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Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Something MereCat said in response to my sign language post has really stuck with me for the last couple of days.

My kids will know some French and they will know some of a lot of other things. I'm going for well-rounded here.

I think I agree with the idea that knowing "some of a lot of other things" is good. But in looking back at my own life I really worry about finding the right combination of focus and breadth for Erin. She's bound to find her own balance, but if she is too much like her father then she won't find it until she is an adult.

Actually, even then she might not find it.

You see, I'm a dilettante. I really do know some of a lot of other things. I know some French, but grew bored and didn't stick with it in high school. I fence, but sporadically. I ride my bike, again sporadically. I had to get two BA's because I couldn't stand the idea of using all of my classes for a single major. I bounce from minor-obsession to minor-obsession, hobby to hobby, job to job, and place to place. I win at trivia games, because I know a lot of trivial things.

I may be well-rounded, but so is a superball.

I'll let the historian side of me take over for a second (one of my two BA's): back in the olden days, kids were shackled to a livelihood very early on, and apprenticeships, if they could be found, lasted for years from before puberty to long after. Broader, liberal education was a luxury (for the rich) or a necessity (for the clergy), and was nowhere to be found for anyone else.

Now, here comes the philosopher: Few would argue, I think, that we ought to end formal public liberal education early and send kids off to apprentice somewhere. We like the cuddly idea of letting our children grow up and then decide what they want to do. That order is pretty significant, I think, since it dictates how kids are educated: they are taught about as many different subjects as possible early on, continue to fill breadth requirements in college if they continue their education, and it isn't even really until graduate school that education becomes almost singularly focused instead of general.

We are preparing our kids for the World, we say; the world is huge, and so too must their knowledge base be. As I typed that sentence I reflected again on my own knowledge base: I'm smart, but clearly unfocused. I don't know how much that has to do with the program of education I've had (and shared with everyone else) and how much of it has to do with my parents just letting me hold off figuring out what I was going to do until I was old enough to make that decision on my own.

When I think about the people I know who are focused, I have the distinct intuition that these are the people who felt, figured out, or were pressured into, their callings really early on in life. The Geeks, Artists, and Athletes, who felt in their hearts what they wanted to do with their lives and who treated general education like  a necessary evil rather than preparation. Because they were preparing themselves, even in high school; even younger than that: always tinkering with code, drawing and writing, outrunning everyone else.

Is their focus a result of pressure from their parents? Is it a reaction against their parents and peers? Is it part of a desire to 'show everyone' what they could do?

So, as a parent, I know I have an obligation to worry about this stuff. I get to wonder if focus or breadth is best, and if encouraging Erin in whatever she shows an early interest in ("Marine biology, guys.") will have the effect I want or the effect she needs. I get to wonder if, when I find myself in one of those "I know best" moments if I really do know best.

Do I want to raise her as a dilettante, like her old man? Is there anything wrong with that? Will it matter what I do?

I wish I were already a world renowned marine biologist, living on Nim's Island with Emily and Erin, so that she could be apprenticed to someone who was an expert in what she liked and who also had the benefit of a general, liberal education, and whose vocation was teaching. Instead, the best I can do for her in that regard is to teach her some history and philosophy early on and hope she doesn't piss off her teachers too much.

Because with me as her father, and Emily as her mother, she is going to grow up absolutely certain she is right all the time, and consider it her duty to stand up to those petty injustices students have to endure for the benefit of the group.

I guess I ought to just hope for now that she doesn't get kicked out of school. Because she needs to be in school first for me to get to worry about all the other things.

Like boys. Argh argh argh.


Loralee Choate said...

Would it be an insult to say you're freaking adorable with this post?

I remember thinking that I can fluently pronounce 5-ish languages (Opera, you know.) but if I actually went to France I would MAYBE be able to say something like "My sobbing bosoms are cleft in two from your heart spurning my pantaloons" (or whatever).

I always hoped that my kids would find a clearer path than the SEVERAL I have been down. And that has been a very difficult aspect of parenting...Helping and ALLOWING them to let their path be their own.

KT said...

Interesting. I too know a little about many things, but am not specialized. I did not have that passion. I look to friends who had that passion and envy them.

I have an 18 year old sister (I am 34) who is passionate about languages, current events and learning about the world around us. Maybe she is a product of our times, or maybe my dad pushed her into it. I do not know. She is about to enter college, with a focused major on international studies and must pick a part of the world to focus on. Immerse herself. Learn the history, the language, the cultre. She aims to work at the UN.

