Self-Directed Life Newsletter: Lies, Damned Lies, and Parenting
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

Flipping through Twitter a few days ago I saw an article advising how to use “cunning, guile, and wit” to sneakily get your child to do what you want.

I wince whenever I read this kind of thing, and unfortunately I see it frequently.

Why is this approach necessary?

Why can’t we simply talk to our children and tell them what we think?

One of the most common emails I receive is

“Help! I want to support my child’s self-directed learning but they can’t read/do simple addition.”

This confounds me.

If you think it’s absolutely critical for your child to learn to read … or have a basic understanding of mathematics … or for that matter be able to do simple automotive maintenance … why would you not act on that? Why would you not tell your child what you believe?

Maybe you suspect that you might be wrong — that maybe you just *feel* like it’s essential, but it’s not, because a lot of other people seem comfortable with not doing it…

If you aren’t sure, why not dig into it and try to figure out whether you agree with those other people? Why not read and research, talk to experts, ask questions? Why not see if you can alleviate your anxiety through good old-fashioned learning?

But maybe you did that … and you still aren’t sure … and you’re still nervous.

Okay, then. Everything is not black/white, right/wrong. There are shades of gray. There are paths that work for some people and not for others.

Purists will castigate you for breaking away from the herd. We don’t care — we believe in figuring out what’s best for us and our family. And we admit that sometimes (maybe frequently) we’re just taking our best stab at what that even is. We think — we hope — we get better at figuring it out as we go along.

So why not be honest?

Why not say to your child, We might be wrong, but this is how we feel right now.”

Why not say, We think this important for you to know. We think it’s an essential skill, no matter what you want to do with your life.”

Making some things mandatory doesn’t mean you take away your child’s ability to direct and manage their own learning. The only thing that does that is if you control *everything* and leave them no room to pursue their own ideas in their own way. You can both have input without annihilating their autonomy.

I suspect we think we should figure it all out before we start. Which is tricky, because how often do you feel like you have it all figured out? If you wait for that magical moment, you probably aren’t going to get much done.

But if you settle for an off-the-shelf solution, you might end up drifting in a direction that makes you more and more anxious.

Why not work your way toward what works best for you and your family, knowing that as you go, your understanding will grow?

Why not share that process with your child, as the ultimate project — figuring out what’s important to know and the best way to learn it?

The things that break all at once aren’t really a problem. You note that they’ve broken, and then you fix them.

The challenge is corrosion. Things that slowly fade, that eventually become a hassle — it takes effort and judgment to decide when it’s time to refurbish them.

And yes, the same thing is true for relationships…Seth Godin

I’m less concerned about what each of us thinks is essential for children to learn and more concerned with our ability to clearly communicate our truths to our own families.

We might worry that if we sit down to conference and work together as a team, it won’t go well, and if our child sees that we’re fumbling around, that we don’t always know everything, that we don’t have instant answers to every question, that we sometimes struggle to find the right words … they might lose respect for us and our authority as parents. Then where will we be? Even worse off than before, right?

We want our children to respect us. We want to seem like we know what we’re doing. When we have to explain ourselves, we feel vulnerable.

We talk all the time about making our own learning visible — letting our kids see us struggle, make mistakes, solve problems, fail, succeed — the whole gamut of learning.

But we tend to think of this process as something we’ll do while pursuing a hobby — sewing, woodworking, writing — not while parenting.

It’s one thing to let your child see you struggle and persist as you put together a sweater or a fundraiser or even a small business. It’s another thing to let your child see you struggle and persist as you try to be a better parent and person.

But what could possibly be more meaningful?

Train up a child in the way he should go — but be sure you go that way yourself. — Charles Spurgeon

This is our opportunity to say to our child:

I know what makes me worthy, and it isn’t being perfect.

It’s how we say to them: I know what makes you worthy — and it isn’t being perfect.

How do we feel about people who make themselves vulnerable to us? Do we like them less — or more?

Who do you feel safer learning with, Ms. Perfect who makes no mistakes or the person who goofs up sometimes?

