Stop Telling Good Arguers to Become Lawyers

I’ve met a lot of bright young people planning on law school or in law school.

I’ve also met a lot of unhappy lawyers.

I suspect lots of these young people will end up unhappy lawyers too, and I’ve got a theory as to why.

Lawyers are often “successful” in terms of external indicators and cultural prestige.  They tend to make good money and are held in esteem (lawyer jokes notwithstanding).  And, of course, lawyering is a perfect fit for some people.  I know some very happy lawyers.

But it seems a large percentage of the profession consists of unhappy people.  People who don’t particularly enjoy doing divorce or merger and acquisition paperwork.  Many who wish they could escape.

How did they end up there in the first place?

Because the educational conveyor belt doesn’t know what else to do with truth-seekers.

Everyone is motivated by a lot of things.  But most of us have one core value that, when push comes to shove, trumps the rest.  For some it may be freedom, for others security, adventure, or in the case of many an unhappy lawyer, truth.

Those whose dominant core value is truth are rather relentless.  They’re smart.  They like to argue, and they tend to argue well.  They want to get to the bottom of things.  They want to find the right answers.  They want correct facts and knowledge of right and wrong.  They are willing to examine and explore multiple sides of issues and ideas in the process.

Similar to those whose highest value is independence, they’re comfortable questioning authority.  But the freedom-seekers tend to be more willing to disobey or ignore the rewards and punishments of the education system.  They might rebel against assignments or good grades.  Truth-seekers on the other hand, though happy to question the status quo, are typically comfortable following basic rules and getting good grades as well.  They see winning at the grade system as a way of finding whatever truth is to be found there.

Herein lies the problem, and the beginning of their disproportionate and often unfortunate pursuit of careers in law.  The school system doesn’t know what else to do with them.

There are few ways to channel their truth-seeking desires in school.  There’s little in the way of philosophy, history doesn’t do as much debating as fact-spitting, and even the sciences pre-graduate level don’t really spend time questioning anything fundamental.

What’s left?  Debate and forensics.  Truth-seekers do well here.  They love it.  Most high school debaters will tell you it was the absolute highlight of their educational experience.  They finally got to question everything, look at all sides of issues, argue without being offensive or reprimanded.  And they got to “win”.

Parents and teachers of young truth-seekers are so conditioned with the conveyor belt mindset that they struggle to see beyond an easily identifiable handful of job titles.  The work/identity trap is also strong, so whatever junior likes must immediately be mapped onto a business card.  A focus on external indicators of success furthers the tendency.  The common refrain for young debaters is, “You’re always arguing.  You should be a lawyer!”  What other possible avenues for all this truth-seeking could there be?

“I get to search for the truth?  I get to debate it?  I get to make everyone proud of a prestigious career?  I get to make good money?  Yeah, I guess I do need to go to law school!”

So lots of them do.

And lots of them end up wishing they hadn’t.  They find out too late that most lawyer jobs have little to do with truth-seeking.  The law itself isn’t primarily about truth, and most law jobs are even less so.  They’re about navigating bureaucracy and nearly impenetrable wordplay to help people do very simple tasks like buy and sell things, move money, end or begin professional or personal relationships, or draft up “just in case” language.  It’s a fundamentally conservative endeavor, concerned with protection from liability more than the caution-to-the-wind pursuit of truth that landed them there.

Law requires attention to detail, a high degree of literacy, and plenty of patience and problem solving.  Those things are perfect for some people.  But those whose core value is truth aren’t often among them.

Because their desire for truth was so quickly tracked and careerified, they never had the chance to explore.  Law school is particularly problematic then, because of its astronomical price tag.  Upon completion, more doors have been closed than opened.  There are only so many jobs that pay enough to service the debt.  And by now they’re closer to marriage, kids, and other financial obligations that make lower starting pay gigs tougher.  After law school, they kind of feel like they have to be a lawyer, even if it doesn’t scratch the itch for truth.

A decade later and the debt burden might be gone, but the golden handcuffs replace it.  Quality of life seems locked in.  Mortgages, cars, schools, and prestige can’t easily be downgraded, even if they are unhappy most of the day most days.  It’s lifestyle slavery, and it kind of sucks.

Where else might these truth-seekers have gone with their passion?  Perhaps philosophy.  Not just in the academic sense, which often comes with its own bureaucracy and BS, but more generally.  It’s true, you can be a philosopher and a lawyer or a philosopher and a great many other things.  Your source of income and who you are need not be the same.  Seeking, writing, researching, fact-finding, and questioning are such general and generally valuable traits that a true philosopher can apply them in myriad careers.  But law is a career that makes being defined by anything else particularly hard.

