An Investment Confessional

Since the market low in March of 2009, I have not managed to keep pace with the passive return of the S&P 500 index. In no year in the last 8 have I met or exceeded the return of the index on a portfolio-wide basis. I would’ve been much richer by now if I had just turned my capital over to Mr. Market almost a decade ago and spent my time and energy worrying about anything but investing.

And I managed to do this primarily by being uninvested throughout this time period. I have not gone back and done a trade-by-trade and year-by-year study of my portfolio returns over this time period (I am including here my personal accounts as well as other accounts I manage) but just eye-balling it I think it’s safe to say the most exposure I’ve ever had to equities over this time period was no more than 25% of any of the portfolios and probably a lot closer to 20% on a gross capital basis. In essence, I sat out one of the biggest bull markets in history and missed an opportunity to capture a 271% total return through passive management. That’s something like 18% a year, an impressive long-term rate of return by most standards.

How did I manage to let this happen? And what have I learned from this experience? More importantly, what do I plan to do differently going forward?

The story of this mishap is complicated in my mind and is over ten years in the making. I was aware of the stock market as a concept since my early teenage years. On Friday nights after dinner my family would watch a battery of shows on PBS including “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser.” I learned nothing about investing from watching this show other than there was this place called a stock market and people had a lot of opinions about what was happening there. My father was no investment guru and my clearest memory of him with regards to the stock market (aside from watching this show beside him) was him coming home during the Tech Bubble — which I did not know it as such at the time, nor did he — and saying things like, “Wow, I can’t believe it, my AOL stock doubled again today” as he set his briefcase down and went to change for dinner. He did not work to understand what was going on with the companies he owned and he did not encourage me to be curious about it.

In high school I never took one of those “business” classes where everyone plays the “stock market game” and creates a fantasy portfolio. In retrospect, this is a terrible way to introduce young people to the idea of common stock investing as most learn from it what I learned– it’s “fun”, it’s “random” (the winner was inevitably some kid who got lucky betting on things that happened to go up during the course of the game) and there are no costs if you’re wrong because everyone was playing with funny money. But I remember being disappointed I didn’t get to play, and excited when I realized I could find the website on my own and play on my own time, although I quickly gave up when I realized I had no idea how to pick a stock and was basically just rolling dice.

When I began working over the summers in between school years and accumulating some savings I began looking for yield beyond my bank account. This was during a time where a “safe” money market fund was yielding just over 5% a year. I put my savings with Vanguard’s MMF and felt quite wealthy watching it grow at 5%, not knowing what a money market fund was or why it offered more than a bank account and not knowing that with a little elbow grease I could earn much more than that as a proper stock investor.

Fast forward to sometime in college and I was much more interested in this idea of investing as a discipline. I was becoming aware of the world of finance, likely in part due to my proximity to the global center of it (“Wall Street”), in part because many classmates and friends were talking about it as a career opportunity and in part because my readings and interests and slowly taken me there. I became aware of the hedge fund industry and the idea that people made their living making investments all day long. I decided that sounded pretty interesting to me (much more on this topic in a future post I plan to write) and might be something I’d like to pursue as well.

And somewhere in there I came across a recommendation to read The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. Which I proceeded to do, but, despite reading the book from cover-to-cover, including the end chapter commentary by Jason Zweig that many people detest but which I think actually adds some value and can even be enjoyed as a standalone reading, I really did not understand much of what I read. And the even greater sin was that I failed to apply what little I understood.

I did not begin searching for Ben Graham stocks. I did not use his principles of risk management in constructing my own portfolio. I did not look for opportunities to spite Mr. Market and buy stocks when he was panicking and sell them when he was giddy. I did not begin looking at stocks as ownership certificates in real businesses. I did not even do any investing beyond my Vanguard MMF! For whatever reason at this stage in my life investing was a purely academic interest.

This began to change as I neared the end of college and was seriously considering a career in finance. Around this same time, I had been reading deeply of Austrian economics and had become convinced, like many who had, that we were on the precipice of a global economic calamity that would start with the housing sector and quickly come to overwhelm the banking sector. I was obsessed with this End Times prognostication and spent most of my time working to understand what was coming and thinking about an investment strategy that would stand to benefit from macro disruption. I was finally ready to take some action and I ended up doing two things.

The first thing I did was to sow doubt about my parents’ equity holdings in their mind, particularly their heavy concentration in the financial sector (prime offender: Citibank), which their broker was convinced was one of the cheapest parts of the market and thus he had increased the total exposure in their blue chip portfolio. I told them the end was coming and they should liquidate everything and go to cash. I was initially unsuccessful, but when the first hiccup in the markets occurred, my dad got worried and decided to at least follow my advice to sell all his financial stocks, including Citibank, his largest position, which the broker bleated about painfully for weeks afterward.

The second thing I did was to follow Peter Schiff’s strategy regarding the Great Decoupling of the United States from the rest of the world, and what better way than to open an account with Schiff’s firm, Europacific Capital, to buy all these great foreign stocks (especially commodity companies and infrastructure businesses) at rich commissions? I put essentially my life savings to date into this account, naively trusted my broker when he told me he’d help keep an eye on the portfolio and recommend trades to me at appropriate times, and chose five companies (“that should be plenty of diversification!”) from a list of about 15 or 20 he pulled for me on a basis that was then entirely arbitrary and is now completely unmemorable for me. All I know is I did not use any of Ben Graham’s principles or ideas and I think I feigned a knowing approach by saying the P/E ratios of the companies I was about to buy out loud, almost like an invocation, but beyond that I had little idea what these companies did, what valuation I was buying them at and how big my Margin of Safety was.

The way the story turned out is my parents were grateful and I was obliterated. I saved my parents a lot of money with the move to liquidate the financial stocks as that blunted most of the pain that was to come. After the markets had tumbled some 20-25% (and maybe about 30-40% of the total move down) they ended up liquidating the rest of the stock portfolio and held on to their high quality bonds, something that I had no opinion on despite reading Ben Graham and being pretty opinionated about most other credits in the market (I could talk your head off about CDOs and what a danger they were long before Michael Lewis wrote any books on the subject) which was a good move as interest rates went ZIRP. They really thought I was a genius and neither of us knew I just happened to be lucky. I should’ve been more clued in by what happened in my own portfolio.

My own portfolio lost a lot. At one point I was down about 70%. America did not decouple from the world and the world did not decouple from America. Everybody rode the coaster down together and because I picked economically sensitive businesses at near peak valuations it was indeed a painful ride. I had no idea what to do other than to just hold on (actually, not a bad response and much better than the typical mistake of panicking and selling to Mr. Market at the worst time). But after about two or three years of waiting after the crisis, my portfolio was still down about 50% and I decided it was time to admit I had screwed up and realize my losses. If I had just been more patient, I might have been down at most 20-25%– a bad drawdown, for sure, but much different in terms of wounded pride and sucked out capital than a 50% permanent impairment; even my crappy picks which had amounted to little more than throwing darts at a stock table would’ve caught a bid like everything else during the Great Global Reflation.

Being massively right in my parents’ case and massively wrong in my own should’ve been a good indication I didn’t know what I was doing. Instead, I took away the lesson that macro investing worked and I might actually be good at it if I could learn how to do it consistently well, and stock picking on the other hand didn’t seem to work because I had picked stocks and that went poorly for me. It was embarrassing, particularly because I had told a lot of people ahead of time what I was doing and why, but I found myself still interested in the subject and wanting to explore it more.

