Hegel, Michael Pollen, and gardening with children – what it means to feel at home

The German philosopher Hegel wrote about Heimatlichkeit, the sense of being at home, as a way of knowing. Europeans had taken this concept from the Greeks, who also believed that knowledge was a sort of feeling comfortable with one’s situation. It was the goal of parenting and citizenship in the ancient world to raise children who could feel in their bones what it meant to be Greek, to know they belonged in their city-state.

In contrast, someone feels alienated when nothing in their environment makes sense to them. The worst punishment in the ancient world was to be expelled from the community by the exact same forces that helped give someone a sense of home. To live in exile and lose one’s sense of home was worse than execution. If you have ever lived abroad, you likely know that homesickness can feel like physical torture.

I think about Heimatlichkeit a lot these days. Many people look at elements of our society, feel acutely alienated by them, and develop a passionate longing to return to a time where they felt at home in the world. That’s not really a story about change being difficult, so much as a falling away from the constellations of beliefs and practices that have real meaning to us. Civilizations can navigate and endure all kinds of disruptive events if they feel like they are defending a home. (It was the Heimatlichkeit of Americans and Europeans that took down Hitler as much as bombs.) But there’s no political vocabulary that offers an effective substitute for Heimatlichkeit.

The ideal held up by self-proclaimed elites nowadays is a sort of un-Heimatlichkeit. They talk incessantly about being a “citizen of the world.” That’s a nonsensical phrase. No person can feel at home everywhere, unless their own life is a vacuum. A hipster from Los Angeles may feel like he is a “citizen” of Europe because he went backpacking and toured some art museums, but that’s not a sense of real belonging. You only get to this perspective by diminishing the place where you originally belonged. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

I think I can say confidently that I have very little in common with the author Michael Pollan now. But I used to. This is someone who used to grok Heimatlichkeit.

When he became a popular proponent of organic agriculture and clean eating, I read several of his books. I’m not sure I gleaned anything spectacular from them, mostly because I already agreed with those principles. I was buying locally-sourced, organic foods before they were easy to obtain and I never put pesticides on my own gardens or lawn. Not from any sense of moral superiority, but because these things are a way to be happier. In fact, one of the things I loathe the most about living in suburbs is the amount of poison people dump into the ground for no other reason than they are too lazy to pull weeds. (Again, where is your sense of home?) It’s a struggle for me not to point this out to my neighbors when they ask me how I achieve such massive blooms each year. The answer is simple: I respect that soil is a living thing and I don’t try to murder it. Really kind of simple, if you think about it.

But my agreement with Pollan pretty much stops with soil. I could never follow him daily because his progressive politics is eyeroll-inducing to me, and don’t even get me started on how he’s become an advocate for legalizing psychedelics. Whatever good he has done in reforming the food industry he’s cancelled out with the harm he’s helping inflict upon the social fabric of great American cities.

All that said, I have been reading his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and I am enjoying it immensely. It’s a reminder of how much I liked Pollan’s early writings.

Pollan takes a David Copperfield approach to talking about gardening in the book. That is, he starts with what are literally his first memories of “working” in a garden. In his case, that was climbing behind the lilac and forsythia branches in his parents’ suburban yard as a preschooler. You can appreciate how a child perceives scale from his description of his first “garden,” under those towering shoots of blooms. There he would spit out watermelon seeds, and then triumphantly one day realized a watermelon plant was growing out there. He had made that happen, there in the margins ignored by the adult world. He picked the melon and ran with it to tell his mother, but the melon went splat on the back porch, since it was being hauled by a young child with little agility. As you can imagine, tears were involved. (I wanted to tell him that I have shed real tears over plants as an adult.)

The first serious gardener he knew was his grandfather, one of the first real estate developers on Long Island and thus a very wealthy man. His grandfather had a professional gardener to assist him in keeping decorative trees and flowers, but his own domain was a half-acre vegetable garden. His grandfather maintained his gardens with military precision, waking up to hoe his vegetable garden every day and not letting a single weed survive in his beds.

The man could afford any luxury, but he lived in the dirt. His wealth came from the dirt and that’s what he put his wealth back into.

You are left with the impression that this is why he lived well into his 90s. He was a passionate man with a passionate sense of home. He had a reason to wake up each day because of it. Even when he moved to a condo in his last years, he had a container garden on the patio to tend.

