Stress and anxiety are not status symbols

I think a lot about how much unnecessary misery our culture creates by mandating how families spend every moment of their day. With the technology that is now easily available in developed countries, there’s no reason more of our workforce should not be able to work from home (or from a sailboat, or from a coffee shop). There’s no reason we should have millions of people sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, spewing horrible toxins into the air we breathe, just so a middle manager can pretend to babysit them all day. There’s no reason that a new mother should be putting her weeks-old infant in a day care center and pumping milk in a maintenance closet. (And politicians think the solution to all of her problems is to help her pay for the day care.)

If you look at the way our country lives now, where ordinary people are so filled with rage they become social media trolls in their private time, where kids want to do real physical harm to their peers, etc., how much of that derives from how mentally unhealthy folks’ daily lives have become? How much of that could be eliminated by allowing people to have more home-centered lives? To be able to get out and do things they love for a little chunk of their day, every day? To not be carrying around this oppressive sense that their days are being eaten away by a million meaningless endeavors? Even our children carry the anxiety of purposelessness around with them.

I’ve met a lot of people who are downright snobbish about being overworked. This is particularly true of women who need to feel good about putting their career before raising a family, as if it is even necessary for those to be antithetical in this day and age. I get depressed on their behalf every time I talk to them. I wish people would stop pretending stress is some bogus status symbol and start advocating for better, healthier, more productive ways of living for everyone – especially for children. Our society desperately needs to stop eroding family units, and as with most things, there is a technological solution for this problem.

One of the best things about being a homeschooling family is that there is no arbitrary school day schedule. You don’t have to wake your child up at 6 a.m. (which everyone agrees isn’t good for developing brains) to get ready; shove a cereal bar down their throat so they can make it until their next scheduled feeding time; hurry through morning traffic so you can sit in a car line (which only exists because schools are now common targets for violence and predators); all so they can sit at a desk and try to pay attention when they’d much rather be sleeping (as they should be). And so you can go to an office and do the exact same thing.

With homeschooling, you can cover within a few hours much of the content that is covered in a traditional school in the course of an entire week. That’s the power of having a 1:1 student-teacher ratio and not having most of the week taken up by administrative affairs, discipline, and just generally wasting time. It’s a simple change that eliminates a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety for both parents and children.

In place of all that, you can substitute things that bring your family joy. This morning, our daughter had her hunter-jumper horseback riding lessons. We drove out to the stables, let her practice, gave the pony a bath together, and returned him to his pasture. We drove back into town and picked up Dad for lunch.

For lunch, everyone wanted a cheeseburger. We live on the ocean in Florida, so we went to Whaam Burger on Flagler Beach. They have the most incredible burgers I have ever tasted, and I grew up in Los Angeles with In-N-Out. We ate our lunch on the boardwalk watching the ocean.

Elise had put on a bathing suit under her clothes so she could play in the surf for half an hour after lunch. This is our version of recess.

We stood in the surf and talked through work issues while she was swimming and chasing sandpipers. It was a gorgeous summer day. Since the traditional school year has started, there were almost no tourists around. Then we showered off all the sand, came home, then Elise hit the books and we went back to work.

We try to use our break times to get out into nature as much as possible. We often go on long hikes or walks in the morning to start the day. (You really can’t do this in the evening in Florida, unless you love the company of mosquitoes.) In fact, one of the reasons we chose to move to Palm Coast was the town has 135 miles of hiking, biking, and walking trails. If you are relatively fit, you don’t even need a car to live here. You can go everywhere in town on a bicycle. You can even take bicycle paths along the A1A to other towns, and from those towns to other towns. (Between that, the pristine beaches, and AT&T Fiber’s ultra high speed Internet, I have no idea why every tech entrepreneur in the country isn’t moving here. But I guess I should keep that to myself if I want it to last.)

This also means our daughter has the opportunity to talk to a lot of people and experience a lot of things she would be missing if she went to a traditional school. She meets people from Portugal, Italy, the Caribbean, and Mexico while out around town. She also gets to see first-hand how we earn a living and navigate the business world. I like to call this a modern apprenticeship.

It seems the biggest obstacle to this way of life being available to all or most families in the US are these archaic notions of how adults should be able to get their own work done.

As much as policymakers and other observers love to debate the seemingly intractable issues that come with having a mental health crisis in this country, it’s amazing no one ever talks about simply encouraging businesses to enable the vast majority of Americans to change their lifestyles and thereby change their kids’ lifestyles. Be around the people they love. Be genuinely social and interact with people in the real world instead of having fake fights online. Be less sedentary.