That was hard to do as a career because the aftermath of the global financial crisis made getting a job in the industry almost impossible. I went to work for another large company and made more idiotic macro bets while I bided my time. Somehow I was able to stifle the cognitive dissonance of reading Security Analysis at my desk at work (covered wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag, and only when I had gotten my paid work finished for the day) while buying things like the 3X leveraged short financial ETF in what was left of one of my personal accounts. I have no idea why I was reading Ben Graham’s magnum opus analyst handbook at this time or how I had even heard of it and once again I understood little of what I read despite going cover-to-cover, and applied none of it. I scraped some short-term capital gains on these stupid trades and then gave it all back and then some when my luck ran out. I finally threw in the towel and swore off “investing” for awhile as a personal practice while I continued to be interested in getting into it as a career.

After months of pestering a small global macro fund I had heard about in Texas about an analyst position, they agreed to hire me and suddenly it seemed my dreams were coming true. I was convinced this was just the beginning of a long and successful career as a professional investor and despite my initial failures at investing I was excited to come on board and learn what it was really all about.

It turned out not to be so. I learned little about financial analysis or portfolio management in a positive sense although my time spent with this firm armed me with an abundance of lessons in what not to do. The gentlemen I worked for were extremely intelligent, talented and honest and had made out like bandits during the crisis with their own successful predictions and even more successful operations, but like me they had been fooled by luck and had failed to appreciate that successful investing is a practical exercise, not a moral one. They could not let go of their critical view of economic events and the connection they had to the market and they became as embittered as they were emboldened to soldier on against the forces that be in hopes of teaching the world a lesson in folly.

That they did, but the folly was their own. Sadly, it was my folly, too, because despite seeing that it wasn’t working, I was also rather gung ho about it. I couldn’t figure out HOW to invest like that in my own portfolio, so I was mostly inactive as an investor. I also began work on another project in cognitive dissonance. This time, I had managed to figure out that Ben Graham had a student, Warren Buffett, and that there was all kinds of information out there about Buffett, his life, his investment record and his method for investing and risk management. I began drinking heavily at this fountain while taking another turn at the writings of Ben Graham. I was beginning to wonder if maybe the macro stuff was a dead end and there wasn’t something to this value investing concept. I was thinking about doing it in my own account. My timing was again almost impeccable, but I did not know it!

First though, I decided to pitch my bosses on value investing. Maybe we could balance out some of the short exposure in the portfolio with some of this Ben Graham stuff? There seemed to be a lot of opportunities out there based on some quick screens I ran. That’s when I got the dumpster diving speech.

Value investing is a lot like dumpster diving– every once in awhile you come up with a Picasso, but most of the time you come up smelling like garbage!

And besides, everyone knows Warren Buffett is an asshole and just lucky, he’s been on the side of the establishment which has put the wind in his sails, he got a bailout when his house of cards almost came tumbling down in the crisis and no one has been able to replicate his success, likely because he is working some kind of fraud. You don’t want to go there, kid, and neither will we!

My confidence was completely shot! This turned out to be the second best time to get into value investing besides the March 2009 low itself, but I had just been told this was basically the stupidest idea a person could come up with– and since I hadn’t managed to learn much from them, this was about the only idea I had. I was burned out on them, burned out on my broken dream and burned out on how bad I seemed to be at investing in general. So I called it quits.

I ended up joining the family business while I licked my wounds, egotistical and otherwise. The idea was to have a hideout while I figured out where my next heist would be. I was trying to figure out how to go be an analyst somewhere else but I didn’t know where. It seemed like I needed an education, so I began what I came to call my “Personal MBA” program, an intense, year-long effort of reading everything I could get my hands on about business, finance and investing. I’ve written about that earlier on this blog.

Buffett talks about value investing as something that a person either takes to immediately or rejects outright. While I hadn’t yet successfully employed the concepts in my investment practice, it had clearly infected my mind. The macro thing did not make sense to me at a conceptual level but the idea of studying stocks as businesses and looking for indications of cheapness that lent a margin of safety did. I think this is why I kept pushing on and went through my Personal MBA despite having no track record otherwise.

A few interesting things happened during this time period and shortly thereafter. First, I began doing real research and analysis on individual companies– I built spreadsheets and collected operating data, I read SEC filings and books about industry and company history and began to appreciate what it meant to approach the process of investing like a businessman. Second, I actually made some investments– some net-nets in the US (what remained at this stage in the game), some good companies at great prices and even a wonderful company at an un-fair price and later, a basket of foreign net-nets (my JNet strategy), along with a few special situations and some capital structure arbitrages I was coattailing on with another investor friend. While there were a few flops that either went nowhere or I lost a little on, for the most part my results on an individual investment basis were good to great and a few were even outstanding. Third, I continued believing I had some kind of crystal ball as far as market timing was concerned and I let that dominate my overall investment program– as described at the beginning of this essay, I took small, almost meaningless positions in most of the companies I invested in (aside from the JNet basket) such that when they worked, they didn’t have much of an impact on my portfolio overall and when they failed, they also didn’t have much of an impact. It was an excellent way to have nothing to show for the effort I put into it!

While this exercise helped me to build intellectual confidence, I was still not matching it with practical confidence and I doubted myself a lot along the way. What’s worse, my obligations in the family business continued to compete with my interest and efforts in investment management such that they were not only a serious distraction at times from a more meaningful and concentrated effort in this space but they were also a suitable rationalization for why I couldn’t just go all-in and really commit to my investment activity.

At one point I changed operational roles within our business and finally had no bandwidth to spare for investing. I went functionally inactive on investing for almost two years and decided ahead of time that it would be irresponsible to have the portfolios exposed even the minor amount they were at that point in time (especially because I kept not liking what I was seeing as I gazed into my crystal ball!) while I wasn’t paying any attention to them so I liquidated to concentrate on operational issues full time. Incredible, given that sitting on one’s hands is said to be the hardest part of managing a well-constructed portfolio and I missed out on even more returns, meager as they were, with this decision.

Recently I have returned to a more strategic role in the family business and it is more clear now than ever that we need someone to be working on sound capital allocation for us. The most logical person to do this is me, in part because I was the person to point out the need and in part because I’m the only person with that kind of knowledge base. But do I have the experience?

This is where we come to some of the learnings I have taken away from my journey to date. As I mentioned before, I made some grievous errors early on in my investment career. I violated the first rule of investing countless times and I am lucky to still be standing thanks in large part to my extreme propensity to save which has allowed me to accumulate savings faster than my early rate of depletion. But since that time period, when I have actually applied the value investing framework knowingly and cautiously, my results have been good and within expectation. If I had not been so lacking in confidence and tried to make up for my initial indiscretion by being over-conservative, my investment operations at scale would’ve yielded an agreeable rate of return on the capital employed. Just as I must be honest with myself about my initial mistakes, I must be honest about some of my virtues and I think I can count these decisions as part and parcel.

One standard I tried to live by in my earlier investing was perfection. I often failed to act because I could not be sure of absolutely safety and I had determined that if I ever made another mistake in my investment operations, particularly with regard to the macro environment and crystal-ball gazing, that these mistakes would be unforgivable and would reveal how I was in actuality no better, in a moral sense, than any of the other petty mortals plying this trade.

This is, after much contemplation, an unreasonable standard to try to live up to because it is impossible to act at all under this standard. To be a successful investor, one does not need to be the best– one needs to simply act prudently according to sound methods. But, as my re-reading of Benjamin Graham’s classic text recently helped me to appreciate, one must act. Facing this fact, what can I do? The best I can, is the only answer I’ve found. Given that I know how I made my earlier mistakes, and I believe I understand how I succeeded the few times I did, there is really little risk for me of reprising the role of the vaunted “fuck up artist”.