Girl#1 has been wanting to do ballet since she knew what dancing was. She begged me to get her into a class at 2 1/2 and they wouldn't take her. I finally found a place that took her only b/c she was potty trained. She refuses to quit. Her little sister has started and stopped, I think she tried it just b/c her older sister loves it so. She has a passion for ballet so young, Girl#1. And so I find myself showing her she could go to Julliard. My "little" sister has a friend who is a real ballerina. I introduced her. Then I wondered if I was biasing her based on some silly infatuation from when she was nearly 3. She is almost 7.

Do kids need the push? Or not? I don't want to push my kids into something they won't love. YEt, I want them to love something in the way that I did not, so work is not a chore.

It's hard, these parenting choices and decisions.

Your post hits it. It's very eloqnently written.

Anonymous said...
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Sam said...

no no no, not a dilettante - how about looking at yourself as being a Renaissance Man raising a Renaissance Girl - which my dictionary says is a person with many talents or interests.

Black Hockey Jesus said...

Erin is a fated being, called into this world by forces that have nothing to do with you. And before I'm assailed by the sex jokes, you & Emily were mere thrashing instruments of those forces. Of course you'll worry but what I'm getting at is that Erin's place in the world will not be created by you. It's already there, drawing her along. Gong. Bows.

SciFi Dad said...

There is a great difference between education and training.

An educated individual may have a wealth of knowledge about many or a few select things, but that does not necessarily dictate their daily focus.

A trained individual has a skill (or skill set) that provides them a means of employment or (ideally) self-sufficiency (that subsequently occupies the better part of their daily focus), but are not necessarily educated.

In an idyllic society, people would become educated before they become trained, and that training would be directed by the results of that education, particularly a balance between their strengths and their curiosity.

PS - email me the deleted comment... I'm interested to know what the troll said.

Danielle said...

Great thoughts and very nicely written!

Maybe the best job for the unfocused is to be a teacher. To know enough to spur the spark and the interest of those that are more passionate. To be the starting gate for the focused and driven...

I don't know.

I'm also unfocused. So not focused...

When the boys show ability or interest, we try to encourage and facilitate it. But I would never consider pushing them beyond what they even card about.

The nature of today's society.

So curious about the deleted comment! It's torture!

Christi said...

I suck at trivia games. I get the question, panic and forget EVERYTHING.

I have trivia envy.

moonspun said...

You know, you've got some excellent points there and really, there's no one good answer. My daughter goes to a Waldorf school and one of the things I love about it is that they learn French and knitting and music as an essential part of the curriculum. I hope that learning a second language at a young age turns out to be a lifelong thing, but I won't pressure her about it.
There is alot to know in the world and sometimes it's hard to focus because you can get really into something and then realize how much ELSE there is to learn! I'd rather my child be broadly educated. Because then, at the very least, she will be able to think and analyze and understand all sorts of different things having had different experiences. That's more valuable in my opinion.
Your post and the way you used history and philosophy proves that you can think and analyze a number of different factors. Perfect!

Mandy said...

The idea of a dilettante has changed a lot in the last few centuries. In fact, a liberal arts education in the traditional sense, is virtually impossible to achieve as there is so much information out there nowadays.

I would venture to say that the way people go to school, the way they are educated, the way they are trained, the way they approach the world is going to change radically by the time our kids are ready for university.

The breadth vs the depth of an experience, well, more will probably depend on Erin's personality than your own efforts on her behalf.

MereCat said...

Wow! I'm a muse! This topic could go on and on really. I feel like a strive for balance, but the harder I strive for it, the more unbalanced I become. I didn't expect parenting to be quite this tedious.

Nice post. Made me think even more about guiding my children in an everyday sense. Thanks for the nod and the brainfood.

mamatulip said...

Good readin', this post.

for a different kind of girl said...

This post is fantastic. I have such respect for you in your writing. I also like how Erin refers to us all as "guys." She is adorable and I want to have slumber parties with her.

After all, on to me!

I am a master dabbler. Sometimes I find it impossible to focus. No. Not sometimes. Pretty much all the time. When I was growing up, I had no clue what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. There was never any idea that really struck me, and to be honest, I don't recall anyone in my family ever saying, "You know, you should write," when I would sit under the trees in my front yard and write stories in my spiral notebook or read book after book.

Even when I went to college, I was clueless. The number of times I changed my major supports that. When I finally said OK to journalism, I still didn't know what the heck I was supposed to do with it.