The chattering class loves the perceived enormity of cultural problems and the talking points they use to convince Americans that enriching them to guide some pointless piece of legislation through Washington will be the panacea everyone needs. Changing gun laws, for example, is not going to cure the problem that there are a lot of kids in the US now that want to hurt their peers. On some level, everyone knows that the real problem is the hate and toxicity that has come to characterize schools. The fact that social media has taken bullying from being chased away from the bus stop to being hectored 24/7, with the cumulative effect being that kids want to destroy themselves or others. The fact that girls are starting to objectify themselves from the moment they can read, to the point that women in their 20s are now the largest demographic getting Botox injections and capped teeth. We’ve created one epic destructive environment for both adults and children, and it seems so pervasive and ubiquitous that the problems it creates seem inescapable except to the most densely partisan people in our country.

The philosopher Aristotle thought the success of the polis traced back to the home. Homes are the cells of social organisms. The fundamental building blocks of life. If our country wants to fix its myriad problems, it needs to start by fixing Americans’ homes.

Hiking through Linear Park

We’ve had Elise doing some intense school work this week. We decided to take her on a long hike this morning so her day would not be completely dominated by school. We woke up early, walked down the Intracoastal Waterway, and up the trails into Linear Park, which is a patch of forest through the interior of our town. It took us two hours, round trip. It’s definitely a lot more fun to walk all these trails when the weather is cooler, but you have to leave the air conditioning sometime.

I love all of the ancient, sprawling oaks covered in resurrection ferns. It makes you wonder how much history these guys have seen.

Education, flourishing, and why parents (and schools) fail their children

We were invited to a birthday party this weekend, which meant that I spent three hours watching young children play in a country club pool. I was surprised to see some children as young as seven or eight immediately split off into cliques. These pint-sized Kardashians resisted interacting with each other with ample servings of drama.

But more surprising was watching girls in one of the cliques playing house. The “mother” in the group pretended to wake her daughters up in the morning. She rushed into their imaginary room and shouted, “Get out of bed! You need to get ready for school so you can find a rich boyfriend!” I was aghast. I would not have believed she actually uttered those words, except she proceeded to repeat them several times. I looked over at their real mothers, who seemed unfazed. This was their normal.

After her imaginary daughters were dressed, the girl pretended to inspect their outfits like a general in the military. “Go back to your room and change! A rich man would never be interested in someone who looks like you!” The girls then dreamily discussed what their ideal mates would possess – a house made of gold, with “a pool even larger than this one.”

It was like listening to the comically tedious mother from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “Girls, girls, I heard Darcy has ten thousand a year!” But it was presented without Austen’s biting sarcasm.

I say all the time that childhood is about developing an aesthetic. To persuade your child that they do not want to spend their one precious life engaging in activities that are beneath them. To model for them a sense of what a life well-lived would be like. This is the difference between having a child that spends their evenings on social media and the child that combs the Internet looking for a marine biology camp. Between the kid that is “addicted” to first-person shooter video games and the kid that wants to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s true for parenthood too. If you don’t sell your child on an idea of happiness, society will supply that content for them. All bad behavior is a form of communication about what people need but are not getting. You don’t want your child developing a sense of purpose from the nihilists on CNN or Facebook. They will teach your children to rage and rot their minds.

Conversely, I’ve also met a lot of women (in particular) who think they are going to micromanage their children into having a good character. “You get only two hours of screen time a day!” Character is not built on the elimination of free will. The key is to raise a kid that genuinely wants to participate in better things. They aren’t spending their days hammering away on their smartphones because they are genuinely curious about something more important. Your rules aren’t going to change that.

Flourishing

I offer this story because I have been reading Ronald F. Ferguson and Tatsha Robertson’s book The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Highly Successful Children. This is an excellent book on parenthood and a persuasive appeal to an Aristotelian worldview in general (which I very much subscribe to).

The book is the outcome of the How I Was Parented Project at Harvard, which examined the biographical details and parenting experiences of hundreds of diverse but highly successful individuals. The goal of the study was to identify what these individuals had in common, to see if there was a “formula” for success.

The authors conclude that there is, in fact, a formula for raising successful children, and that formula transcends socioeconomic backgrounds. Affluent people can raise kids to be successful or sabotage their ability to flourish in the world (much like the children I observed at the party). Disadvantaged parents can raise kids to be successful or sabotage them. There are common paths to social mobility. There are common paths to failure. It is terrible to spoil children. It is also terrible to train children to fetishize their own perceived suffering or lack of opportunities.