I’ve also decided to give up my crystal ball and related esoteric knowledge I don’t actually possess. In exchange, I will accept Ben Graham’s portfolio maxim of the 25/75 split, ie, that the maximum exposure to stocks or bonds in one’s portfolio at any one time ought to be no more than 75%, and the minimum exposure ought to be no less than 25%. (And I read “cash and cash-like instruments” as part of the bond allocation, which I think of as “cash yield”.) Having more than 75% exposure suggests a kind of enthusiasm which is, short of a few specific scenarios, likely to involve a speculative-gambling attitude about the future and its risks. And having less than 25% exposure (specifically to stocks) makes it hard to even consider oneself an investor and seems to be evidence of falling prey to crystal ball reading.

This part is really hard right now. “But aren’t we at all time highs for the market?” Yes, we are. It’s very painful to consider that and I feel very nervous about taking the plunge now, so to speak, only to find myself suspended in mid-air as I see the plug being pulled from the pool. I comfort myself a bit by realizing that I am not making a timing “call” in trying to follow this approach, ie, the water is fine, come on in! In fact, I am trying to do the opposite, to resist the temptation of thinking I know and to allow myself an opportunity to take risk, prudently, regardless of what I think of the “market.” The other thing I remind myself is that I will not simply start making investments to achieve some arbitrary portfolio exposure level as quickly as possible. Instead, I now have granted myself “permission” psychologically to invest up to 25% of our capital in appealing opportunities if I should find them. Before, I would’ve had to stop and ask my crystal ball for directions first.

Another thing I’ve learned is that successful investing takes patience no matter what. Even the ideas that worked out well for me on an annualized basis took several years to play out or ripen to their full value. Part of the pressure I used to put on myself in this space was figuring out how I was going to generate X% a year, that year. I didn’t know where to find such an opportunity that was that quick and that safe. It doesn’t exist. Another investment chimera. If I pick safe ideas with a strong upside option and can wait patiently fortune will favor me in time.

There are many people, value investors especially, who have outstanding long term track records who are not Warren Buffett. They are unlikely to be doing something corrupt and they do not have his unique genius. They never seem to have set out for themselves the goal that they must be the best or perfect. They’ve all made mistakes. And they’ve all continued investing in a variety of market conditions, with the wind in their face and the wind at their backs. If they can do it, I can, too.

There are also many obviously lesser people trying their hand at this. They are the gambling fanatics who aren’t even trying to hide it, and the weak minds who have donned the clothing and the diction of the sage investor but do not realize they’re only engaging with the methods at a superficial level. These people are bound for disaster, and yet many of them manage to practice as investors and even confuse other people into letting them run their money. It would be a shame to let the world be dominated by those types and it boggles the mind why they should live with confidence and cheerfully go about their business and I should not.

It has been a long, odd journey to get where I am today. Of course I wish that I had learned these lessons earlier, or in some other way and in so doing to have been spared this trying ordeal to manifest my own confidence. But one of my goals is to learn to live my life without apology or regret and I’ve come to realize that taking the path I took is simply one of the data of my life. I’ve accepted it and I am ready to make good on what I’ve learned by putting the lessons learned to work today, not “when the time is right.” The best time to live life as wisely as one knows how is always today, not tomorrow.

How We Plan To Develop The Confidence To Let Our Children Be Free (#parenting, #childhood, #risk)

A friend of mine once told me that I would not know true terror until I had had a kid. And he didn’t mean that children were terrible or terrifying– he was talking about the sense of dread one carries around being responsible for another human’s life and security. You invest so much time and energy and concern into your child and it seems so very easy for something to go wrong and snuff it out in one awful instant.

That is why I read with interest a blog on “Free Range Kids” that another friend linked me to a few months ago. The premise of the blog is that helicopter parenting and other approaches to child development and risk management are grossly flawed. The author argues that the risks of accidental death, molestation by sexual predators, etc., are overblown and parents tend to do more harm than good in trying to shield their children from such threats rather than raising them to be conscious of the risks and competent to deal with them on their own. It’s another classic example of the intervention versus interdependence mindset.

Reading the blog got me thinking about my own experiences with navigating childhood risk, and how the Wolf and I might approach this subject with our Little Lion and any other issuance in our line. But first, a quick anecdote.

The Wolf and I live near the ocean, and two weeks ago we went down to an area on the water for a morning dog walk. As we passed by the various docks and inlets, we stopped to admire three young boys (probably about age 10 or 11) sitting in small motor dinghy by the shore, clearly about to begin a fishing expedition. The boys were all wearing life jackets and seemed appropriately attired for a somewhat chilly expedition on the water. One boy was working vigorously to start the uncooperative outboard motor while the other two boys chatted and gave him backseat driver advice. It was a beautiful sight!

There were no adults in sight. In fact, on our little walking path there weren’t even any other passersby at this particular moment. While I don’t KNOW that the boys arranged, dressed and transported themselves to their shared outing, it certainly didn’t look like anyone was responsible for the get together but them. And while ten year olds are not toddlers, they’re still quite immature in many ways, but they seemed to be plenty capable to handle the logistics of a fishing trip, the mechanics of motorized water conveyance and the social grace of maintaining a civil and friendly atmosphere in the confined space of a small boat. And they paid attention to safety, wearing their life jackets even on the tranquil waters of the inlet with no scolding adult nearby to remind them.

Such a sight is common where we live. Many young people enjoy surfing, sailing and other water sports and can often be seen biking themselves down to the water and conducting these kinds of outings with limited or no adult supervision. For many water-born children, especially boys, it is something like a rite of passage to either get permission to use the family watercraft, or to be given a small watercraft of one’s own at a certain stage in one’s youth. In fact, it is one of the very special things about living where we live, that this kind of activity is available to young children and that the local culture seems to support it. The harbor patrol stayed in their berths that morning, like many others, as thankfully the neighbors didn’t feel the need to call the cops on a few kids out to have a good time by themselves.

 

The Wolf and I were quite pleased with this entire thing and thought about it as an ideal for our Little Lion to achieve one day as well. We really admired the (unseen) parents for having the good sense and the trust in their children to simply sleep in and let them do their thing! How would children who can go on a fishing trip on their own at age 10 ever become a burden to themselves, their parents or society?

Still, so much could go wrong! The boys could scald themselves with the hot engine and its liquids. They could shred their hand on an exposed propeller. They could get a fish hook in the eye, or topple over into the water and float out to sea. They could get hit by a larger boat. They could get too cold! I’m being facetious, but it is still scary for me on some level to think about the simple things that could go wrong. Then, I started thinking about my own childhood experiences, and those of my parents.

Growing up in the same community, I didn’t spend much time on the waterfront, but I did manage to have an active and independent play life. I spent a lot of time riding my bike around the neighborhood, sometimes with friends nearby and other times by myself. I liked doing “jumps” off the curb, where a driveway sloped up to meet the angled curb in the street. I also liked riding up on steep driveways and then using the momentum to get speed on the way down, often ending in a “jump”. I played “soldier” with neighborhood kids, army crawling over people’s lawns and through their hedges, which they probably didn’t appreciate but we sure thought was a blast.

One of my best friends growing up lived about three miles away from me, in a part of town that was most easily accessed by riding one’s bike through an unpaved semi-wilderness area. Today, that area has an asphalt-paved trail with hundreds of people on it daily, but back then it was dirt (heavily irregular and eroded by rainfall and drought conditions) mixed with tall grass and flowering weeds, strewn with cactus, patrolled by skunks and other odd wildlife and not well traveled by others. Meaning, if you fell or ran into a “bad guy”, it was unlikely anyone would know about it right away. Yet, I made that 3 mile bike ride once a week, sometimes riding home before dark and other times getting picked up by my parents if it got too late. I never had any problems and they always trusted me to be careful.

In another part of town where this semi-wilderness existed, you could ride your bike around dirt jumps and giant puddles created by the high school kids, avoid homeless bums squatting out in the bush and if you wanted to, ride your bike right off a steep cliff into the ocean below. There were no fences or guardrails at the time, although today it is covered with a housing development and a proper, paved and fenced walking trail. My parents never worried I’d become a casualty, and I never heard of anyone else becoming one. The most regretful thing that happened to any young people growing up was a drunk-driving incident on prom night on the paved curve road in town in which these poor kids flipped their vehicle and many fell out and died or had severe brain trauma.