His memories of his grandfather’s immaculate gardens stood in sharp contrast to his own father’s refusal even to mow the lawn of their suburban plot, much to the humiliation of his wife and children. His father became persona non grata in their neighborhood, and when the neighbors finally confronted him about the fact that his grass was so high that it had gone to seed, he responded by getting out his lawnmower and carving his initials into their suburban meadow. Pollan says it was a “fuck you” to their neighbors, but I think it was as much a “fuck you” to his wife and kids. Fuck you having a sense of home.

In reading that, I felt like I understood Pollan’s own behavior as an adult better. Imagine the pathology of growing up with someone who doesn’t want to make things beautiful for their family. Who cares so little about their home that they will go out of their way to manufacture outsider status for their children. His kid likes ingesting toxic mushrooms, you say? That’s just depressing. But at least he had his grandfather, who thought like a good Greek citizen and modeled it for the kids whether they were wholly receptive of it or not. Pollan did not grow up entirely without an aesthetic, which would have been tragic.

The more I read about Pollan’s accounts, the more I started to think about how I garden with our daughter and the significance of the memories we are creating. How she will probably remember even the smallest details about being out in the garden with me because gardening is such a big part of my own identity. This is what her mother loved to do and this is how she acted while she was doing it. This was how we made a home and it was important.

From Pollan:

In both our eyes [his and his grandfather’s], this was a landscape full of meaning, one that answered to wishes and somehow spoke in human language….

One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these. I can’t imagine a wilderness that would have had as much to say to me as Grandpa’s garden did: the floral scents that intimated something about the ways of ladies as well as flowers, the peach tree that made legible the idea of fruit and seed, the vegetables that had so much to say about the getting of food and money, and the summer lawns that could not have better expressed the hospitality of nature to human habituation.

He recounts how, as a teenager, he proudly built his own garden on an especially small plot of land. His parents, after the lawn incident, moved into a new, more posh neighborhood with the intention of having their yard professionally maintained, as his father was entirely too lazy and uninterested in being outside to push a lawnmower back and forth or dig a hole for something beautiful.

They would only concede a corner of the yard that was completely out of sight for their son to plant vegetables. He was older, but still working along the margins of the adult world.

Pollan did many right things in setting up his garden. He ordered quality soil and organic materials. But he planted the vegetables in a jumble to maximize his small space. They were mixed together as they could fit, and were not in his grandfather’s neat rows. And he was certainly less religious than his grandfather in weeding.

He was rewarded for his efforts, however, with bushels of vegetables. He considered the garden a great success and convinced his grandfather to come see it. Of course, all his grandfather saw was a mess that reflected his hippie grandson. To him, the fact that his grandson could not maintain a simple vegetable garden with any sense of order mirrored a wasted generation of young people who weren’t going to be good for anything. And he let young Pollan have it. That was the end of Pollan maintaining a garden for a long time. Pollan got his driver’s license and spent as much time away from home as he could. You can’t work on your gardening skills if you are never at home.

Gardening with children can be really frustrating, especially if you have a talent for gardening yourself. Gardeners are hypnotized by order, even the ones with strategically messy cottage gardens. Their calendar revolves around the first frost and the last frost-free day. Full sun and shade. Flat and sloped. They plant according to what will not shock plants, which can seem like some unintelligible primitive ritual to the uninitiated. They can look at the plants and tell you what specific elements are keeping the soil from perfection. Gardening is about management and control.

Children, on the other hand, learn about boundaries by testing them. This applies both to what they can and cannot do to make things grow and how far they can go before exhausting all of your patience. Working with them can seem like deliberately introducing chaos into the order you’ve worked so hard to obtain. And the stakes can be high. Have you ever set a kid to work planting bulbs only to realize they’ve planted 50 tulips upside down? Trust me, it’s time to give up and fix a martini at that point. The plants will do their own job and find the Sun.

The only way to get past all of this is to multiply the time you spend with your children. Much like education, you have to introduce children to order gently and over time. You aren’t going to have much success dictating to your child how things must be. They will learn from your example and from their own successes and failures that if they want to create something beautiful themselves, they have to work deliberately.

You are helping them build an aesthetic. You are helping them understand what belongs, and a big part of that is helping them understand that they belong.

When your politics make you an objectively bad parent

I don’t have any serious interest in Greta Thunberg or her climate protests. I don’t see much value in polling teenagers about their public policy opinions in general. Or Millennials that are still financially dependent on their parents, for that matter. Your teenage years are about getting an education, not telling adults how to make important decisions.