One of the best chapters in the book is the life story of a homeless mother who raised her son up so he was eventually accepted into Harvard. She was determined for him to escape poverty, and she invested all her time into teaching him. She was creative in how she found access to resources for him. In one case, she was transferred to another shelter so he could attend a higher quality school in the suburbs.

Success versus sabotage

.The authors define success in Aristotelian terms – Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is often translated from the Greek as “flourishing.” Flourishing is a grand combination of being happy in disposition, being materially secure, being a good citizen, having a household and friendships that contribute to spiritual well-being, progressing toward wisdom (which then carries on the project of helping future generations achieve the same).

The thesis of the book, of course, is that there is a formula for raising highly successful kids. That formula is expressed as:

Purpose + Agency + Smarts = A Fully Realized Individual

For the authors, a successful person is not motivated exclusively by material wealth or an unqualified desire to please authority figures. They develop a lofty goal or objective that will animate and bring continuity to their life decisions. (I would describe this as developing a sense of honor.) They possess agency, or a “let’s do this” attitude in life. (That is to say, they are not raised as cynics. They aren’t blind idealists, either, but they do actively search for ways to fulfill their purpose instead of shrugging their ambitions off in the face of challenges.) They are conventionally intelligent, not just because they possess innate gifts, but because they were raised to be curious and genuinely love learning new things.

High achievers versus prodigies

The book involves an interesting digression on the difference between what the authors label as “high achievers” versus prodigies. I’ve always been somewhat amused by our culture’s obsession with prodigies and their inevitable meltdowns as they transition from gifted children into adults that cannot function in the world. Amadeus. Good Will Hunting. A Beautiful Mind. Etc. etc. These movies, for example, get made primarily because Hollywood fetishizes suffering, not because they admire the people behind the stories. (Heck, Amadeus isn’t even marginally a factually accurate representation of Mozart’s life. I mean, they got his name right, and that’s about it.)

The authors suggest that these burnouts among prodigies are not an accident. High achievers are purposeful in choosing new projects; prodigies live lives in response to what other people – some with good intentions, some without – think about their talents and what can be gained from them. High achievers can learn to collaborate with other people; prodigies tend to perform for other people. High achievers can become polymaths and Renaissance women and men; prodigies are slaves to a specific talent, whether they enjoy it or not.

The main difference between prodigies and high achievers is that high achievers can be nurtured. Prodigies start their lives expecting success and notoriety to come without effort, and that dooms their future. Adults are their fans due to the novelty of a child functioning on an adult level. Then the prodigies grow up and their talents are no longer quaint or impressive. Adults cease to be promoters and now view them as competitors. That’s when the prodigy melts down instead of flourishes.

The eight roles of the master parent

The brilliance of this book is that it is less about what a successful child looks like, however, and more about what master parents look like.

They describe eight roles that master parents will fill in their child’s life:

(1) The early learning partner: The first role a master parent must fill starts before the child is even born. They amass materials and strategies to engage their children in brain-building literacy (and I’d add numeracy and logic) games. By the time their children are school age, the kids are at ease around language and numbers. This is not a force that is brought into their lives by people external to their household.

(2) The flight engineer: The master parent will intervene in their child’s behavior to keep them on course. They take disciplinary issues seriously. They track their child’s work and seek feedback.

I was interested in the discussion on the “flight engineer” role, because it predictably ended up covering some rants I have made here and elsewhere a lot. The authors don’t use the word “unschooling,” but they describe a similar philosophy of natural development. Intriguingly, the authors associate the education philosophy of “just let your child do what they are pulled to do” with lower income households. I would love to introduce them to some relatively affluent granola homeschoolers / private schools who nurse the exact same convictions as parents who feel economically defeated in providing their children with a serious education. The latter think their children will magically discover passions and talents if left alone, and that making them suffer through such atrocities as schedules or textbooks would annihilate their curiosity forever. Both are a rejection of fundamental responsibilities.

(3) The fixer: The fixer teaches their children practical skills to survive in a sometimes hostile environment. To locate mentors who will represent their interests to their own peers. To find allies who can teach them what is necessary, for example, to get into a tough school.

(4) The revealer: The revealer introduces their child to new ideas, places, and interesting people. They take their kid to symphonies. They travel. They learn about Korean food. They let them tag along at work or attend professional meetings. Master parents will help their child develop the signposts of culture that are necessary to win over other people. They help them communicate about their goals in a real way. If your child wants to be a stockbroker, you will have them hang around stockbrokers to acquire the language of a stockbroker, to know what the job actually entails.