Thinking about my parents, I know Grandpa Lion was a boy scout. Although boy scouts typically go on their camping expeditions in groups, the act of camping in the wilderness itself is basically an invitation to unnecessary risks that don’t exist back in “civilization”. My dad raced dirt bikes, go carts and other motorized contraptions as a child. I don’t know what Grandma Lion did that was risky for a young girl, but I know her brother tells tales of throwing lit firecrackers at other children and shooting pellet guns across his balcony at his friend next door and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t condone firing pellet guns, even with eye protection, but the point is that young people seemed to do all kinds of dangerous stuff back then and they managed to survive.

 

When the Wolf and I talk about how we hope to handle our anxiety with our Little Lion, a few themes present themselves again and again. First, the goal we have in mind, as mentioned above, is to give him the opportunity to be trusted and provided resources to explore life on his own or with friends and not to create a paradigm of control and “protection”. Second, our plan is to actively look for opportunities to build his knowledge of risk and measure his awareness and responsiveness to it. In other words, building trust in him, and competence to manage risks he will face, will be an ongoing process learned on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we do not feel comfortable just sending him off into the world and seeing what happens but rather, we will observe his level of maturity and personal capability over time and provide him exposure to settings and circumstances, with our supervision, he seems to be ready for and see how he does. If he demonstrates he’s got it, he earns more leniency, and if he demonstrates he is still figuring it out, we will keep working with him on it until both parties can feel secure that the level of responsibility involved is met by and appropriate level of mastery.

That being said, that mastery is always going to be something he will have to create for himself through a bit of his own risk-taking. He can never know HIS limits if he has ever only had the opportunity to deal with OURS. That’s a fact of life we need to be aware of and learn to accept!

Why Homeschooling? (#education, #homeschool, #parenting)

This is adapted from an email I recently sent to a friend, who asked, “Why do you plan to homeschool your child?”

Education is informed by parenting and values
When we think about the purpose of parenting, we take a page out of Maria Montessori’s handbook and assume that our Little Lion basically has everything he needs already inside of him to be who he is going to be. It is not our job to give him personality, values or direction in life. Since we brought him into the world through no choice of his own and in a helpless state, it is our job to care for him and aid him in his own natural development so he can achieve independence and be whoever it is he will be. We hope to provide positive models and examples of what kind of person he can be and believe we will inevitably teach him the only thing we can teach him — who we are — by simply being authentic around him, but we don’t see it as our job to select values for him and teach him that he should value them.

We think this is different from a “traditional” parenting model which is built around the idea of the parents instructing the child in a particular set of values so they can become a “good” instance of that kind of person. For example, a Catholic parent might hope to raise a “good Catholic” and make religious values part of the child’s upbringing and instruction. A sports enthusiast might hope to see his child become a “good golfer”, and so instruct the child on the techniques and discipline necessary to excel at the sport. Thinking culturally, a Chinese person might see it as important to raise a “good Chinese child” with all the cultural implications that entails in terms of diet, attitudes toward life, behaviors and interests.. A materialist might think it important to raise a child who is a “good moneymaker”. And so on. We don’t see “goodness” as a goal of our efforts as parents, necessarily.

Our value framework
That being said, we are people and we do have values. We operate within a paradigm of what we see as desirable behavior, values and goals and what we see as opposed or detrimental to those things. This can’t seem to be avoided as thinking, acting beings– every moment we are faced with choices and the act of choosing implies moving toward some things and away from other alternatives. If one’s life has any consistency, these values and choices add up and create some coherence. Our coherence forms around interdependence and voluntaryism. We prefer a paradigm where people interact with one another on a peaceful basis, out of mutual desire and aimed at mutual benefit. This stands opposed to the narrative of “zero sum” and “dog eat dog”, where some must be slaves and some must be masters. We don’t see value in “using” people, which is one reason why we don’t plan to “use” our son to fulfill our own desires to create a good X.

By not pursuing “traditional” parenting, we have to use some other system of values to guide our choices and this is it. It inevitably informs our education decisions.

Education is socialization
Our theory of education is that education inevitably involves two concepts: grasping cause-effect relationships existent in reality and the pattern of facts that occurs as a result, and transmitting a system of values explicitly and implicitly about the role of individuals in society (what people refer to as socialization). Far from naively believing that education should only be about teaching cause-effect and facts, we embrace the reality that it is the very selection of which cause-effect relationships and which facts to focus on in a system of education that is itself a form of meta-socialization, before even formal social instruction is reached.

The intersection of parenting, values and education
Now I will try to put these three pieces together– our desire to give our child sufficient degrees of freedom to realize his inherent potential free of interference or intervention from us or others, our own system of values which idealizes free exchange, and our belief that education accomplishes two things in instructing a student about the nature of reality and also about their social role.

There seems to be an appropriate educational means to each set of values or goals in life. If you want a religious society, you need an education system focused on religious instruction. If you want a democratic society, you need an education system open to all and controlled by the government. If you want a free society, you need an education system (or lack of one!) that acknowledges individual differences and caters to them.

When I think about some of the alternatives we can consider when educating our child, they seem to fall short in various meaningful ways. Public or private, our child’s education will largely be guided by dictates of minimum standards and required instructional curricula handed down by people we don’t know from hundreds of miles away. We are socializing our child to understand that parents don’t have an important role to play in developing and implementing an educational program in their child’s life, this is something that can be given to “society” and its representatives, therefore, the child is to serve society because it is being instructed in things society deems it important for it to learn.

We will be telling our child that what it thinks is interesting, exciting, or important to learn is not germane to the process of education. We will be telling our child that education is something that happens in a prescribed place for a prescribed amount of time under tutelage of people who are “approved to teach.”

This seems like an overly regimented way to approach learning that denies the diversity of learning opportunities we believe actually exist. Our child won’t be able to listen to their own mind and body in knowing when to focus on studying something and when to take a break. And they will be inculcated into a pattern of hoop-jumping and test-taking that will push their sense of self outward, to what other people think about their competencies and capabilities, rather than inward in terms of what they think of these things relative to their values and goals.

It’s possible specific, market-based institutions can serve an educational role in our child’s life at various times and for various reasons, but it’s unlikely our educational habits will ever involve the kind of structure where we say goodbye to our child in the morning and hello in the afternoon, Monday through Friday. Homeschooling seems to meet our needs better.

How we plan to homeschool
So what does our homeschool curriculum look like? There are really only three “subjects” we think it is important we instruct our child in, at his own pace and based on his own developing interest– reading, writing and arithmetic. If our child learns to read, he will be able to follow his own interests by studying texts and other written resources imparting knowledge to any degree he would like. If he can write, he can communicate his ideas in another way besides verbally and improve his ability to connect and exchange with others. And if he can do basic math, he can think about personal circumstances (finance, time-keeping, etc.) and the nature of reality (“science”) in more sophisticated ways. These three disciplines are the fundamental building blocks of all other subjects of human knowledge he might like to instruct himself in. We would encourage him to consider learning these things and make every effort to provide him excellent instruction whenever he desires it until he has competency or mastery over them.

From there, the world is his oyster. He can be a self-guided learner and follow his passions, instincts and curiosities wherever they might lead. And we believe that by creating a paradigm for him from the get go that moves at his pace, he will maintain more innate enthusiasm for learning and growing than if he is faced with a “mandatory curriculum” and told he has to learn things he isn’t interested in and doesn’t care about, which don’t help him solve real problems he is facing. And we believe that by observing us, he will come to see the desirability of reading, writing and arithmetic because it will allow him to have more meaningful interactions with us.