How many authors, podcasters, coaches, mentors, counselors, investigative reporters, or entrepreneurs are at bottom truth-seekers?  Truth as a core value is applicable in a great many areas.  Most of all, someone with the freedom to follow their passion for truth is likely to discover or create a career we can’t even yet imagine.  Sadly, the school conveyor belt tends to corral more than its fair share into law.

So here’s the takeaway: Stop telling good arguers to become lawyers.

Let them explore the world fully and freely.  Let them try a lot of stuff.  Let them follow their questions.  If after real exposure to the day to day reality a career in law appeals to them, great.  They’ll choose law school.  But don’t obsess about placing them on a list of predefined career categories and channeling their core values into it before they know what’s what.

I’m a parent.  I get it.  We worry how our kids will feed themselves and build a life.  If they love something, our mind immediately tries to formalize and monetize it.  My son loves video games and comics and superheroes, and more than once I’ve begun formulating ways to turn this interest into a career as a video game designer or illustrator and set him on that path now.

Fight that urge.  Open the world up to them, not just the few aspects of it that come with a title and salary today.  But everything that it is and could be tomorrow.

This leads to another good question…what are some other career tracks that young people with other core values get placed on too early?…

Ecuador Trip By the Numbers

  • 5 weeks (one more remaining)
  • 3 complete changes in plan
  • 2.3 times over budget
  • 3 languages (kind of) spoken
  • 8 exotic fruits we’ve never heard of ingested
  • 7 colds
  • 3 sinus infections
  • 3 foodborne illnesses
  • 1 sprained ankle
  • 1 (probably) broken nose
  • 1 ear infection
  • 1 visit to the doctor
  • 4 cities stayed in
  • 9 cities visited
  • 3 climate zones experienced
  • 9 power outages
  • 14 books read (between my wife and I)
  • 2 visitors from back home
  • 1,000,000 (rough estimate) hours swimming
  • 28 hours spent driving
  • 30 or more videos streamed on Amazon/Netflix
  • 2 houses lived in
  • 4 flights (by the time we’re done)
  • 3 dollars spent on the best lunch ever experienced
  • 2,374 miles from home
  • 1 hell of a good time!

Let Your Kids Suffer

I’m convinced one of the best things a parent can do is let their kids suffer.  It’s also one of the hardest.

I don’t mean suffer from imposed deprivations, scolding, withholding of affection, or physical illness.  I mean suffering from the things that are inevitable parts of life and without which no happiness can come.

Mastering a skill.  Learning social dynamics.  Resolving conflict.  Choosing between two good (or two bad) options.  Discovering who you really are and how you fit in with the world around you.  These all involve some level of suffering, sometimes a great deal.  Yet none of them can successfully happen if a parent swoops in to circumvent the hardship inherent in the process.

When your kids are fighting with other kids, or getting hurt feelings over misunderstandings, or in agony over inability to achieve a digital or physical feat it can be brutal to observe.  Every fiber of your parental being wants to intervene and stop the struggle.  Maybe at least offer to buy them a food they really like to ease the pain a bit.  But such interventions rob kids of the growth that comes from learning to adapt and discover their own unique method of achieving their goals and finding happiness.

Even boredom can be hard to watch a child suffer through.  But if we rush in to entertain them and ease their boredom with reams of suggestions and exhortations we short-circuit their process of learning to be interested and interesting.

One of the best parenting tips I have stumbled on, and one I remind myself daily, is simply to do less parenting and let my kids do more living.  Even when it’s not all rainbows for them.

How to Not Let Your Parents Control You

This post is not just for young people.  I’ve known plenty of grown adults with kids of their own who cannot live, act, or think free from their parent’s emotional control.

This is not an anti-parent post.  Most parents mean well.  Many are unconscious of their own forms of manipulation and if revealed to them, they’d prefer to change it.

If you are to create a meaningful and enjoyable life you must break the power of parental control.  It’s a massive psychological burden and it’s sapping your energy, freedom, and fun.

I knew a guy who dated two very different girls.  At some point in both relationships, things got pretty serious.  Maybe this was going to be a long-term thing.

In the first relationship, the girl was smitten but her parents were not.  Not even close.  They did not approve of her dating this guy and they made that clear.  Things were icy.

He’d go with her for family holidays and it always ended the same.  Afterwards, she’d cry and share with him how hard it was to have them unhappy with her choice.  Even if he wasn’t there, every time she’d visit home he knew there would be fallout when she came back.  She’d confide in him just how much it meant to have her parent’s approval of the relationship.  This put tremendous pressure on him to live up to some standard in her parent’s head.