When it comes to government, I am with Aristotle: Until you have copious real world experience, your thoughts on government should not matter. Until you reach that point, you are indiscriminately parroting the opinions of the authority figures in your world. Not all adults are worth giving more than one vote to.

In developed countries that now infantilize college students, where “kids” remain on their parents’ health insurance policies well past the time they are old enough to birth their own children, the scope of people who fit that criterion is rather large. It would be no mystery to Aristotle why a nation that allows such people to vote has a young electorate that believes the government should function in loco parentis (which, frankly, is the best description of socialism and pseudo-socialism there is). Don’t ask someone who still goes shopping with Daddy’s credit card to explain why entitlements are bankrupting the country.

What I find somewhat fascinating, however, is how many people on the left have been disturbed by her performance. For some reason, they can’t see their own behavior in her behavior. This is the kind of kid your village produces when they exist in a vacuum of contrarian influences. Your nihilism creates freaking miserable children. People who are given nothing to believe in are not happy, healthy, or well-adjusted. Anthropologists have been offering this up as the purpose of shared mythologies and traditions for as long as that discipline has existed.

Ever since Trump announced he was running for president in June 2015, folks on the left have become both intolerant and intolerable. I have met kindergartners on the playground who talk about their feelings less than your average Democrat does now. I’m not kidding about that, either. There are only so many times you can watch someone light their hair on fire over nothing before you don’t want to be around them anymore (and you don’t want your kids around them anymore). It truly has become a form of mental illness at this point.

Listening to Democrats talk about Trump is a lot like listening to a woman who found out her husband was banging her best friend and then was given full custody of the kids by a judge. They feel so personally wronged by someone who, for all practical purposes has no idea they are even alive, that they have become obsessive in their hatred. They are incapable of separating humor from earnestness (e.g., Trump proposed a moat full of alligators at the border … *hyperventilates* This is public policy now!). They fact-check parodies. They still believe conspiracy theories that were debunked in a two-year-long investigation. They can’t even contemplate consuming “news” from someone who does not share their biases. They consume what is tantamount to propaganda all day long. Every person who dares to disagree with their historically extreme social theories is racist, homophobic, xenophobic, blah blah blah. The only people they trust are people who share their vitriol, who share an equally regimented diet of bias and hate.

Many people have made these observations before me. But the horror of Greta Thunberg – whom I will not mock here, as she is obviously struggling with some serious psychiatric issues, and there’s no humor in that – is that this is often what a child of this era looks like.

What happens when substantially all of the adults in a child’s life are bent on convincing them day in and day out that they live in a dystopian hellhole and that human beings are headed toward extinction in their own lifetime? When every show on television in their house is about what a dystopian hellhole they live in and we’re all going to die? When they see a jail on television and you liken it to Auschwitz? When every man is portrayed as a potential rapist?

Oh, your kid suffers from anxiety and depression? How very strange! You seem like such a wholesome influence!

The psychological impact of this behavior is not all that different than the anti-vaxxers who feed their children bleach every day to cure their “vaccine damage.” It’s irrational and poisonous. It’s downright abusive. You are hurting your child. You should stop doing this.

What happens when adults manipulate their children to call attention to their own perceived moral righteousness? When they will drive a child increasingly mad just so they can say, look, the dystopian nature of our society is so obvious that even children can see it? When the people who are entrusted to care for a child see them as a means to an end?

I’m sorry (no, I’m not), but if your political views are so batshit that your kid needs real therapy to deal with living in a house with you, then you are an objectively bad parent. You believe objectively destructive things.

Childhood is supposed to be a period of safety and stability. It is a period where children are given the freedom to learn the skills they need to get along in the real world. It’s not where you tell a child every day that they cannot be proud of their community, of their country, of their ancestry, or anything that is part of their identity in the real world. That is anti-social behavior in general, but it’s a supremely abusive way to treat a child. It’s like kicking a puppy over and over again until they learn to bite anyone who comes near them. You are degrading their existence.

Moreover, when your political views are so toxic that your family doesn’t want you or your insults at Thanksgiving, that is also a horrific way to treat a child. Your child needs a tribe to survive.

Unfortunately, some households have to be escaped, and some people will have to construct their own tribe rather than inherit one. Some people need to pick a college that is a thousand miles away from home to escape their parents’ poison. Greta Thurnberg is what happens when a child chugs that poison down. Take a good look and change the way you live.