Acknowledging our limits, embracing a child’s potential
Beyond that, we just don’t think we’re competent, as parents, people or anything else, to successfully predict what his life will be like and what knowledge he’ll need to be “successful” at it. As a result, our plan is to put a lot of trust and faith in him to figure it out with limited initial guidance. We’re excited to see who he will become and we hope this approach will be less stressful and more loving for all involved when we let go of the standard parent temptation to fight a child’s nature and try to shape them into something more “desirable” or good, from the parent’s point of view.

And this is why we’re interested in RIE, by the way, we feel it is laying the groundwork for the type of relationship we’re planning to build with our Little Lion, and we think it dovetails with our belief in trusting him to be who he is and giving him the framework and structure to thrive as such.

Your Rich Ancestry (#family, #heritage, #wealth, #inheritance)

To my Little Lion,

We’ve been reading up on the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) philosophy of Magda Gerber in more depth since you were born. We were already familiar with the basic principles from observing practicing friends, reading the introductory literature and hosting a RIE-class at our home before you were born. But now we’re eagerly doubling down to make sure we really understand it. The information is digested quite differently when a child like you isn’t a theoretical possibility but a living, breathing actuality. We want to try to get it right.

One of the things Magda Gerber stresses is that the most important thing we as your parents have to teach you is who we are as people. Everything we do and say in front of you you will be paying attention to and learning from. You’ll be internalizing ideas about what is normal, what is desirable, what is ideal or typical for parents, for adults, for people who are more powerful than you in various ways, etc. You’ll also be looking at us as examples of how to relate to oneself, and to others– is it with compassion, empathy, respect and benevolence? Or is it a pattern of vindictiveness, aggressive assertiveness, leverage and manipulation?

We feel relieved that this is really all we need to teach you, although it’s an epic task by itself! It makes sense to us also that this is really all we CAN teach you. If it was a parent’s job to teach their child everything they needed to know, every parent would be bound to fail from the get go. No parents are omniscient because no people are, and parents vary in their ability to communicate and educate about key ideas. But teaching who we are is something any parent can do and will do, as it happens normally in the course of living one’s life. We’re going to be mindful of this reality as we learn more about you, and you learn more about us.

One thing may give you pause, though– we will know almost everything about you, because we will have known you since the moment you were born. But we have lived for several decades before you arrived, and even if we do not mean or want to keep secrets, we can not possibly recount every detail of our lives as they existed prior to your arrival. We will try to share with you what we think is important and worth knowing, but you should understand that there is some bias inherent in this selection and try as we might, we may not always be objective in the telling of the facts. As always, it will be up to you to ask questions and make up your own mind. We hope we can be faithful partners in that process.

Now, there are other things that we can teach you and that we want to teach you, especially things we feel especially well-suited to provide guidance and our individual experience about. Your mother, the Wolf, is a talented home cook despite a lack of professional training, and she is eager to share her skill and passion with you if you’re interested. Your father is a bibliophile and has many books and stories to share with you, and years of methodology on how to extract the most juice from the pulp. These are just a few examples, there are many others.

Aside from teaching you about ourselves and modeling what it is we can model for you, you have a wealth of other family members and family friends who can enrich your life with other skills and wisdom as well.

Your Auntie Lionesses are students of film and photography, business and marketing, athleticism and foreign languages. One has picked up the guitar, which your father has never managed to learn but which he just might if you wanted to give it a go together. They can model great compassion and kindness for you.

Your Grandpa Lion is a mechanical person. He didn’t manage to impart many of these skills to your father, but he can probably be convinced to make good on that missed opportunity by teaching you how to use simple tools and DIY around the house, how to work on cars and motorcycles and other things with engines and transmissions. He’s also an outstanding businessman and leader. He knows how to rally excellent people to a cause he believes in and drive the effort forward to a successful conclusion, a timeless social skill you will benefit from immensely if you can learn it from him. Your Grandma Lion is extremely artistic and creative, with a strong eye for design. She can teach you about how to create a warm, decorated home environment, how to develop style in your clothing. Your Grandma Wolf can teach you about what it is like to grow up in another country, and the experience of leaving home behind to start over in some place unfamiliar. She can model what it means to work hard, which means getting on with life and its challenges and doing it with a smile. She can help you grow up to be bilingual so you’ll have an immediate advantage in your future travels, business opportunities and relationships.

Your mother and father have so may close personal friends with endless things you can learn about from them. One is a pioneer with his family, literally hacking a living out of a remote jungle location far from us. Another is learned in the ways of artisanal butchery and can teach you all about the cultivation and processing of nutritious animal proteins. We have friends who have had corporate careers, and those who are entrepreneurs. We know people who are incredible professional investors and people who are thrifty amateurs. We know people who know all about how to have a good time and others who know about being serious and keeping one’s head down. If you desire a balanced life, you’ll want to consider all these examples and choose what makes the most sense to you.

You have great grandparents and practically innumerable aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of your family. Your life is so abundant and rich in so many ways, the biggest challenge you will have will most likely be taking advantage of it all– you won’t have enough time or interest, so you’ll need to learn to be selective.

When people think of education, they primarily think of books and schools. There will be some of that in your learning process, no doubt, but where you can learn the most is by interacting with other capable people. Just like us, they can model who they are and what they know and love and in so doing offer you a wealth of ideas on how to get the most out of your life.

All of this you get just for showing up in life!

Another Story About The ER (#health, #parenting, #infancy, #risks)

The following is an email sent by a friend who reads the blog in response to the recent posts about my visit to the ER. It is about an experience he had with his infant daughter and I got his permission to share it as it is illustrative of many of the principles touched upon in my earlier posts:

When [my baby] was 9 days old she presented with what appeared to be an infection in her right eye (eye lid swelling, puss coming out the side, dark skin around the eye [picture attachment omitted]).

I think we waited overnight (details are a little fuzzy now that it’s been over 2 years) before doing anything because we were hoping it would resolve itself without having to go to a doctor, who might urge us to go to the ER, which we wanted to avoid if at all possible.

The next day it didn’t look better so we took her to the pediatrician, who was particularly concerned and brought another doctor into the room to examine her, we expressed our concern that we really didn’t want to go to the ER if at all possible, both doctors said we should go. They were concerned “because she’s so young” and “because the infection is so close to the brain.”

We got to the ER and it took for fucking ever to even get a room, of course you’re shoved into a massive environment of sick people dying to infect you with god knows what disease they have from living a terrible unhealthy life. It was literally like 6 hours before we finally got a room. At this point it was late at night and I kept thinking, “man, her eye looks better, if it looked like this 6 hours ago I don’t think we would’ve been sent to the ER.”

But the doctors kept saying shit like, “yeah we’ve seen things look better but actually be getting worse.”

The doctors wanted to do a blood test to see what the infection was and start her immediately on IV antibiotics. Additionally, they wanted to do a spinal tap (some advanced way of determining what the infection might be). I wanted to push the IV antibiotics back until we knew what the infection might be (as the results of a blood test might indicate), but they kept pushing and saying, “these things can move fast, we really think you should get IV antibiotics ASAP.”

Eventually we caved and agreed to the IV antibiotics (which was an awful experience in their own right because [my baby] was so small, and her veins were difficult to find, took literally 4 practitioners before they could finally access her vein — [my baby] was screaming like crazy and we were saying, “can’t you find someone else to do it?” And the girl said, “don’t feel bad, she won’t remember it.” Who says that?!) As a side note, god forbid you have to go through something like this, but if you do immediately ask for a practitioner from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to insert any IV into your child, they can find a needle in a haystack.