The relationship eventually ended.  It wasn’t too pretty either.

Time passed and he eventually began dating someone seriously again.

In the second relationship, the girl was smitten but her parents were not.  Not even close.  They did not approve of her dating this guy and they made that clear.  Here we go again.  He was nervous. He knew he couldn’t take another situation like the last.

But this time things never got icy.

The very first time his girlfriend’s father voiced his displeasure she said, “This is who I’m dating.  This is who I want to be with.  If you want me in your life you’re going to have to accept the choices that I make.”

Her dad did not disown her.  Instead, he had to overcome his own prejudice and work to get to know they guy.  He did.  Now they’re in-laws.

Consciously or unconsciously, parents can sense your need for their approval.  The stronger and more desperate it is, the more leverage they have to control you.  But the thing is, you’re parents don’t have that leverage in reality.  They want to have a relationship with you just as much or more than you do with them, and this feeling increases as they age.  That’s why if you are definite in your purpose and you make that clear to them, they will nine times out of ten see that earnest resolve and adapt to it.

This makes knowing who you are and what you really want paramount.  If you’re unsure, you’ll just end up issuing a constant stream of threats to your parents, which isn’t healthy for anybody.  But if you really know what you want, you are fully prepared to live the consequences with or without your parent’s support, and you can calmly and clearly let them know, they are very likely to end up supporting you.

You don’t need to disown them.  But let them know their threat to disown you will not stop you.  And don’t bluff.  Don’t pretend to have resolve just because you hope it will win them over.  Be fully prepared and committed to follow your chosen course of action even if they don’t come around.  Paradoxically, it’s only then that they are likely to eventually come around.

They’re not as stubborn as they may seem when it comes down to it.  They want you to be happy, and if it’s clear that you will only be happy pursuing things your own way – and you’re aware of the risk and willing to take it – they’ll stop trying to resist you.

There is no amount of parental approval that’s worth your dignity, freedom, and power as an individual.

For some specific applications, see here.

Getting Started on Entrepreneurship While You’re Young

In “The Future of School” I share my biggest regret:

“I wish I had more confidence, and earlier, about going my own way.”

It took me a long time to realize that all the things I thought and did differently weren’t things I should try to shut down, hide, or change.  They were my greatest strengths.

When you’re 14, 16, or 18, all the world seems to be screaming at you to look like the average of some aggregate.  Well-meaning teachers, parents, coaches, relatives, and friends want to know how you stack up on a series of “normal” indicators of status and ability.  They want you to know the stuff everyone else your age knows, and do the stuff everyone else your age does.

But the reality is that it’s the “Crazy Ones” who change the world.  It’s those who gain the courage and confidence to not suppress their unique take; their hacks and workarounds; their weird approaches and unconventional interests and solutions.  These are the makings of an entrepreneur.

And let’s be clear: entrepreneurship is the greatest single skill needed for the present and future marketplace.  Machines and software are taking off like never before, and they can follow rules and obey orders and perform rote tasks better than humans.  This is not cause for concern, but a huge opportunity.  It frees up humans to do what only humans can: creatively problem solve, innovate, experiment, and adapt.

But it does mean that the vast majority of what’s taught in traditional education settings is of little and decreasing value.  Knowledge of facts is nearly obsolete.  We have Google.  Memorization is silly when we have unlimited digital storage.  Following the crowd kills the best instincts and opportunities for value creation.  We need to re-ignite the entrepreneurial spark that everyone is born with.

That’s why we’ve built a 60-day entrepreneurship eCourse for teens.  It all begins with a mindset.  The mindset I wish I would have found sooner.  The mindset that says your best assets are your most unique attributes.  It’s about turning your creativity into a discipline.  It’s about becoming a self-directed, perpetual learner.  It’s about experimentation, trial and error, and approaching life like a game.

This course is hard.  You could easily scan it and gain a few bits of wisdom.  But that’s not what it’s built for.  It’s built for an intensive 60 days.  It’s built to make you a little uncomfortable as you learn to explore your own strengths, weaknesses, and passions, build a basic website, and share your ideas and lessons learned along the way.  If you go through it – really go through it and complete every part – you will absolutely walk away a different person, closer to your goals and the life you want to live.

If you complete the whole thing we’ll be impressed.  In fact, we’re giving you a free coaching session with course creator and Praxis Education Director T.K. Coleman if you do.  You think you can do it?

You don’t need to have that big business idea to begin on the entrepreneurial journey.  It starts by becoming the type of person who is ready and able to seize the moment when that big idea comes.  It starts now.

Are you ready?

Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course

Why My Wife and I (and Our Three Kids) are Spending Six Weeks in Ecuador

Sticking with an important theme in my life the better question might be, “Why not?

Still, given our stage in life, our kids ages, and our work and financial situation, it does raise some eyebrows when we tell people of our Ecuadorian excursion planned for early 2016.  There are several reasons we chose to do this, not least of which is the fact that there are far, far more reasons we can come up with not to do this.

That’s the thing.  The reasons not to will only ever pile up.  Screw that.  Perfect timing is a myth.  If we waited for the right time we never would have gotten married, had kids, adopted, taken new jobs, moved, moved again, started a business, unschooled, and all the other things we cherish most about our life.

The Idea

It began a little less than a year ago.  I was flying home from a business trip and listening to an episode of the Tim Ferriss Podcast.  It was an excerpt from a book called Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.  I knew in my gut I wanted to get out into the broader world with my family.  Not out of nowhere.  The podcast was just a nudge.  My own experience had me jonesing for international adventure for me and my kids already.

Between ages 12-20 I spent at least a few weeks, sometimes a few months, every summer in another country.  Mexico, Peru, Kenya, Honduras.  These were the most important and formative experiences of my youth.  I loved it.  It was really hard sometimes.  I learned so much and gained so much perspective.  Perhaps I’ll write more another time about what these trips did for me, but one of the things was to teach me forward orientation.  The first few times it was crushing to make deep connections to dear friends across the world then leave, never to see them again (and pre-Facebook, never to talk to them in most cases).  It made me learn to live in the moment and not hold on too tightly to past experiences.

My wife and I have always wanted to travel with our kids and let them experience the world outside the suburbs.  Not because we think it’s somehow morally superior or because we want to be international do-gooders.  Just because it’s really fun, and the best kind of challenge.  We both know how hard it was for us to move from the small-town Midwest just a few states away, and how good it was.  It’s too easy to assume your current geography is the best fit for you simply because you’ve never ventured out.  We want our kids to feel like the world is small and not be afraid of exploring all of their options.  We don’t want the exit option to feel so daunting to them.

The Decision

I got back from that trip and told my wife to listen to the podcast episode.  She did.  She knew right away what I was going to suggest and she wholeheartedly agreed.  Let’s spend some time abroad with the kids.  Not a vacation.  Not as visitors touring the sites.  Just normal, day to day life in a different place.  We knew this required more than a few weeks and a location that wasn’t just for popular attractions.  Don’t get me wrong, I love popular touristy stuff and we aren’t the type to go searching for the “too cool for the travel guide” spots when we travel.  But this wasn’t about travel.  It was about living.

I wanted two months, she wanted one, we settled on six weeks.  It seemed long enough to make us both uncomfortable and wonder if we’d get bored and restless and homesick.  We couldn’t just distract ourselves with novelty for six weeks.  We’d have to establish a daily routine.  Perfect.

The Timing

It seems weird to try to spend time abroad at this point in our lives.  Our kids are 4, 6, and 10.  That’s still pretty young.  We are not in a place to put money into anything besides day-to-day expenses.  I launched my company, Praxis, just two years ago and every ounce of material and mental resources go into building it.  We moved here to the Charleston, SC area just four years ago and we love it.  It’s beautiful, we’re not bored, and we’re beginning to make very deep and rewarding social bonds.  My wife and I are young, so it’s not like the clock is running out on us.

But we don’t want perfection.  We don’t want some experience that’s been planned and built up for years or decades.  We don’t want to overthink it.  We don’t want it to be that big of a deal.  We just want to try living somewhere else for a bit.  That’s it.  When will we be in a better situation?  Realistically, never.  There will always be something more pressing to spend our energy on.

Besides, there are several ways in which we’re in a perfect position to do this.  I own my own business and all of my colleagues work remotely.  Besides travel season, all I need is WiFi.  I live and breathe Praxis, but where I live and breathe it from is of little relevance most of the time.  We unschool our kids.  We have no schedule or obligations.  One of the reasons we chose to unschool was so that we could do stuff just like this.  How many kids get to do that?  Our kid aren’t wasting away in cinder block cells all day, so why should we follow the same routine as those that are?

We know it will be really, really hard.  Especially for me in the most intense phase of growing a business and trying to revolutionize the world.  But everything we do at Praxis is about living life on your terms.  If we preach it, we can live it too.

The Details

We had several constraints and preferences, but a lot of play room.  I travel a lot to conferences and events to speak and promote my company and the ideas behind it.  We couldn’t go in late spring/early summer, or in the fall.  Speaking season.  We also needed this to be really, really affordable.  As in, all-in, this six weeks in Ecuador needs to cost the same or less as if we had stayed home for the same six weeks.  We also needed reliable, solid WiFi.  (One of the first things we did was have our AirBnB host run a test and verify the speed, which is the same as what Comcast gives me in SC.)