My younger sister, on the other hand, knew from a very early age that she wanted to work in the special education field, so from the moment she could, she volunteered in our school, worked in the environment, and was singularly focused on that as her career when she went to college. She never strayed and she was always supported.

I haven't worked in my degreed field in about six years. I am guilty (?) of sometimes spending portions of my day trying to figure out how I can keep things status quo around here and not have to go back into that field, or get a "real" job. I simply don't know what I want to do. That's a scary thought when you're my age and responsible for others. However, I know I'm happy doing what I do now, so Mom, if you stumble over here (and good for you if you do since you don't know what a blog is!), stop looking at me with that sense of disapproval. Thanks!

I want my sons to be explorers, curiously searching out their niche. I do know, however, that I sometimes inject this idea of doing things a certain way because that's what needs to be done to get a goal. Then I flit away. Flit away to worry that I'm not guiding them properly, or injecting my own fears or lack of skill for the things they show an interest in. It's then I have to really step back and just let them go.

I think, in the end, they'll do whatever it is they please to. I just hope they're happy and satisfied in the effort.

Finally, I strike fear among my friends when it comes to my knowlege of trivial things. I am like a worm hole, sucking things in. If we teamed up, we could rule the world, and that actually sounds like a pretty good idea. At least until I get bored with the responsibility.

for a different kind of girl said... for the blog post-length comment. I'm both a proud dabbler and babbler.

THopgood said...

My brain hurts after reading this...LOL....

Just let your daughter lead the way and the answers will come to you.

Heather said...

I find that the people in life who are more focused are also the ones who are more successful at their chosen field. I worried that my daughter would inherit my inability to focus, to choose. (I think the reason I am like this is because there ARE just too darn many things to choose from.) However, at 14, she has already decided she is going to teach Spanish, and she hopes to teach ESL also. For the past year, she has made choices in her life and at school that already are leading her to do this. I never thought of focusing on one thing at that age, and as a result, feel I have failed in many areas of my life. I would much rather see my child focused than trying to "broaden" her scope. Just my opinion.

Stefanie said...

I loved this post. it's a tough one for me to respond to though. I'm not focused either. In fact, my next book addresses that as a major theme. I never even went to college because I thought it would be a waste of time since I had no idea what i wanted to be when I grew up. I had no hobbies either. It took me a long time to figure it out and much of that time was spent waiting tables and doing other self esteem mutilating jobs. But eventually I found my way and I don't think it would have made a lick of difference if my parents forced me to go to school or pick a field or anything else. In fact, they did try early on when I was interested in guitar. I took lessons and was forced to practice 45 min. a day. Guess who doesn't even own a guitar anymore. So, to sum up, I don't know. But I'm happy now.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I think that as a parent the best thing you can do is take your cue from your kids.

If they want to pursue something, help the pursue. If they want to dabble, let them dabble.

This world of ours takes all kinds to make it go 'round.

Danielle said...

I'm coming back to confess that I don't even know what dilettantrum-something means.

And I'm too lazy to even google it.

Have we talked of my ambition, lately?

Ali said...

wow. too much to take it. but, Nim's Island??! love that shout-out. the author and i are besties (not really, but i know her. and she's awesome)

trademarkmama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
trademarkmama said...

My dear, given our daughter's intense and singular focus on most everything she does, I think our worries will be less about dilettantery (yes, that IS a word), and more about how we convince her that she doesn't have to mow everyone down in her path to get what she wants (um, like she does now).

Mamique said...

I have pondered those same ideas for some time now.

My mom always told me I could do anything I wanted to, so I spread my wings and flew. I did well enough in high school that I could choose my major. Engineering was the hardest, so I picked it.

Like you I go through mini obsessions where I focus myself and learn everything I can about a topic and then get bored or get distracted by something new.

I often wondered how nice it must have been to know what you were going to be when you grow up from a very young age. Sure, you might feel stuck and want to rebel, but I found myself having too many options, afraid of choosing the wrong one.

Must Be Motherhood said...

Hrmm. I think that the people who turn out to be passionate/focused experts are often driven as much by their own personalities and genetic predispositions as they are to environment (parental and societal pressure).
I'm in your camp--liberally educated, interested in so much that I don't become expert or dedicated to any one thing like my doctor/lawyer/scientist friends. And my parents allowed this. But my friends who knew from high school what they'd be weren't especially pressured by their parents: they were driven.
So maybe we just throw up our hands and let the kids fall where they may? There's room for all of us, right?