At this point they were still pushing for a spinal tap and I said, “If the blood results come back negative, is there ANY reason to do a spinal tap?” The doctor said typically no. I said, “Well let’s see what the blood results say then.” The results came back negative, so I said I’m not doing the spinal tap. The doctor kept saying, “well, sometimes things can slip by the blood tests.” But I refused. I left to go home and get changes of clothes for me and [my wife] since we didn’t realize we’d be at the hospital for 2 days, and while I was gone [my wife] said that they sent in some other doctor (female this time) to pull at her emotions to try and get her to agree to a spinal tap, but she refused, we didn’t do it — the infection just looked so much better already (even before the god damned antibiotics).

We stayed with [my baby] in the hospital like 36 hours, during that time we were regaled with fantastical tales of babies contracting Hep B and why we should really give her the Hep B vaccine. I kept asking the doctor to give me a realistic example of how [my baby] would contract Hep B at this age. His examples were literally so absurd they’re not even worth typing them, one involved a syringe with Hep B on it being mistakenly inserted into [my baby] by someone in the hospital, it was so ridiculous I could barely listen to it. We didn’t get her a Hep B vaccine, and still haven’t, and she’s miraculously Hep B free! I also mentioned to the doctor, “even if we agreed that [my baby] should get a Hep B vaccine soon, wouldn’t this be a BAD time to give it to her given that she’s obviously fighting off some infection?” The doctor wasn’t fazed by this logic, they’re total vaccine zealots, they’d vaccinate a cadaver given the opportunity.

In any case, in thinking back on the whole situation and what I would do differently, I think I would just wait an extra few hours before going to see the doctor, and when it looked better pre-IV antibiotics, I would’ve said, “let’s wait another few hours and see how she’s doing.” I just don’t buy their insane logic that something is visibly getting better but somehow actually getting worse. I’m sure there’s some textbook case of this happening to 1 in 1,000,000 babies, but doesn’t seem worth the known risks of IV antibiotics at such a young age.

It’s so sad and frustrating that you can’t simply take a doctor’s advice and trust that he’s already thoroughly immersed himself in the risks and benefits of the trade-offs between treatment / non-treatment. All they know is how to limit their own legal liability.

Hopefully you can avoid such a mess from happening to you!

He adds in an addendum:

Since doctors in large hospitals work in shifts, you naturally see the same doctor for awhile, and then see a new doctor for awhile. When it was time for [my baby] to be released, we were given an older doctor (maybe late 50s, early 60s). Not only was he WAY more respectful than pretty much every previous doctor we had, but he literally said something to the effect of, “if you’d gotten an older doctor, you may never have been admitted to the hospital, probably would’ve suggested you wait and see how the infection progressed.”

It seems that the doctors being minted today are inculcated with one-off horror stories starting on day 1 of their education.

Review – How Children Learn (#children, #learning, #education)

How Children Learn (buy on Amazon.com)

by John Holt, published 1995

John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?

We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.

In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?

Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.

The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?

A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?

Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.

This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!

4/5

What I Learned In Our At Home RIE Session (#RIE, #infancy, #education, #parenting, #philosophy)

Earlier this week we hosted a RIE-sponsored seminar, “Before Baby” at our home. The seminar organizer asked each of us to journal about our time together and what we took away from the lesson. In no particular order, here are some of the reflections I had.

Infancy is an active developmental stage for child and parent alike. Although not capable of verbal communication, the infant is rapidly assimilating to a brand new world and is not only deeply observant but deeply capable of interpreting its environment and sensory input and forming meaningful relationships with the world around it, including the people in it such as its parents. It is a huge mistake for parents and other adults to view the infant in this moment as helpless, unresponsive or otherwise dull or ignorant of these early experiences. The infant is in the process of becoming an interdependent adult and it is doing this difficult work all on its own– it is anything but helpless or ignorant, although it is dependent in various ways.

For the parents, this is a time of habit formation. In what ways will they learn to habituate their behavior toward their child? With what respect will they conduct themselves toward this new member of their family? And as what kind of model will they illustrate their values and beliefs to this watchful eye? It is also a time for meaningful connection to their child through the acts of caregiving and observation. Seemingly mundane tasks such as clothing, feeding, washing and changing the child can be just that, or they can be something more– the fundamental basis of the relationship that is now forming, to be treated with dignity, concern and attention. Will the parents learn to be fully present in their child’s life, even when their child can not share what that presentness means to them personally? Or will they convince themselves they can have a deep connection to another person without actually putting that work in?

Our organizer encouraged us to think about the phrase “Slow down!” Infancy doesn’t last forever, and in the course of the total relationship with one’s child (40, 50, maybe 60 or 70 years if one is lucky) it is a fleeting moment that is soon lost. Take it in, appreciate it, make the most of it. Slowing down also means learning to wait before intervening. Give the infant some credit for finding its own way in a difficult situation– it is learning basic problem-solving skills and techniques in this time which are fundamental to not only its intellectual functioning but also its self-esteem and identity. Don’t take that away from the infant by insisting on doing everything for it.

We watched a couple videos together, produced by the RIE foundation. One was a collection of distilled wisdom by Magda Gerber, the progenitor of the RIE approach. Another was a demonstration of infants at play, showing their interesting physical and intellectual capabilities that are so easily overlooked. The essence of each video was this– if we give infants respect in terms of what they are uniquely capable of at this moment in their lives, we might well be amazed. Balancing, climbing, walking, crawling, socializing, they’re really quite accomplished in their own way and seem to need less of our help (as adults) as we might like to think. It’s important that they have their own world in which they can move at their own pace and explore their own needs.

We briefly explored the RIE practice of “sportscasting”, narrating interactions with the infant. As Magda Gerber put it, people have no problem doing this with their dogs (“Oh, you’re very hungry, I am putting your food together and then I will feed you, please wait.”) but they shy away from this simple communication with their children lest they or others think they’re strange for talking to a being that can’t talk back. But infants are not deaf! They can and do listen and sportscasting not only teaches the parents to see their children as participants in caregiving and family life, but it also gives these little observers an opportunity to connect cause and effect and see predictability in their lives.

We also talked about the place of RIE in a larger parenting framework. Can you take what you want from RIE? Can you follow other parenting philosophies as well or is RIE it? RIE seems to be a valuable set of core ideas about relating to infants and children that is not only useful now and extensible later, but which is potentially valuable in relationships with grown adults and which doesn’t seem to come into direct conflict with other values or beliefs. If RIE is wrong, does that make its opposites right? Can we imagine a world where treating infants with disrespect is good for children and parents? What would the benefit be of that approach?

RIE may or may not be a hard sell when it comes to communicating about it with people who are unfamiliar with the principles. Rather than trying to argue or convince people it is right, it is best for RIE adherents to simply model the RIE behavior and let it speak for itself.

Review – The Secret Of Childhood (#education, #childhood, #Montessori, #philosophy)

The Secret of Childhood

by Maria Montessori, published 1936, 1982

If you’re looking for a “how-to” on the Montessori Method, this isn’t it. What this book is is an exploration of the philosophical foundations of Maria Montessori’s view of the child in society, based upon some of her historical experiences and study of related social research.

Although this book was published long ago, Montessori’s revelation appears to be, by and large, still a secret. Sadly, it is not just a cultural secret. Even in the West, and particularly the United States, where her ideas seem to have the strongest following, the parenting and educational mainstreams seem to have done little to absorb Montessori’s insights into both theory and practice. If Montessori was correct in her discovery, then it says something both appalling and demoralizing about the failure of society to integrate such important truths. So, what is this “secret”?

The secret of childhood is that it is a period of time during which the child works, not to assimilate himself into society, but to assimilate himself into himself. We hear echoes of Max Stirner (1806-1856, Germany) in Maria Montessori (1870-1952, Italy), for example, compare Stirner,

school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.

to Montessori,

Adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction… the adult makes himself the touchstone of what is good and evil in the child. He is infallible, the model upon which the child must be molded… An adult who acts this way… unconsciously suppresses the development of the child’s own personality.

or to Montessori’s son, Mario, from the preface,

Man has discovered flight, he has discovered atomic energy, but he has failed to discover himself.

or to Margaret Stephenson, a Montessori instructor, from the foreword,

How can one learn through group play what it means to be a mother, father, space pilot, dog, when one does not yet know what it mean’s to be one’s self?