We weren’t ready to fly more than 4-5 hours with kids as young as four, so South  and Central America were the target.  We searched around on AirBnB for a few days and found a place that looked crazy cool.  A bamboo beach house like something out of Swiss Family Robinson.  It was gorgeous, large enough, and well-rated.  No A/C and open, so mosquito nets, but otherwise not primitive.  Good price, good WiFi.  Why not?

The Act

Never the type to dwell too long on a matter, we booked it.  Was there something better?  Probably.  Would it be worth the agonizing and the time and energy to find it?  Probably not.

Once our non-refundable house was booked, the rest had to happen as a matter of course.  We’ve been alternating between excitement and terror since then, but that’s exactly what we want.  Just a little fear to overcome, mixed with the thrill of overcoming it.

We’ll set out just after the Super Bowl (what, you think I’m going to miss the NFL season?) and return around the Ides of March.  If all goes to plan it won’t be noticeable from the outside.  I’ll be working most of the day most days of the week as usual.  The kids will be doing what unschoolers do, which is precisely what drives their curiosity and interest, and we’ll be grocery shopping, going for walks, cooking, cleaning, reading, meeting with people, and enjoying the beach.

We’ll also be sweating, struggling to communicate in a village of Spanish speakers, adapting to new foods and smells and sights, and probably in many moments fighting homesickness.

This may be the first of many experiences living abroad.  It may be the last we ever do.  That’s why we’re doing it.  We need to know.  Will we love or hate it?  No amount of analysis can answer the question.  We’ll go find out for ourselves.

New Book Teaser: How to Name Your Kids?

Support the campaign for ‘Why Haven’t You Read This Book?’ and help bring it to publication…and claim an early copy.

Thanks to everyone who has backed this book project on KickStarter so far!

I want to share a section from the book today that I find particularly delightful.

Antony Davies is an economist, policy researcher, writer, speaker, and entrepreneur.  But his contribution to this book is about none of those things.  It’s about being a dad.

Ant has six children and asks, “Why haven’t you had a bunch of kids?”

The chapter answers many practical questions about large families, from budget issues to travel and health.  Today I’m going to share a section about a dilemma I never really thought about.

When you have a lot of kids, how do you name them for the right mix of beauty and efficiency?

Enjoy…

What do you call them?

Names are a problem. We spent months selecting a name for our first child, Erika. We thought about how it sounded, what it meant, whether it had a long-enough shelf-life so it wouldn’t make her sound like some old lady just as she was hitting her college years. Ladies named Mavis, Opal, Inez, and Violet weren’t born 80-years-old. They just lost the shelf-life lottery. We were better at naming our second child, largely because I am a science-fiction freak and my hero, Isaac Asimov, had died just before our son was born. So Isaac it was. Our church friends thought it touching that we named him after the one of the biblical patriarchs. We didn’t have the heart to admit that we named him after a lecherous chemistry professor who wrote wicked sci-fi.

After the first two, naming becomes easy. You already have a list of potentials in your head from previous research. You also have recyclable first-picks that you couldn’t use because of gender issues. We knew that one of ours was going to be named Ivanka. Which one depended entirely on who showed up first with the appropriate plumbing. By the time you get to #4 the months of researching and trying out different names and spelling variations gives way to grabbing the first name that doesn’t rhyme with something crass so you can sign the paperwork and get out of the hospital. I figure that’s why hospital employees all wear name tags. It’s to give parents ideas. “OK, the baby gets the next name that comes down the hall. Wilbur.

Crap. Well, that’s the luck of the draw. Now sign those papers and let’s get out of here before they find something else to charge us for.” Of course, with names come nicknames. At first, you’re proud to tell people your baby’s name. “She’s Ivanka, after my wife’s mother. Actually, there’s been one Ivanka in each generation in my wife’s family going back five generations. Our little Ivanka is the sixth of that name.” But that doesn’t last. Where names are concerned, poetry takes a backseat to practicality. As soon as a kid acquires locomotion, she’s gone. She doesn’t need to be able to walk on two legs. Heck, she doesn’t even need to be able to crawl. As soon as your kid figures out that flailing arms and legs aren’t merely for expressing displeasure but can be harnessed for migration, she’s out of there. Nature has given young children the triple advantage of being quick, quiet, and small enough to fit into tiny spaces.