(5) The philosopher: This comes back to the idea of having a purpose. The master parent will talk to their kids about what a life well-lived would involve. What they value and why.

(6) The model: The master parent behaves the way they want their children to behave one day.

(7) The negotiator: The master parent has to prepare their children to be effective advocates for what they want in the world. This means allowing children to have a role in determining how their household operates. It does not mean allowing children to do whatever they want, failing to discipline poor behavior, or rejecting objectively bad life decisions. Children need to have space to test their skills in argumentation and persuasion, and the best way to do that is to have real things at stake in succeeding or failing.

(8) The GPS: The master parent has to help their child build a sense of direction that is consistent with their sense of purpose. There’s no advantage in having a sense of agency if the child cannot see where they can manipulate their own circumstances to advance their own philosophy of what living a good life involves.

I have very much enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend it to new parents.

A brilliant weekend in St Augustine

We have had some hectic weeks with work projects lately. We decided that we would have a bona fide weekend and get out of the house and away from the computers. We ended up spending a lot of time in St. Augustine, which is one of our favorite cities.

Friday night, we drove up to St. Augustine to visit a bookstore there. Elise was in need of some more challenging chapter books to read. I have written before about how she’s something of a kid naturalist, so I have been trying to find books that play to her interests. I highly recommend Jane Goodall’s My Life With The Chimpanzees for children. It talks about being an ethnologist in an extraordinarily conversational and engaging tone, and she provides a lot of details about her childhood that children would love (living in a creepy old manor house, her uncle allowing her to ride his racehorses, her grandmother “giving” her her favorite tree in their backyard for her birthday, her dad’s Aston Martin). I think I am going to try to read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle to Elise sometime, which Goodall says was the first book she fell in love with as a child. She read the book three times after checking it out from the library, and then was given her very own copy for Christmas. It was then that she decided she absolutely must go to Africa.

I also found Deborah Hopkinson’s The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, which is a story about learning to control a cholera outbreak. It should be a fun introduction to epidemiology and a transition to our next science book, which is on the history of medicine.

After we had done our damage at the bookstore, we went to Elise’s favorite restaurant on the A1A in St. Augustine Beach, which is Tide’s Oyster Company and Grill. Elise loves, loves, loves oysters, and Tide’s gets these positively enormous oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. They remember her there, the seven-year-old who can put away a dozen raw oysters on her own. The oysters at Tide’s will separate the people who genuinely like to eat oysters from the folks who ritually choke them down “when in Rome.” They are so big you have to consume them in multiple bites. Our server told us that she’s had tables get upset before because they were so freakishly large.

It was the perfect evening to sit outside at Tide’s. There were storms all around us, but they stayed away from the restaurant’s patio. We were able to enjoy the constant, cool ocean breeze and an incredible lightning show in the distance.

Driving home from St. Augustine on the A1A, we saw an amazing moonrise over the water. We pulled the car over and walked out onto the beach at Marineland, in the dark, with only moonlight on the whitecaps.

We often refer to a line from the movie A Good Year, where Russell Crowe’s character talks about how all of his childhood memories take place at or around his Uncle Henry’s vineyard in France. “Are they good memories?” he is asked. “No,” he replies, “they are grand.” I hope this is the way Elise talks about her childhood when she is an adult. She had the kind of parents who would take her to dance on the beach under the Moon at close to midnight, because that’s important to do.

We had so much fun sitting by the beach on Friday that we decided to do it again on Saturday. In the evening, we headed over to Flagler Beachfront Winery, along the A1A in Flagler Beach. To be honest, we went there with very low expectations. Boutique wines almost always taste like Hawaiian Punch to me, and seriously… a vineyard in steamy, hot Florida? But we found a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay that were actually quite fantastic. For dinner, we had plates of meats and cheeses and toasted baguettes. It was wonderful. Elise, obviously, could not enjoy the wines, but she had a grand time tasting and critiquing the array of cheeses. Surprisingly, I think her favorite had been rolled in ground espresso. I am constantly surprised by her palate.

The party behind us on the patio at the winery was there to celebrate a lady’s 29th birthday. It would seem more than a few of the people who showed up to the party were not, in fact, her friends and were simply there for the wine, based on some of their (rather loud) exchanges. She did not seem to be enjoying her birthday at all. Although I initially begged her not too, Elise insisted on walking up to the lady’s table and singing “Happy Birthday” in her sweet, little voice (albeit at the top of her lungs). Everyone around her whipped out their phones to record the kid serenading a total stranger for her birthday. The lady, who turned out to be a school teacher here, was so moved by all the attention that she looked like she was going to weep. “You don’t understand,” her friend leaned over to tell me, “your daughter just made her night. Probably even her year.” Here I thought we were going to be humiliated by the whole thing, but it turned out to be a wonderful act of kindness. We were joking that with Elise’s love of languages and her love of people, she’s probably going to end up an ambassador.