Having a preemie will make you re-think the abortion “debate”

With our very premature daughter in the NICU.
This is what a baby at the beginning of the third trimester looks like outside of the womb.
Eight states in the US would allow this child to be aborted legally.

I believe in the power of testimony. I think, in this political moment, the testimony of women is more important than ever. This is mine.

For several months, I had listened to my OB-GYN tell me that I was having the healthiest pregnancy he had ever seen in his career. A former marathoner, I was still running several miles a day at the beginning of my third trimester. I had slowed to eight-minute splits from my pre-pregnancy six minutes or less, but I didn’t even break a sweat lugging my growing belly around. In fact, I had only weeks before confessed to my coworkers that I was even pregnant. I was so fit going into my pregnancy that almost no one had noticed. I was doing everything right. I managed my diet like it was a second full-time job. I took the right vitamins. All of my ultrasounds revealed a happy, healthy baby.

In one night, it all went spectacularly wrong.

My husband was out with his friends for their weekly game night. I stayed home, watching the end of the first season of Downton Abbey. In the last episode, one of the main characters, the victim of an evil plot, slipped getting out of the bathtub and ended up having a miscarriage. I went to bed feeling sick at the thought. But in those hours, in the real world, my own pregnancy was taking a turn for the worse. I started feeling the pangs of labor. I called the doctor on call at the hospital, and they told me it was way too early for me to be in labor. “You are early in your third trimester,” they said. “Go back to bed, it’s probably false labor pains.”

I tried to sleep, but I could not. My husband returned home, and I told him about all of it. He agreed with the doctors. I just needed to chill out. Even now, I regret not getting in the car and driving to the emergency room of another hospital then and there.

For the rest of the weekend, I was still having what felt like labor pains. I went for a five-mile hike to distract myself from what I thought were false labor pains. It was way too early to be going into labor, I kept telling myself. I was so far away from the time women usually give birth that I had not even registered for birthing classes. I still had no idea how to have a baby. It wasn’t real. My body was telling me otherwise, however. My belly was getting smaller. It was leaking. A lot.

My regular OB-GYN appointment was the next day. I could make it until then. I would learn what was happening to us. And by “us,” I mean me and the baby. What was happening to one was clearly happening to the other.

Like a good manager, I went to work and did my normal chores. Then I drove to my doctor’s office. Checked in. Passed time sitting in the waiting room flipping through magazines about parenthood. Passed time waiting in the examination room. A doctor I did not know was on rotation to see me. After a very brief examination, she started screaming for a wheelchair to move me to the hospital immediately.

“You are having this baby right now,” she shouted at me. I was terrified at the scope of my own ignorance in everything involving childbirth. And here I was in an emergency situation.

We had not even picked out a name for our daughter yet. It was something we had postponed because we could not agree on anything. Was I going to give birth to a Jane Doe? How would we explain that to her?

I did not understand that it was a bona fide miracle that my daughter was still alive at that point. My belly had drained of fluid, and every move she made meant she could be sitting on her umbilical cord – which for a baby was essentially choking. My risk of infection was insane. They wouldn’t even allow me to use the restroom.

The doctors in the hospital had different opinions about how to proceed. To give the baby every chance at a normal life, I was supposed to get injections of antibiotics to stave off infection and injections of a cocktail that would protect the baby neurologically. We were living in a small town outside of a small town and I was about to give birth at a regional hospital that I had never intended to give birth at. But those emergency decisions by small town doctors saved our baby. And me.

I spent three days drinking as much water as I could physically stand to drink, in an attempt to keep water in my leaking womb, and laying on my side. This was all to keep the baby sort of floating around and not sitting on her umbilical cord. The baby just had to hold on long enough for the drugs to have an effect. She did. But my body kept defying the drug cocktail I was being given and going into labor. I spent all of those days watching the monitors hooked up to my abdomen. The baby was still alive. That was the only thing that mattered in the midst of all this chaos. She was still alive.

We spent those three days trying to think up a name for her. Our funniest compromise was on her middle name, Aurelie, the French derivative of the Latin “golden.” A message to our daughter that she was precious.

Very late at night, the doctor came in and explained that we could not keep this up much longer. I needed to go into surgery right then and there to save the baby. I had wanted more than anything to have a natural birth. I had never been hospitalized before, let alone endured major surgery. The baby would most certainly die, the doctor said. Possibly you would too, he added. Stoically, as if both details were nothing. C-sections are a big deal, he explained, but they are the most common surgeries performed in the United States. Take it or leave it.