When you want to sleep, they’re louder than a frat house on homecoming night. But when they’re getting into things they shouldn’t, they’re like incontinent ninjas. Sometimes the only way you can find them is by following the smell. So, with locomotion comes the need to summon the little tykes. And this is where practicality comes in. When you finally put that name to work, you’ll regret not having picked an industrial-strength name like Bob. You can keep saying “Bob” until the cows come home. “Bob, where are you?” “Bob, come here!” “Bob, don’t bite the cat!” But if you picked a poetic name, now is when you’ll regret it. Try repeating “Beatrix” or “Jacinda” ad infinitum. This is why God invented nicknames. The nickname is the name you should have given your kid but were too embarrassed to pick. It takes a while to whittle a flowery name down to something that can be used easily on a day-to-day basis. And you can tell how much trouble a kid gets into by how quickly the parents adopt an industrial-strength nickname. Over the course of about three days, our lovely Ivanka became “Vonky,” then “Schpanky,” then “Schpank,” then “Spank,” then “Hank.” Hank is an industrial-strength name. You can shout it all the livelong day, and the last use will be as potent as the first. It’s one of those names that lends itself to yelling. You can put some serious air pressure behind that opening consonant, and the hard “k” at the end cuts off the sound to an immediate and ominous silence.

“Hank” is the air horn of the naming world. “Beatrix” is the kazoo. But nicknames bring their own baggage. At even at one syllable apiece, with a lot of children, nicknames can quickly add up to a lot of words to remember. Our last two kids, Alexander and Benjamin, were born just a year apart. Since we both abhor the nickname Alex, we announced his nickname before we left the hospital. “He shall be known as Xander.” We also abhor “Ben,” but since “Jamin” sounded like a reggae stoner, #6 was straight-up “Benjamin.” As they tend to be inseparable, my wife has taken to calling Xander and Benjamin (as a conglomerate), “Xanjamin.” Kind of like Branjelina meets the Brady Bunch. “Xanjamin” exhibits a bit of creative flair, but at three syllables it’s not industrial-strength. Plus, if you want to summon just one of them, you have to go back to either “Xander” or “Benjamin,” which means that you now have three names to deal with instead of merely two. The efficient solution we evolved is to give each of them the same nickname: kid. Alexander is “kid.” And so is Benjamin. If we need to refer to one of them, we say, “the kid.” As in, “Tell the kid to take out the trash.”

And if the wrong one shows up, the other one is, by definition, “the other kid.” As in, “Kid, come here. No, the other kid.” Last in the telling, though not the lineup, is Simon. Simon is the middle child. You hear about middle-child syndrome, where the poor middle child is ignored because he’s not needy like the teenagers or cute like the babies. Middle children, the story goes, grow up to be meek and unsure of themselves. Middle children stay in the shadows of their more-outgoing siblings. Simon does not have middle-child syndrome. If there is an opposite of middle-child syndrome, that’s what Simon has. Picture George S. Patton as a teenager. On a battlefield. In a tank. That’s Simon. When told that their older brother would be staying at college over the summer, the other children were sad. Simon’s response was: “Excellent. That means we all move up in rank.” Simon brings our total to six and, since six is divisible by two and three, we have developed a shorthand way of describing subsets of the children. The elder two are “The Majors.” The middle two are “The Minors.” And the kids are “The Minis.” In order, they are girl-boy-boy-girl-boy-boy. That makes it natural to refer to the first three as “Round One” and the second three as “Round Two.” With six kids, one can construct 63 unique subsets.

Given that it would be quicker to identify them individually than to remember all 63 possible combinations, any further subsets aren’t worth more than a “Am I looking at you? I mean you!” The entire set is known as “The Babies,” a cute and cuddly name that, to their unending chagrin, we regularly use even though two are in college and one in graduate school.

Support the campaign for ‘Why Haven’t You Read This Book?’ and help bring it to publication…and claim an early copy.

How My Son Learned to Read When We Stopped Trying to Teach Him

We were homeschooling and our son was six years old.  He had a good vocabulary and comprehension of ideas beyond many kids his age.  We knew reading would open up the world to him, we knew he’d like it, and we knew he was very capable of doing it.  But he didn’t.

We tried flashcards.  We tried read-alongs.  We tried playing hardball and we tried being fun and exciting.  We tried restricting activities until he’d done his reading lessons, and we tried giving rewards.  All these efforts had two things in common: they didn’t help him read one bit and they made our relationship with him worse.  Being a parent and being a child cease to be fun when you’re at odds all the time.

So, at an age when we were starting to worry about his lagging behind, we simply stopped trying.  We quit the whole effort.  He was nearly seven when we gave it up in favor of more peace and harmony in the house.

