volunteer activities, get them to achieve high scores on tests, and get them into the most prestigious schools, they can protect their children’s futures. They are wrong of course, but the perception persists.

The reality is that the best protection against unemployment in uncertain times is having precisely those qualities people develop through self-directed experiences, not through the prodding of parents or teachers. Uncertain times require unique personal responsibility, independence of thought, self-initiative, self-assertion, flexibility, creativity, imagination, and willingness to take risks. These are the characteristics fostered by the trustful style of parenting and inhibited by the directive-protective style.

On how school-centric thinking has adversely affected our concept of child development and parenting:

In addition to its direct influence on families lives, the school system has had an even more pervasive indirect influence. Increasingly, researchers, parents, and society at large have come to view all of childhood through the lens of schooling. Everyone categorizes children according to their grade in school. Most research studies of children are conducted in schools and focus on school issues and concerns. The result is a school-centric view of child development that distorts human nature.

In schools, learning is adult-directed, not child-directed. In schools, learning is considered to be sequential, along established pathways. You have to learn A before you learn B. In schools, children’s companions are all the same age — there is no learning of skills through play with older kids, or of responsibility through play with younger ones. In schools, self-initiated play and exploration are disruptions. All these are components of the school-centric model of child development. As a result, people have come to believe that learning is fundamentally sequential and adult-directed, that the proper companions are other children of the same age, and that self-directed play and exploration are largely a waste of time for children beyond the age of four or five. Developmental psychology textbooks, for example, commonly refer to the preschool years as “the play years,” as if play naturally stops or takes backseat after that. We have allowed the schooling system to blind us to the natural ways of children.

On the importance of giving children the opportunity to learn, grow, and choose on their own:

If we value freedom and personal responsibility, we must respect our children’s rights to chart their own lives. Our ambitions cannot be theirs, and vice versa. The self-charting begins in infancy. To learn responsibility, children must learn how to make their own decisions in the course of each hour, day, and year, and they can learn that only by practicing it. All loving, caring parents care about their children’s futures, so it can be hard not to try to control them. But the attempts at control defeats its goals. When we try to determine our children’s destinies, we prevent them from  taking ownership of their own lives. When we try to pilot our children through the daily and weekly mazes of life, we prevent them from practicing their own piloting and learning from their own mistakes. When we offer our children advice they didn’t ask for and don’t need, we reduce the chance that they will ask us for advice when they do want and need it.

On the need to let children define success for themselves:

Whether your child succeeds or fails is up to your child, not you, and the measure of success or failure must be your child’s, not yours. The world is full of unhappy lawyers, doctors, and business executives, and many clerks and janitors are happy, fulfilled, and decent. Career success is not life success. You can be happy or unhappy in any profession, but you can’t be happy, at least not for long stretches, if you feel that your life is not yours. These are truisms. They may sound trite. But too many people forget them when it comes to their child-care practices.

On the real reason why education reform fails:

Almost everyone involved in the education enterprise considers himself or herself to be a “reformer,” in tacit acknowledgement that the current system doesn’t work. This has been true since the dawn of compulsory schooling. Some want to reform the system by nudging it one way (maybe by offering a few more choices and lightening up a little on the testing), while others want to reform it by nudging it the other way (with an even more standardized curriculum and more rigorous testing). This is the stuff of countless books and articles written by professors of education. But no one in the education establishment is willing to admit that coercive schooling doesn’t work precisely because it i coercive and that the only meaningful reform is one that puts kids in charge of their own learning.

On why he’s optimistic about the future of education:

History tells us that when people see freedom as a viable option, they choose it. When adults see that coercive schooling isn’t necessary for success in the culture, they will find it hard not to choose freedom for their kids, and the kids themselves will demand it. Children will no longer buy the argument that schooling is bad-tasting medicine that must be endured because it is necessary or good for them. As more people leave the coercive school system, a significant bloc of voters will begin to demand that some of the public education money that’s been freed up be used to help support kids’ self-directed learning, to provide educational opportunities rather than coercion. Think of what could be done with even a fraction of the roughly $600 billion of taxpayer money that is currently spent on coercive K-12 schools every year in the United States.

