Contemplating Our Mortality at a Young Age…

Ah, yes – it is with grim satisfaction that I note that it is never too young to start pondering our ultimate fate. I was a bit surprised to find this stern warning in the school kitchen – don’t know that I’d advise trying to jump start this sort of grave meditation amidst so many sharp objects.

Fear, and the Assessment of Risk

I took perverse delight, when my kids were little, in letting them climb as high as they wanted to on the toys at the park, when there were moms present. If I let a toddler get more than about 12″ off the ground, some panicky woman would be sure that, despite the cushioning layer of wood chips and despite the success of the human race in surviving lo these many millennia, I was risking that child’s life, and was an evil, bad parent.

Since we have multiple kids, my usual response, if someone brought it up, was: ‘It’s OK – we have spares’ – intending to cement my rep as a monster.

(Side note: once, our 2nd, a daughter, grabbed a snow disk thing and shot down a hill far beyond her level of competence and ended up spiraling off into a wood at high speed – miraculously missing all the tree, and coming out mere scared and scraped up. At that point, I stopped with the ‘spares’ joke – no, we don’t have any spares. Please, God, forget I even ever said that in jest!)

We have a trampoline. We just tell the kids to be careful, and let them have at it. Other than a few bangs and bruises, we’re about 8 years in without a serious injury. My kids – imagine – climb trees, often to see just how high up they can get. As soon as they are big enough to control them – around 10 or 12 – I let them use the cordless power tools, including the saw.

Add this to the whole family bed, no mandatory classes style school, and general disdain for what the world counts as ‘achievement’, and, clearly, I’ve RUINED our kids.

Except for the part where they are all happy, healthy, intellectually active and doing very well at whatever it is that interests them – including, in the case of the 17 and 19 year olds, college.

We buckle seat belts. We wear bike helmets. We only eat mushrooms obtained from reputable commercial sources. But – 6 kids on the trampoline? 6 year old 20′ up in a tree? 12 year old cutting a 2X4 with a cordless saw (after instruction and supervision by Dad)? Sure, we do that, too.

I worry about my kids’ souls, and worry about raising competent kids who are not afraid of their own shadows. But shark attack level risks? Not so much.

“Be not afraid” after all.


A Note on ‘Academics’

I often disparage ‘academics’ with quotes around the word. To be clear:

I’m totally down with books and studying and languages and music and art and all that. If that’s what was being taught under the label ‘academics’ in good schools, I’d have no problem.

But, is that what ‘academics’ means, in a good school? It should be obvious from a brief discussion with most any graduate from a good high school that little, if anything, worthy has been learned. Reading, writing and basic math can be taught to a willing student in a matter of months – what actually goes on over the 11+ other years? We should expect schools to crank out thousands of polyglot kids doing vector calculus between performances with the symphony orchestra, if in fact they were really learning anything during those thousands and thousands of hours.

Instead, we get graduates with 4+ GPAs and dozens of AP credits taking remedial writing when they get to college (about 50% of incoming students at Cal, according to one of their admissions officers). Compare and contrast, as they say, with people of actual distinction, both now and historically, and one thing repeatedly stands out: real high achievers get that way outside of school.

So, when I say ‘academics’ need to be de-emphasized, I mean that whatever passes for academics in the schools has to be gotten out of the way, so real learning can take place.

“Let the Children Come” – the Heart of Catholic Education

As parents, we decided early on that there was no way we’d be sending our children to public schools, and, not much later, that there was no way we’d be sending them to the Catholic schools available in our neighborhood. I’ve got a lot to say on this topic, but let’s, as they say, get back to basics:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

– Matthew 19:14

Several things to note here:

Jesus is attractive. His instruction to his followers is most definitely NOT ‘Make the little children come to Me’ – children, being people, are attracted to Jesus, and will want to come to Him of their own volition. Our job, as parents, teachers and fellow Christians, is to STAY OUT OF THE WAY.

The disciple’s natural reaction to kids trying to climb all over Jesus is to restore order – and Jesus rebukes them for it! We are similarly rightly rebuked if we think order  is the chief characteristic of solid Catholic education. As GKC says: children will learn what it is you assume, while doing their best to ignore what it is you say.

Catholic education consists first and essentially of being loved by good Catholics. Let me repeat that: Catholic education consists first and essentially of being loved by good Catholics. That’s how children, in the natural order of things, come to know and believe in a loving God. Only then does catechetical instruction work, and only by way of explaining and expanding on the experience of God made possible (secondary cause at work here!) by the example of loving Catholics.

So, what would a good Catholic school look like?

– Adults – teachers, parents, administrators, the custodian, the coaches –  who clearly and consistently love the children – as Paul says, patient, kind, enduring all things;

– a certain consistent disorder. This one is hard for most people to grasp. (John Bosco, for one, got it.) If the primary impression of school is, as is so often caricatured, of tidy little kids ruled with a ruler by a stern nun – well, that’s WRONG. The primary characteristic of a truly Catholic school – like any truly Catholic family, parish, or community of any kind – is joy. Joy tends to be a little messy – like little children climbing all over Jesus.