Daily life was a little easier, yet we still had this nagging worry about him.  What will happen if he’s behind where he’s supposed to be for his age?  Still, everything about our efforts to make him read felt wrong, so we simply ignored the fears.

I was reading a lot of great books on how kids learn and I knew intellectually that kids need no instruction to learn to read.  They will learn when they find it valuable and if they are in an environment where it’s possible – one with books and other readers.  Still the head and the heart are very different things.  I knew kids were better at self-teaching than being taught, but I had to watch my own son, sharp as he was, remain completely outside the wonderful world of the written word.

Then it happened, just like so many of the books said it would.  You believe it in stories, but it’s still a surprise when it happens in real life.  One night I overheard my son reading aloud to himself in his bed.  And the first thing he read wasn’t Dick and Jane, but Calvin & Hobbes.  Not light fare for a brand new reader.

Let me back up a bit.  We would often read to him for a few minutes before bed, and lately he had been in love with some old Calvin & Hobbes comics I had from my adolescence.  We’d read him a few pages and say goodnight.  One night it was later than usual and he asked me if I’d read.  I was a bit grumpy and tired, and I said no, I was going to bed.  He protested a bit but could see I wasn’t up for it so he let it go, seeming defeated.  Ten minutes later I heard him reading.

He later told me that he wasn’t actually reading it that night, nor the first several nights after when he spoke the words (and often laughed) aloud.  He had heard us read it so many times he had the words memorized.  He was looking at the pictures and reciting the words like lines to a familiar song.  I didn’t know this until long after he could clearly read without first memorizing, but it really doesn’t matter.  In fact, it’s probably better that my wife and I assumed he was reading it when we first heard him, or we might have been tempted to intervene and try to cajole him into reading it without the cheat of memory and illustrations.  I know too well the kind of unhappy outcome that would have created.

For a year or more we fought with a kid who clearly had all the tools to read and we got nowhere.  He wasn’t faking his inability, he really couldn’t read.  Reading was always an activity that interrupted his day and was associated with expectant and often visibly (despite attempts to hide it) stressed parents.  It was a concept as useless as it was foreign.  But once he had a strong desire – to enjoy his favorite comic strip – and his inability to read was the barrier, he overcame it in no time and never even celebrated or announced it to us.  It was utilitarian, not some lofty thing to perform for a gold star or a pat on the back.  His ability and interest in reading, then writing and spelling, only intensified as he found it indispensable for playing games like Minecraft and Scribblenauts.

We’ve since made a full transition from the imposed curriculum of homeschooling to the kid-created structure of unschooling.  Looking back I’m a little ashamed of the silly way we approached things before, but at the time it was so hard to let go, with all that crippling fear.  There are so many “shoulds” pumped into parents brains from the moment they conceive.  There are percentiles and averages and tests and rankings galore.  But these are useful only to the statisticians and none of them have your child’s interest or happiness in mind.  Aggregates aren’t individuals.  Living your life, or attempting to shape your child’s life, to conform to the average of some population is not a recipe for success.  At best it will produce blandness.  At worst a broken spirit.

You can read any number of thinkers like John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, or Peter Gray on why our son’s experience is not exceptional, but normal.  You can look at studies that show kids who learn to read at age four and kids who learn at age nine have the same reading comprehension by age 11.  You can get story after story from places like the Sudbury Valley school about kids who taught themselves to read in a few short weeks once they got the interest, and even one girl who didn’t become interested until age 13 and then went on to win a literary prize.  But it’s all theory and myth until you experience it with your own child.

Read the books.  Look into the unschooling movement and literature.  But above all, take a step back from your own kids and realize that they are only young once and for such a short time.  Do you really want your memories with them to consist of fights and forced lessons?  Enjoy them.  Let them go their own way and navigate the world.  There are few things more exciting than when they come to you to ask for your help or insight because they really want it, or when they never do because they figure it out on their own and gain a confidence that cannot be won any other way.

The world we live in does not lack for natural incentives to learn to read.  The rewards are massive, as are the costs of illiteracy.  We don’t need to artificially incentivize reading the way a poor farmer might have a few hundred years ago.  When we do we do more harm than good, if not to our children’s ability to read then at least to our enjoyment of our time with them.  They figured out how to speak – the most difficult, nuanced, and complex skill a human can master – without any formal instruction.  They can learn to read too.

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Here are a few other examples of learning by doing from my own life:

Why LEGO is more valuable than algebra

Why Mario Maker is better than a marketing major

Things We Do To Our Children

I joined Albert Lu on The Economy Podcast to talk about things we do to our children.  We discussed whether and to what extent a parent can know what’s good for a child and force them to do things for their own good, from sports to music lessons and beyond.  We also discussed the lack of student-directed learning from grade school all the way through college and the problems it creates.