The decline in coercive schools and the rise in voluntary educational opportunities will be gradual, but eventually the coercive system will fade away. And then we will witness a full renewal of children’s capacities for self-control and desire to learn, and an end to the epidemic of anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness that plague so many youth today.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Caplan on Parenting
EconTalk Episode with Bryan Caplan

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, Bryan Caplan explains why he thinks parenting isn’t as difficult or expensive as so many seem to think it is:

It is true that parents push themselves very hard today. Actually, they spend more time taking care of their kids than they did during the baby boom suprisingly enough. But a lot of what they’re doing is based on the idea that they have to do a lot of unpleasant things for their kids in order to protect their kids’ future. So you have to do a lot of different activities with them, you have to ride them very hard, so that they can succeed in today’s tough competitive world. The kids often push back on this and many people feel like if you’re a decent parent, you have to make your kid unhappy now in a lot of ways in order to give your kids a decent future. And so, a lot of what’s going on is that people are doing things that aren’t very fun, they’re stressing, and they’re stressing their kids on the theory that if they do so there will be some longer benefits. And this brings us to the million dollar question which is, “does all of this parental investment, parental effort an sacrifice pay off?”

Caplan then explains how the nature/nurture debate has gone on for a very long time without much progress. We now know things, according to Caplan, that gives us plenty of reason to believe that we overestimate the extent to which we affect the long-term behavior of our children. Bryan concedes the point that parental styles do have an impact, but the nature and longevity of that impact is radically different from what we typically suppose.

It certainly has an impact of some kind. A lot of what I talk about in the book is precisely what kind is it and how long does it last. It’s one thing to say that you see the effect on your kids right now. Certainly I see that. Everyone sees it. Your child’s misbehaving, you punish him, his behavior temporarily improves. But the question is, “how long does that improvement lasts?”

One you take a look at the adoption/twin evidence, the big punchline, which is very surprising, is that parents turn out to have surprisingly very little effect on long-run outcomes of how their kids turn out…on almost all the things parent care about actually.

So what I wound up doing in the book is looking at adoption/twin evidence on health, on intelligence, on happiness, on educational success, on occupational/career/financial success, on character, on values, religion, politics, in all these areas, the effect of parents turn out to be surprisingly small.

If it really is true that parents are not having a large long-run effect on their kids, then a lot of the unpleasantness that parents currently experience actually is really not unnecessary. You can responsibly, and in good faith as a parent, stop pushing your kids so hard and focus more on doing things that you enjoy. So if there’s things you really don’t like and your child also doesn’t like, then it does become a no-brainer to stop doing those.

Once you adjust your parenting style to take out a lot of this unpleasantness, this basically means that the kids you want are cheaper than you think. You can get a decent well-adjusted successful child, your child will turn out to be a decent well-adjusted successful adult, even if you don’t do a lot of this unpleasant stuff…which basically means that kids you want are cheaper than you think, so stock up. While parenting still has its challenges, as do all forms of human relationships, many of the challenges are exaggerated based on falsified ideas about how much work parents need to be doing.

For Caplan, if you want to have kids, have kids. Most of the reasons for why we should be so afraid are overhyped.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

30 Things People (You) Need To Stop Doing Right Now by Ryan Holiday


Stop lying to yourself about how much you need to work. Sleep is important, family is important, reflection is important. Pushing yourself past the point of diminishing returns is not.

Don’t get outraged by random stuff you read online. First off, a lot of it is more complicated than it first appears. Second, this reaction is profitable for publishers and they deliberately exploit it. Third, outrage doesn’t solve problems. Sober discussion and solutions do.

When idle chit chat is dying off naturally, don’t revive it. That’s like the kid who reminds the teacher about homework. Just because you can’t deal with the void of silence doesn’t mean everyone else has to hear more noise. Let things drift towards their end, it’s a chance for reflection.

Stop blaming other people (especially when it would be natural to assume its their fault). Accept what responsibility you can in every situation. You’ll be better for it.

In fact, most of these rules can be deduced by asking: “What would it be like if everyone else was doing this at the same time?” If the answer is unpleasant, you should stop doing it right now.

Stop saying things just because you want people to know you know something.

Don’t compare yourself to other people. Run your own race.

Stop saying ‘I wish I could read more’ or ‘I need to read more.’ Just do it. Make time. It’s important. Don’t act like it’s in anyone else’s control but yours.

Stop commenting on blogs (even this one), it’s almost certainly a waste of your time (who cares if someone is right or wrong) on the internet.

Don’t share something you haven’t actually read. Not just because the internet is terribly misleading and headlines exploit our worst impulses. Sending something to someone is not free–it costs them time to look at. You’re abusing their trust in you.

The final one is this: Stop pretending that other people know better. They don’t. And you’ll be happier and less resentful if you just assume they have no control over these things. You do control your own behavior, so focus on that…whether it’s rewarded or acknowledged or not. As one philosopher put it, pretend that everyone else is hemmed in by predetermination but that you, and you alone, have been given free-will. Because when you give up the misguided notion that they are in control and focus solely on the fact that you in fact are in control, the whining petulance stops and the magnanimity can begin.

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