This psychic development of the child, a “universal” as Montessori puts it, into an individuated person, the man, unfolds along a predetermined path dictated by nature.

Childhood constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that a man is made.

That is not to say that man’s childhood development is deterministic, but that there is a logic and a succession of predictable stages and events to it, much like a caterpillar becomes a cocoon and then a butterfly.

The place an animal will have in the universe can be seen at birth. We know that one animal will be peaceful since it is a lamb, that another will be fierce because it is a lion cub, that one insect will toil without ceasing since it is an ant, and that another will do nothing but sing in solitude since it is a locust. And just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species… A child develops not simply as a member of the human species, but as a person.

And the implication of this fact is that the child, in his childhood, has special needs during this period of development which will allow this process of psychic development to occur without obstruction or injury, ranging from the suitability of his environment, to the tools and instruments he has at his use, to the way he is interacted with and communicated with by adults, who he sees as omnipotent, almost magical, beings of power and authority. (Isn’t it funny to stop for a moment and consider how sure of ourselves and the nature and limits of the adults around us we are, and how truly mysterious any of this was when we first made our way into the world as small children? Just ponder that for a moment if you’re having trouble grasping the significance of Montessori’s “secret”.)

What are some of these differences and needs between children and adults? The first is understanding the significance of work to each. For adults, work is a means to obtain a fixed and known goal, and the general idea is to work efficiently, that is, to get the highest yield in terms of outcome for the smallest amount of resources and energy expended. But for children, the purpose of work is to learn about the self– work is not performed to obtain an income, or to be fed, or to avoid a threat, but rather work is performed to experience the psychic benefit of knowing how to perform the work.

An adult walks to reach some external goal and he consequently heads straight for it… An infant, one the other hand, walks to perfect his own proper functions, and consequently his goal is something creative within himself.

In working, a child applies their intellect to the world, they come to understand their power and ability as a person to influence and change the world more to their liking, a fact that mature adults take for granted.

His hands under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world.

Because of this, a child may be seen to work “aimlessly”, or “inefficiently”, or “incompetently”, but this observation is made from the point of view of an adult which is not applicable to the child and their psychic purpose in working. Montessori relates how adults who are finished working are typically tired and in need of rest or recreational stimulation, whereas children who are finished working are exhilarated and self-satisfied at accomplishing whatever it was inside of their psyche that compelled them to perform their work.

Another need is the need for separate property. Children exist in a world created by adults, for the benefit of adults and adults can be capricious with their property and arrangements in ways that are befuddling and intimidating to children. Everything in the child’s world (for example, in the home) belongs to the adults– the furniture, which is sized for the adults; the dishware and glassware and silverware, which is sized for the adults; the books, the clothes, the walls, the art, even the pets!

[An adult is tempted to overvalue his material possessions when they’re being handled by a child, such as with a glass of water being carried by his child.] The adult who does this may even be very wealthy and intent upon increasing his fortunes many times over in order to make his son still more wealthy than himself. But for the moment he esteems a glass as something of greater value than the child’s activity and seeks to prevent its being broken [and so interferes needlessly with the child’s development in stopping him from his activity with the glass].

Montessori describes the adults as “kings”, who may of occasion grant the child a right to temporary use of the king’s property, but never the right to possess the property themselves.

An adult, however high or low he may be, is always a powerful being in comparison with a child.

The child can feel as if it lives only at the mercy and privilege of the king. The child is constantly being instructed and informed how to use something, what to touch and what not to touch, to keep away from this or to go be near that. The child needs some of its own things, in sizes and qualities specific to its uses, so that it may explore and understand and “work” in the world around itself without constantly being in conflict with the adults.

An adult is constantly interrupting the child and breaking into his environment. This powerful being directs the child’s life without ever consulting the child himself. And this lack of consideration makes the child think that his own activities are of no value.

A final need is for adults to appreciate the differences in perceptive faculties of children, who, as Montessori describes, pay attention to details not just different in magnitude, but in kind.

A child’s psychic personality is far different from our own, and it is different in kind and not simply degree.

Adults are accustomed to looking at the world and paying attention to details in a particular way based upon their individual goals, ambitions, professional outlook, educational level, etc. etc. But children often pay attention to details quite differently, and in ways that conflict with adult perceptions or treat them as non-sensical or unimportant.

Children an adults are in possession of two different mental outlooks… Adults frequently attempt to point out ordinary objects to three- or four-year-old children as if they had never seen anything before. But this must have the same effect on a child as one shouting at another whom he thinks to be deaf [who is not so].

An adult may wish to draw a child’s attention to the beach and the ocean, but the child is fascinated by a tiny bug crawling across the sand. Adults are often quick to pass judgment on the child in these moments, as if they are “wrong” for not being interested in what the adult wants them to be interested in, or even questioning their intelligence or development when they seem incapable of taking such an interest. But as with work, observation serves a different purpose for the child than for the adult– it is not to satisfy his desire for recreation, or to attend to a productive goal, but to stimulate his psyche according to these innate, natural needs of his development.

Here are some other interesting quotes I collected:

  • The child is a universal… There is, in reality, only the child of all times, of all races, heir to tradition, hander-on of history, crucible of culture, pathway to peace.
  • The absorption of culture, of customs, of ideas, ideals, of sentiments, feelings, emotions, religion, take place during the period of the absorbent mind, in the child from zero to six.
  • We should try to understand that there is an intelligible reason behind a child’s activities. He does nothing without some reason, some motive… A child does not simply run, jump and handle things without purpose and thus create havoc about the house… Knowledge always precedes movement. When a child wishes to do something, he knows beforehand what it is. [A very Misesian idea!]
  • An adult’s avarice, which makes him jealously defend whatever he owns, is concealed under “the duty of properly educating one’s child.” [What Stirner would refer to as a “spook”, or a mental hobgoblin an adult uses to frighten his own psyche and thus prevent himself for taking ownership over his actions.]
  • When a child moves slowly, an adult feels compelled to intervene by substituting his own activity for that of the child. But in acting thus an adult, instead of assisting a child in his psychic needs, substitutes himself in all the actions which the child would like to carry out by himself.
  • What an adult tells a child remains engraved on his mind as if it had been cut in marble.
  • When a child is disobedient or has a tantrum an adult should always call to mind the conflict and try to interpret it as a defense of some unknown vital activity necessary for the child’s development.
  • Toys furnish a child with an environment that has no particular goal and, as a consequence, they cannot provide it with any real mental concentration but only illusions.
  • Before anyone can assume a responsibility, he must be convinced that he is the master of his own actions and have confidence in himself.

I enjoyed reading this book, it stimulated MY psyche and made an impression upon me in terms of how much more there is to think and know about this subject than what I possess currently. I also enjoyed the archaicness of it, Montessori writes like a civilized person of years gone by, speaking articulately and frankly about the world around her without apology and with much conviction and passion for her subject, something which doesn’t seem to exist anymore in our world of sterile, clinical academics reluctant to take a position on anything of import. But it was not always an easy read and it was fairly repetitious. I will likely come back to the book at some point to re-read certain passages that I found hard to appreciate without an experience of raising a child myself. Yet, I wouldn’t recommend this as an “essential” title for someone looking to up their parenting game unless I already knew they were more philosophical in their approach.