Kristen said...

Great post. I think about this all the time in regards to my own children. Every other month it seems I get an idea as to what they may end up doing for a career, based on what they're into that month. They all seem to have such varied skill sets and interests already, that there is no telling what they'll end up doing. Not that there would be any knowing, anyway. I have no special skills myself, except being able to pinpoint any given actor doing a voiceover. So I am good at recognizing voices, which is completely useless to me.

Patti Mayo said...

I took french for four years in highschool, but only two of those were required. 10 years later...I can say "Would you like to sleep with me tonite?" and a few choice other phrases. I was almost an over-achiever in high school as I had sequences in English, Science, French and Child Psych (sequences being taking more than the required amount of classes for that subject).

My husband was born in the Ukraine and is fluent in Russian and English and used to be able to speak Hebrew but hasn't used it in so long, he's forgotten most of it. He was a great student in school and a math whiz taking all the super smart people's math in college. He can fix cars, sell you a computer, build it, give you tech support for it and even make up his own website. He can build you a bike as well. The man is one of many trades and talents (sometime not much common sense though).

When it comes to our children, we push education. We tell them how important it is to finish highschool and figure out what they want to do with themselves. Find a career that they enjoy doing. As of right now, Sammi wants to be a chef, Meghan wants to be a baker/Cinderella at Disney. (i'm thinking Cinderlla is out, as her complexion and hair color are wrong)...

P.S. I was wondering how many times you could use the word breadth in a blog post...I found three.

Mike said...

Interesting...I wonder the same thing with my little girl, and often think of that quarterback (whose name escapes me) who made it to the NFL with the Raiders and was good, but then flamed out on drugs and wrote a tell all book saying his dad pressured him into football. When I think of that guy I always think "Woah, I'm not going to pressure my kids like that," then, in the same breath, "But you did make the NFL, dude. If not for your Dad you'd be working at the mall with co-workers sick of listening to you complain about things. Oy. It's a tough one. Loving your kid goes a long way though, I'd say.

Don Mills Diva said...

I agree with Sam - you're a Renaissance Man not a dilettante. I think that as the world gets more complex you need to be more of a jack of all trades actually - at least that's my excuse for not focusing too hard on any one area...

Chicky Chicky Baby said...

I excelled in boy obsessing while in school. If I were you, I'd be more concerned about that. You could dabble in the art of the shotgun. ;)

Backpacking Dad said...

Oh, why oh why did I wait so long to start my respond-o-comment? Crap. now I'm going to be here all day.

Loralee: You can always call me adorable.

kt: your sister intimidates me.

spammer: don't be a spamming spammer.

sam: Because I am way taller than Danny Devito and I've never met Marky Mark.

black hockey jesus: God I hate hippies....;}

scifi dad: I want to live in an idyllic society, scripted by Tennyson.

danielle: good thing I'm going to be a teacher then :}

christi: Envy this: I won a Disney cruise with my trivial knowledge :}

moonspun: I want her to be a bricklayer. Does Waldorf offer that too?

mandy: I'm the only one who's allowed to be smart on my blog. Stop showing me up. :}

merecat: It is unexpectedly tedious sometimes, isn't it?

mamatulip: why thank you ma'am.

FADKOG: Yours is the only name I achronymize. Because you're special. Were you drunk when you left this comment? It's awfully lovey.

thopgood: if I let her lead the way she'll spend her life studying boys and eating dirt off the floor. Not a bad life; not great :}

heather: I'm proud of your daughter.

stefanie: You, I don't worry about :}

jenn: see above response re: following boys and eating dirt.

danielle: I don't know what that is either. Did you make up a word?

ali: I love being best friends with people that I've seen across a room or chance-met: Wil Wheaton; Owen Nolan; we are BFF.

trademarkmama: to get to boys.

mamique: the despair of the infinite. That's some Kierkegaardian shit right there.

must be motherhood: i hope so. I hope I don't break her.

kristen: I can only recognize Zach Braff and David Duchovny being dogs and Antonio Banderas being a bee.

patti mayo: Dangit! I hate repeating myself. Now I'm going to be all self-conscious and editing my posts. Crap. Crap Carp. Crap. Sturgeon.

Mike: I'm going to push her to make it to the NHL. If Theo Fleury can be in the league then you don't need to be 190 lbs.

don mills diva: I know that's what I tell myself too. I hope I'm not wrong.

chicky chicky baby: I'm working on sword work right now; more personal.