Listen to the episode here.  I’m on first and then author Richard Maybury on the same topic.

Good Enough for a Dog?

I’m not a dog owner, but everyone else seems to really love their dogs.  So much so, that if I offered the following service, most would consider it beneath them as pet owners to take me up:

Every work day, you’ll wake your dog before it wants to get up, force feed it some breakfast, and tie it to a pole at the corner of your street, then go to work.  A giant vehicle with no safety harnesses will stop by and load your dog, along with fifty or sixty other dogs, and haul them off to a huge dog daycare center.

The dogs will be crammed thirty or forty to a room, and each room will have one person there to look after them, and make them go through a number of drills and activities that dogs hate, sitting still the whole time, not being allowed to do what dogs really want to do – run around.  This supervisor will be unionized and paid based on years of service, with little or no connection to how well your dogs fare under their care.  Some are good people who like dogs, though many found veterinary school too challenging and would struggle to gain employment as private dog trainers, groomers, or sitters.

At noon, hundreds of dogs will funnel into one huge room where they’ll eat stuff of lower quality than what you give them at home.  Then back to the little room where they’ll be forced, once again, through activities with dozens of dogs of radically different sizes, tendencies, breeds, abilities, and behaviors.  Your dog may be a loyal and gentle Lab, paired up for an activity with a few vicious Pit bulls and a Rottweiler   They’ll have to learn to adapt.

If your dog acts up, fails to complete activities, resists commands or any other kind of behavior generally frustrating to the supervisor, the dog will be punished, shamed, confined to a small cage, possibly drugged, and you’ll likely get a stern rebuke.

Just before you get home from work, your dog will be carted back to your street on the bus of rowdy creatures, and left to wander home.  There it will wait for you to return, and when you do, you will have the duty of looking over a stack of papers sent home with your pet.  They detail several hours more of activities you must force your dog to do before it goes to sleep so it can be ready to be awakened while it’s still dark the next day to do it all over.

The whole program will cost upwards of $10,000 for your dog each year, summer excluded.  The good news is, you will be forced to pay this fee for all your neighbors, and they’ll be forced to pay it for you via monthly charges on your property value and earnings.  Even those with no dogs and no desire to have dogs will pay, and those with tons of dogs will pay the same.  Payment won’t be based on the service at all, but on how much money you have.

You’ll send your dog here every day for years, during the most active and formative years of the animal’s life.  You’ll have to have special permits and permission to opt-out, and you’ll be treated like a crazy, neglectful person if you do – even if you quit your job just to stay home to raise, care for, and train your dog yourself.

Just about every dog owner I’ve ever met would consider this an outrageously offensive rip-off that borders on animal abuse.  Most of those same people beam with pride and “spirit” while putting their children through the same basic routine.

The Job of a Parent: Create Free Space

Neighbors, ideologies, governments, social norms and other institutions and beliefs work to create a sense of duty and loyalty in individuals from the day they are born.  Even if some of these institutions and ideas turn out to be good, early fealty to them is often based on guilt for who a person is, shame at what they do, fear of retribution, or ignorance of alternatives.  One of the jobs of a parent is to act as a barrier between these pressures and their kids.

When people call a child “sheltered”, it’s usually meant derogatorily.  But a good shelter is what all kids need.  Not walls that keep them in, but walls that keep some of the strongest forces that seek to mold them at bay.  A seedling needs a protected area in which to gain strength and deep roots before it can weather the strongest winds and weeds.

It’s crucial that this safe space we create for our kids be full of windows and doors – opportunities to explore the very forces that we want to provide a buffer for.  Kids are curious, and the more they have access to information and ideas in a context without coercion, fear, ignorance, guilt or shame, the better conclusions they will draw about them, and the more equipped they will be for the world.

It’s harder than it may seem to create this space.  I think of the times when, far from protecting, I act as an amplifier of the forces of the world.  When your child loudly asks a question considered embarrassing by the mores of the day, it’s very easy to shut them down or project your own embarrassment on them.  It’s not easy to take all the social heat yourself, shield it from your kid, and respond generously.  When kids naively explore the world, we should let them, rather than cajole them into the conventional conclusions and behaviors.

Kids will run into the norms of the world, no doubt about it, but at least parents can ensure they don’t get smacked with it in the sanctuary of their own homes.  Don’t let the walls of your house be those coming in on them, before they have strength to resist.  Let your kids be expansive and boundless!  That’s how they’ll gain strength and identity and an ability to respond to the world around them with ease and freedom.

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