I pondered what hospital staffing was like at almost midnight. What a terrible time to go into surgery. But there was no choice. It blows my mind to think, in retrospect, that if I had lived in a state like California or New York, the doctor would be talking to me about abortion under the same circumstances. It seems like taking advantage of someone’s mental state and the swirling fears that come with these events. Like exploitation. You might die, so put the thought of motherhood out of your mind and kill the source of your distress. I often look at our daughter now and think about how blessed I was that, in those precious moments, we were settled in a culture that valued life.

My husband and I had a brief moment before I was transferred to the operating room to exchange I love yous. I was wheeled into a cavernous, cold, sterile, and honestly kind of dark, operating room. Whatever terror I thought I was experiencing before, this was so much worse.

The nurses were doing true women’s work in those moments. They were keeping me sane and telling me that it was all going to be okay. They weren’t midwives, but they understood the power of a woman telling another woman that she and the baby would be just fine. They had seen it all before. They had done it all before. Women have been doing this for thousands of years. I was not the precedent. I trusted them and it mattered. Sit up on the metal table and bend over, they said. A giant needle went into my spine. It was happening, whether I liked it or not. But I was not alone.

The doctor told me that he would have the baby out of me in less than fifteen minutes. The baby would be very small, but she’d be just fine.

For ten minutes, the doctor tried to distract me from the fact of surgery by talking about marathons. He was a marathoner. I was a marathoner. Tell me about your races. Meanwhile, he was pulling the guts out of my torso and freeing a baby that was in critical condition. I could not see any of it. It was just a sensation of pulling, again and again and again.

Within moments, a screaming, perfect baby was held up to my face. I was stuck in the unforgettable stasis of love at first sight. We had finally met. We were a family.

I was soldered and sewn up, ignoring the smell of my flesh and parts with the joy that I was now a mother, and sent to recovery, where a belated deluge of hormones intended to eliminate the sensation of childbirth washed over me. I shook uncontrollably for hours.

Terrible things started to unfold. Things that made the earlier issues seem like trifles.

I was alone in my room. No one brought the baby in to see me. Within hours, I would understand that our child was in desperate need of medical attention and would be transferred to the region’s children’s hospital for special treatment. I had to remain in the hospital to heal from surgery. I could not be moved. She had to be moved. Hopefully she would survive transport. The doctors minced no words that she might not.

I told my husband to forget about me and follow our baby. She needed an advocate and I did not. He did. For five minutes, I was allowed to see our daughter in her incubator before she was loaded into a special ambulance for transport 50 miles away. I had no idea what to say except that everything would be okay. We’d see each other again. I had the chance to talk to the people on that ambulance later. She almost died twice on the way to the new hospital. But she made it. Even years later, the people who worked on that ambulance remembered her name.

She only weighed a couple pounds, but looked in every way like a baby. I had no idea how much intelligence and fight she already possessed, there, being born when I was days into my third trimester.

There’s a fun story that our daughter now loves to tell about how my mother-in-law busted me out of the hospital and then drove me to the children’s hospital where she was.

I was ripped open from abdominal surgery, but I was so scared for the baby that I was pacing back and forth in my hospital room within hours. I was in excruciating pain, but it did not matter. Eventually, I was doing that in the hall just to prove to the doctors that I could walk and was okay to release. Hormones are amazing this way. Your body is constructed to protect your young, even at a tremendous price to yourself. It’s nature’s way of telling you that this is what you were made for.

They told me that I was stuck there in the hospital for 36 hours at least. I was hysterical with grief and fear. I might miss her entire life sitting in some shithole regional hospital room. Because I had a wound.

I could see my car sitting in the parking lot from the hospital window. Exactly where I had parked it days earlier, when I thought I was going to a regular doctor’s appointment and had no idea all of this was coming. I finally asked the doctor whether they could legally stop me from walking out of the hospital and getting in my car. He tried to reason with me, which is laughable now. How would I check my blind spot when I could not even turn my body from the surgical wound? I did not care if it ripped my stomach open in the meantime. I would make it to where the baby was.

Finally, my mother-in-law arrived from Georgia. She convinced the hospital staff to release me to her care. She drove me to the NICU where our daughter was. It was indeed an excruciating trip. With every pothole in the freeway, I screamed in pain and felt like I was being torn open again. But we made it. I was there. We were all there. Our family.