What atmosphere would you be more relaxed and ready to learn and try in, the one where the people around you and in charge of you seem to never make mistakes and operate with 100% assurance that they’re always right, or the one where people are figuring things out together?

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable helps the other person to trust you, precisely because you are putting yourself at emotional, psychological, or physical risk. Other people tend to react by being more open and vulnerable themselves. The fact that both of you are letting down your guard helps to lay the groundwork for a faster, closer personal connection. — Click: The Magic of Instant Connections
[T]he pratfall effect is the tendency for attractiveness to increase or decrease after an individual makes a mistake, depending on the individual’s perceived ability to perform well in a general sense. A perceived highly competent individual would be, on average, more likable after committing a blunder… — Pratfall effect — Wikipedia

Those who never make mistakes are perceived as less likeable than those who commit the occasional faux pas. Messing up draws people closer to you, makes you more human. Perfection creates distance and an unattractive air of invincibility. Those of us with flaws win out every time.

This theory was tested by psychologist Elliot Aronson. In his test, he asked participants to listen to recordings of people answering a quiz. Select recordings included the sound of the person knocking over a cup of coffee. When participants were asked to rate the quizzers on likability, the coffee-spill group came out on top.

…[T]his is why we tend to dislike people who seem perfect! — How our brain works: 10 surprising facts

This is where we can check ourselves against our core values and our big goals (which we can only do if we’ve taken the time to define them).

If our goal is to appear to be the all-knowing, never-struggling Wizard of Oz to our children, simple: Tell them what’s what and by the way pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

If our goal is to help our children become fantastically capable self-directed learners who don’t feel the need to pretend to know things they don’t know, who don’t have an anxiety attack when they goof up, who react to problems with curiosity rather than fear… well, then we need to be that kind of learner, too. We need to set the example. We need to set the tone. We need to make our home a place where learning happens in all of its bumpy, imperfect glory — and where it’s celebrated not for happening with zero struggle but for happening after plenty of struggle.

We can employ cunning, trickery, and deceit to get our children to do the things we want them to do.

Or we can be honest and start a conversation about what we think is important. And we can ask what they think is important. And we can figure out a way to move forward together.

It’s harder work, for sure. But doing that work is the whole reason we’re here.

I think that one of these days you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then you’ve got to start going there. — J.D. Salinger  

I am editing and enhancing the PBH Tip Sheets so they can be sold individually and in bundles — the first one is available and it’s very related to what we’re talking about in this newsletter: Before You Strew: Stealth vs. Deliberate Support


Last week’s newsletter talked about how my older son is homeschooling college by starting and running a small business. I should have mentioned a couple of great resources on the site — posts about entrepreneurship and favorite resources related to self-employment/starting and running a small business.


Speaking of jobs…

“It’s difficult to predict which skills will be valuable in the future, and even more challenging to see the connection between our children’s interests and these skills.”Preparing our kids for jobs that don’t exist yet

As I said on Facebook, be careful with sites like DIY and JAM — kids’ interests should take precedence, not random activities done to win badges. Sites like these can be great resources for kids who already have interests and ideas of their own but they can also become passive recipients of someone else’s ideas and passive followers of someone else’s directions, chasing external rewards that are fairly meaningless and deplete kids’ self-motivation. Regardless, I agree with everything Zach writes here about interests => talents => jobs we can’t predict.


And one more:

It’s not about getting an A — treat work like school and you won’t be successful. The single biggest mistake I’ve seen women make at work

We need to rethink how we define success in learning.


Bob Dylan just won a Nobel Prize for Literature for his lyrics. When he was a boy, he wanted to become a folk singer. His parents “felt he was entitled to the chance” so they gave him “one year to do as he pleased.”


“[R]esearch shows…how kids learn math best: as an open, conceptual, inquiry-based subject.”Why math education in the U.S. doesn’t add up


“We only think about things we care about.” — The emotional weight of being graded


It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows. ― Epictetus

Thank you as always for your continued support. If there’s anything you need, reply to this email and let me know! Have a great week!

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