On Sunday, we kept the bona fide weekend going by heading back up to St. Augustine. This time, we went to the A1A Ale Works in historic downtown, overlooking the harbor and the Bridge of Lions. (The lions are a reference to Ponce de Leon, who is ubiquitous in St. Augustine.)

The restaurant/brewery has an upstairs balcony with ornate wrought iron like one might find in New Orleans. It’s sufficient shelter on a stormy night, so long as the storms are coming from the west and not from over the ocean. We enjoyed watching the city and the boats in the rain. (Though not as entertaining, a bride who was posing for pictures with her wedding party on the bridge ended up drenched and fled the downpour over muddy city streets. She will probably have to have her dress emergency cleaned before the big day. Summer storms in Florida are no joke, y’all. You have to watch the sky.)

We had a neat conversation about what kind of communications equipment to get for our future boat with three chaps who had sailed down from Savannah that day. They seemed to be contractors with the Coast Guard, as they were talking about their efforts to locate a missing boat.

Putting away the paella at the A1A Ale Works.

Walking back to our car, the Cathedral of St. Augustine was all lit up for a nighttime service. We had a wonderful view of all their stained glass windows in the darkness. I feel like we are constantly finding new and unusual spots in the Ancient City.

A wonderful weekend playing in the most beautiful corner of the world. We need to do this more often.

Summertime, and the living is easy

Flagler Beach, FL on a summer afternoon

Oh, summer has clothed the earth
In a cloak from the loom of the sun!
And a mantle, too, of the skies’ soft blue,
And a belt where the rivers run.

And now for the kiss of the wind,
And the touch of the air’s soft hands,
With the rest from strife and the heat of life,
With the freedom of lakes and lands.

I envy the farmer’s boy
Who sings as he follows the plow;
While the shining green of the young blades lean
To the breezes that cool his brow.

He sings to the dewy morn,
No thought of another’s ear;
But the song he sings is a chant for kings
And the whole wide world to hear.

He sings of the joys of life,
Of the pleasures of work and rest,
From an o’erfull heart, without aim or art;
‘T is a song of the merriest.

O ye who toil in the town,
And ye who moil in the mart,
Hear the artless song, and your faith made strong
Shall renew your joy of heart.

Oh, poor were the worth of the world
If never a song were heard,—
If the sting of grief had no relief,
And never a heart were stirred.

So, long as the streams run down,
And as long as the robins trill,
Let us taunt old Care with a merry air,
And sing in the face of ill.

In Summer, Paul Laurence Dunbar (Lyrics of the Hearthside)

Florida’s incredible farmers markets

I love all farmers markets and seeing what local produce is available where. Nothing, however, compares to the farmers markets on the Florida coast. You can get sacks of fruit and vegetables for a dollar or two, fish fresh off the boat that morning, and all kinds of exotic tropical produce. In many states, it is difficult for people from all economic backgrounds to have access to healthy foods. That is not the case in Florida, and much of this great food is available year-round. Many of these farmers markets have permanent locations, so you don’t have to show up at a particular time or on a particular day. They are always there and always open.

We came home today with these coconuts that weigh two or three pounds each.

We also found loads of plants for our vegetable garden that we did not already have. New varieties of tomatoes and peppers, some fantastic basil, and Cuban oregano. I picked up some small sweet beets that I am looking forward to eating with a pile of feta, sinfully sweet cantaloupe, and a dozen duck eggs.

I am counting down the days until I can pick up figs everywhere. Figs are my all-time favorite thing to eat. We make a divine salad of figs, mâche, strips of prosciutto, and mozzarella chunks, with a dressing of walnut oil, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard (with a pinch of salt). It is the most amazing thing.

One of the wonderful things about homeschooling is that we can take breaks during the middle of the day to run over to the farmers market down the street from us and pick out fresh food for lunch. (No mystery meat in our cafeteria!) Our daughter is exposed to the life skills of deciding what and how to prepare and food from many other cultures, as Florida is a giant melting pot of people from the US, Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. We try to frequent the many international grocers in our town for spices and curries and whatnot. We love the Portuguese folks and Thai communities here in particular and have made a lot of friends among them.