– DE-EMPHASIS of ‘academics’. See, for example, this post. Instead of learning from their teachers and families that they are unconditionally loved and infinitely more important in themselves than any particular honor they may achieve, many ‘high achieving’ kids from ‘high achieving’ homes are killing themselves – sometimes literally – over grades and test scores. A Catholic school would eschew homework (any interference in family life is flat out unacceptable) and denigrate tests, especially standardized tests meant to grade children like so much lumber. (There’s a very clear practical difference between, say, a test of French vocabulary or basic fractions meant to help the teacher and child see what needs to be worked on, and the sort of crap that makes up standardized tests. What this test is saying, for example,  is that a 7 year old is behind if they can’t translate tally marks into appropriate bar graphs. Really? What lunatic, using what insane methodology, decided that piece of information is critical – to a SEVEN YEAR OLD? In what alternate universe is that sufficient reason to label a kid ‘behind’? Behind what? JUST SAY NO!)

– Emphasis on the liturgical life. Again, children, being people, are attracted to the Church’s liturgy, because it is the primary place we meet Jesus – the place where we are not hindered coming to Him. Again, St. John Bosco understood this. Not only was Mass celebrated daily in his schools, but – ready? – kids weren’t forced to attend.  He knew that trying to enforce holiness was doomed – you can only invite, and show your own joy in the Church’s prayer. So, a Catholic school first and foremost lives the liturgy every day.

Let’s address a couple common objections up front:

1. Children need to be guided with a firm hand. We have to make them go to Mass and make them do homework and threaten them if they fail to perform ‘at grade level’ on tests or they will rot away as derelicts and ne’er do wells!

On the contrary, says who? Jesus? I think not.The problem here is not so much misunderstanding education as it is misunderstanding our faith.

2. No Homework?! Our kids won’t learn, they’ll fall behind, the sky will fall!

On the contrary, there is no evidence that homework contributes materially to academic performance k – 8. There is little evidence it helps very much 9 – 12. But what it does most certainly do is rob families of the quite enjoyment of each others’ company every night. If the phrase ‘quite enjoyment of each others’ company’ and ‘family’ don’t go together for you, then maybe your problem is bigger than anything school can help. Anecdote: We’re 2 for 2 at getting our kids who are college age into the colleges of their choices – and we never had a single argument over homework nor wasted a single evening doing busy work imposed by some little academic Napoleon. So, what, exactly, is the point of homework, again?

3. Ho Ho Ho! You really live in a fantasy world, there! How will kids ever get jobs and survive in the real world if we don’t toughen ’em up through a lot of dumb make-work and arbitrary control? *I* had to do lots of homework and take lots of idiotic tests designed to make me either feel like a failure or to justify me lording it over the other kids who didn’t do as well, and look at me! I came out JUST FINE. So fine that I’m willing to force my kids to relive the misery I went through, hardly see them during the week as they do extra curricular activities and homework, and ship them off to a good college once they’re old enough so that they can be just like me!

On the contrary, ’nuff said.

P.S. – I attended Catholic schools 1 – 12, and am grateful to the numerous loving nuns, priests, brothers  and lay people who showed me a Catholic life could be joyful and kind.

Not Your Kids, or Mine, of Course…

Because, as either an FNGs, a woman married to an FNG, guys who wishes he were FNGs, or a woman who wishes or plans to be married to an FNG , we are both a lot more loving and a lot less tolerant and enabling of self-centered behavior in our kids. So they of course are going to be the good citizens of tomorrow and stave off the utter collapse of civilization for one more generation, God help them.

Just to be clear.

Shocking News: Kids these days are kinda narcissistic

Nice couple paragraphs and link to a NYT article about kids these days, over at First Things…

My comment, posted there, copied here:

3 thoughts:

Perhaps the humanitarian who loves humanity but hates people is reflected in the title: community organizer.  Because helping real people is hard and often thankless, while organizing a community (whatever that may mean) provides a useful distance from what the actual individual people may want.

Also, I have a good deal of interaction with kids through my kids’ school: these kids, if they ever could be brought to reflect critically on themselves would recognize narcissism as simple reality – what else is there? Stories I could tell…

Finally, I think the genesis of Generation Narcissus is the almost inevitable outcome of the 60s: the hippies of the 60s were the Greed is Good crowd of the 80s, the first generation to consistently treat children as Certificates of Achievement (limit 2 to a customer, please!), to be worked in around career and personal fulfillment, and certainly not a limit on your right to walk out on your spouse, if you feel so inclined. Those kids grew up to raise the current brood – no ties bind you, enduring the weeping of the little children and the elderly as they are handed off to the care professionals so that Mom and this week’s Dad can follow their dreams unencumbered is just a price you (not the actual criers – that’s THEIR issue, not yours) must buck up and pay. it’s just the way it is.


Further thought: the French Revolutionaries behind the Reign of Terror were high-minded humanitarians – and their high-minded humanitarianism lead them to, you know, guillotine a large number of  men and women (famously, a convent of cloistered Carmelites)  for the crime of getting in the way of the Revolution’s  unabashed love of ‘Humanity’.

Not that that could happen here. U-uh, no, never. Other than the sordid history of the past 250 years, during which many tens of millions died because they were getting in the way of their betters’ efforts to create this week’s Earthly Paradise, what would ever make you think something so crazy?