3/5

 

Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part II (#education, #ReggioEmilia, #childhood, #school)

I read a bit more in the Bringing Reggio Emilia Home book last night. I don’t know if it’s because I started reading Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood which to me seems to hold an antithetical philosophical viewpoint, or I am just coming against the discomfort of a new idea, but some of the anecdotes that were shared seemed a bit bizarre. The author captured the thoughts of one of the local teachers, “Vea”, and I have selectively quoted them below:

I put a Plexiglass mirror out on the ground outside so that we could walk on the mirror… We walked on the sky and in some way, we were able to touch it… I think it’s important that the children enter into this “theater of the virtual reality” so that they can move in a different way according to the provocations that you give… The children walked on the clouds and “flew” with their arms as they pretended to be angels and airplanes… the games they played with the slides [images of the weather patterns observed] and this painting are filled with significance… we could say that these children have made a first collective work born of a common experience.

In this anecdote, Vea is talking about an exercise she created with various art media to tap into the children’s sense of “awe” and “wonder” about the world around them. Interpreting this charitably, children have strong creative faculties and their good-hearted teacher is creating circumstances where they can really let their imagination run.

But is it that simple?

In reality, nobody can walk on the sky. Angels don’t exist, and children aren’t airplanes, they fly in airplanes, which are specific physical objects with real physical properties that allow them to stay airborne despite gravity and being heavier than air. How does this work? This exercise doesn’t seem to touch upon any of this as it is related. One argument is that the children might be too young to appreciate physics. But does that mean they should be led to imagine that physics doesn’t exist, instead?

And what is a “collective work born of common experience”? The word “provocations” is probably a literal translation of the Italian cognate “provocazioni”, which has several meanings similar to the English, including “challenge, upset, anger”. I am thinking of the word “antagonize”, why are children being antagonized? Even the meaning “challenge” is confusing. Negotiating reality as a neophyte seems like challenge enough, does a teacher need to add to it by “challenging” children to walk on the sky or fly through it like angels? There seems to be plenty going on down here to contend with as it is.

Here is another anecdote:

“Let’s put in our yells!” [said one child, about what he wanted to try storing in a jar the children were given during one exercise] because they were excited and yelling. It was a lovely idea, so they yelled inside the jar closing it right away with its cover. Then, every once in a while they raised the cover ever so slightly, putting their ear to the opening to see if they could hear the yells that they had put inside.

As a wistful happenstance of young children playing, this scene is endearing, almost comical. Clearly, yells can not be contained in a jar and listened to later, that isn’t how sound works. It is “creative” in the abstract sense of a weird alternate reality book or movie where physics doesn’t exist as it does in our universe. But as something taking place in an educational environment, encouraged by teachers and with no “questioning” involved, or attempts to get behind the play to the real phenomena of voice and sound and recorded media, it takes on a more sinister appeal. What is practicing such behavior doing but confusing the mind? What are the children learning from one another here, but idle fantasies and make believe?

Earlier in the section, the book talked about the famed “Hundred Languages of Children”. It turns out this is a reference to different art materials that children can use to illustrate their experiences. Acetate, wire, clay, paint, crayon, etc., these are all media that children are instructed in the atelier (studio) to use to express their shared memories of various experiences. Again, it sounds innocent, what could be wrong with teaching children art and how to manipulate various materials for self-expression? But a “hundred languages” also has a polylogist ring to it, not a polyglot one, because in early childhood children are just acquiring languages skills in their mother tongue, and while it may be clear to them what they mean in their artistic acts of self-expression, it is much less likely that this meaning will be clear to others, such as other children, teachers, parents or adults. In fact, art is one of those things that is seemingly always up to interpretation, whereas verbal linguistics are relatively straight forward. Emphasizing self-expression through art seems to lead to a, “Think what you want to think, believe what you want to believe” kind of approach to reality and communicating with others.

But I am only two chapters into this, so I guess I don’t want to get TOO hysterical in my critical analysis!

I also watched “The Reggio Emilia Approach At Bennett Day School” on YouTube last night, seeking more information about this approach in practice. The video ended up being more about the history of the philosophy, which was helpful. A few anecdotal items of data stood out to me in the presentation:

  • The townsfolk of Reggio Emilia specifically designed their approach “so that they’d never have to deal with fascism again”
  • The local municipality once considered cutting funding for the preschool programs, and the parents became hysterical and lobbied the government to maintain the spending
  • The head marm narrating in the video described the “citizenship” focus of the Reggio Emilia approach by citing the way townsfolk became engaged in local political debates at the town councils, where she emphasized “everyone was free to argue and disagree, but eventually they reached agreement”; she cited this as a really positive example of the civic-spirited genesis of the approach

Here is the video:

And here is how the Bennett Day School describes its “Progessive education” ideals:

Based on the beliefs of John Dewey first published in the late 19th century, Progressive Education is a philosophy built around cooperative learning environments carefully constructed by teachers in order to build understanding through meaningful, relevant practices.

In a progressive education environment, students “learn by doing,” engaging in activities and lessons which help them develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to participation in a modern democratic society. Rather than focusing on rote memorization, Progressive Education focuses on social learning and collaboration to achieve relevant, authentic goals.

While influenced by student interest and engagement, Progressive Education asks teachers to guide students through the process of learning, modeling and encouraging the development of skills and knowledge that are necessary to effective citizenship. Students in a progressive school are not merely passive consumers of information, but active and engaged members of a learning community that seeks to develop within all its members (both adults and children) a spirit of participation and engagement that will seamlessly translate to the larger global society.

 

 

The Oath Of The Brand (#loyalty, #politics, #education, #children, #America)

Imagine for a moment that you work for a big company (maybe you do), and that at the start of every work day, you and the other people in your department gather around a large copy of the company logo, place your hand over your heart and recite the “Oath of the Brand” like so:

I give my oath

to this brand

the greatest company in all the land,

and to the management

much like it, grand;

one organization, one vision, never to be divested of its capital,

with jobs and security for all.

What might you think of this company, and its desire to instill its values via a hypnotic morning oath like this? Would you think this company would be populated by workers who can think for themselves and question the decisions of management when they’re called for? Would you think management expects to be challenged and “kept honest” by its workers? Does it seem odd that there is no mention of customers and the need to serve them faithfully? Would this company seem to operate a bit like a cult?

Of course by now you’ve realized that I have simply parodied the American “Pledge of Allegiance”, recited mindlessly by millions of school children in public institutions every single morning, and by millions of government functionaries and politicians at certain solemn occasions. Why do our public schools do this? Why can’t our political system earn its loyalty through efficiency, effectiveness and good works, rather than by neurolinguistically programming developing minds too immature to notice they’re being manipulated? And why do parents tolerate such madness?

In case you’ve been out of school for awhile, here is the actual Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance,

to the flag

of the United States of America,

and to the Republic

for which it stands;

one nation, under god, indivisible,

with liberty and justice for all.

As defined by the pledge, liberty and justice are clearly codewords for the good feelings one gets from honoring one’s fealty to the flag. And the “Republic” is not the country, but a particular system of political management of the country– there are other possible ways to politically manage the country, but the Pledge doesn’t really permit such thinking, it demands obedience. I read something a few months ago wherein a Progressive author was lamenting the way “right wingers” were now referring to public schools as “government schools,” the concern being that a public school implies something verging on objectivity, while a government school is what one finds in other, more authoritarian regimes, where the curriculum is strongly centered around building loyalty to the party in power. But asking small children to recite a pledge to their political management seems like a good place to start a case for arguing that what we have in this country are, in fact, government schools.

This doesn’t work for me. I don’t want my children’s education to include inculcated obedience to the state– I want my children to be able to think for themselves on this one. So this is another reason I am not interested in putting my children in public schools.

The history of the Pledge of Allegiance is pretty interesting.

And for a snarky treatment of the subject, try this skit by the “Whitest Kids U Know”:

“This is not a form of brainwashing.”