I was surprised by all the work that had been done in my absence to stabilize our daughter. She had been born with significant birth defects, all affecting internal organs, and all caused by de novo genetic defects. (This means they have no idea where they came from scientifically. Yes, medically uncertainty still exists this day and age.) Her problems actually had no connection to being born prematurely. Her premature birth was likely a chemical sign she needed help. They say birth is triggered by the baby sending chemical messages to the mother that it is time. In her case, it was time.

The first time I saw our daughter in that hospital, her neurologist was hovering over her.

“I have never seen this before,” he said.

“What?” I asked. I was expecting more horrible, unfathomable news.

“You see how I move my pen and she follows it with her eyes? She even moves her eyes to follow who is speaking. I have not seen that with a newborn, let alone a newborn that was so premature.”

Indeed, she could not physically move her head, but she was making an effort to listen to whomever was speaking.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“If I were to guess, I’d say that you have a very intelligent daughter. Her brain is extraordinarily developed given all that has happened. Perhaps she will be a prodigy?” he said. He shook his head and continued on his rounds. She became a favorite of his, and he checked in on her all the time.

Whatever interest I might have had in her intelligence at that point was quickly subordinated to concerns about her survival. She spent 100 days of her first year in the hospital. My husband and I were there with her every step of the way. She wooed every doctor and nurse that had the chance to take care of her. They loved seeing her progress and loved how she watched every move they made. She had the fight in her. She had a role in her own care.

With several surgeries, her problems were completely cured. I’m not going to lie, those were dark, dark months. But she is now a completely “normal” child physically. It’s like none of this ever occurred.

Her neurologist was correct. She is profoundly gifted intellectually. We ended up homeschooling her because she was functioning several grade levels ahead of her peers before she entered kindergarten. Her development wasn’t stunted by being premature; she was in fact way, way ahead.

Within months after she was finally free of all her medical issues, she was fully engaged in her environment. It made me laugh how, even before she could speak, she was ordering her toys according to color and size. She was born into a world she’d sort and control. Her pattern recognition was unreal. We went from having a crisis to having a highly analytical baby. We went from trying to coach her to do ordinary infant things to trying to figure out how we’d be educating a child like this.

When she was first born, I was so scared and humiliated by the circumstances that I did not even want to share any of the details of her birth. The normal questions like how long was your baby, how much did she weigh, I did not want to answer. Barely able survive was the answer. Who wants to confess that? You want me to quantify how far awry our experiences are? But she did survive.

The important detail about her birth was that she was extraordinarily premature, but also extraordinarily human. She was a thinker. She cared about things. When she was less than three pounds. If someone had described this to me before I had a baby, I’m not sure I would have believed them. But life contains a lot of magic. You learn that when you become a mother.

There are people who would try to justify killing this baby before she was born. Sitting in the NICU with her for months was a strain on my career as a bond analyst. The thing I went to college for. The thing I worked a decade to climb the ranks for. I was at the top of my field. And then, after that, she was too medically fragile to put into day care… Who wants to deal with those inconveniences? Someone might try to take your position at the top of your department in the meantime. Why not get rid of the kiddo and defend your professional bailiwick? There will be other opportunities at a family! This is the very real poison our society is spitting at young mothers these days.

The discussion about abortion has become sickening, and it is all ultimately about money. Planned Parenthood has replaced labor unions as the largest contributor to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates. What they get in exchange for that dough is politicians with increasingly psychopathic attitudes toward mothers murdering babies. It’s the mother’s “choice” to murder her thinking, soulful baby even hours before birth. If they can get millions of women to pay them hundreds of dollars a pop to relieve them of a “clump of cells,” that’s big business and Wall Street-level influence over politics. And now Planned Parenthood is in the business of providing hormone injections, so the hot new political thing is elementary schools talking about sex changes with students. They are a cancer on American family life, pushing terrible life decisions on young people, pushing a nihilist society where normal rites of passage are treated as perversions. Motherhood was their first causality, but it won’t be their last.

I beg you, if you are thinking about having an abortion, please consider the details of our birth story. A baby is a baby, from the beginning to the end. Even if you are not a religious individual, you can recognize the value of life. Babies are more sophisticated, more aware of who you are, and who they are, than you might ever suppose, and that does not start with labor. You have a life, they have a life, but you have a relationship that transcends this crazy world first. Take a moment and think about these things. You are not alone. If you need help, message me. I will help you find the resources you need. Don’t make a decision that you cannot reverse because toxic influences are trendy these days.

Seven years later, playing chess with her father.

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.