Exodus

How many songs do you still know from high school? The old band – cooler than ice cream in its day – revs up the radio and you’re right back, lyrics sure after all these years. Which is why Holistic Boy learns a lot of things through music. He had the optional challenge of memorizing the first 17 verses of Exodus 20 in the King James the past school year and so I went to work. After writing the melody, I found the perfect male baritone (for the voice of God), and recorded countless takes on the piano with Husband and Son on drums. The families in our homeschool community were given the best version to run at home. T and many of his homeschool friends learned it easily as we sang it a verse at a time in our weekly gatherings. The final stage presentation was open to anyone who wanted to perform it this spring, whether they had mastered it or not. Some who made Bible Master were too shy but I was so proud of the kids that night. We had five-year-olds up there. The 17th century diction and syntax were not easy but they got it.

1 And God spake all these words saying,
2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
13 Thou shalt not kill.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15 Thou shalt not steal.
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

 

A Tiger’s Pursuit: Mastery

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job,” intones Fletcher, the monomaniacal music instructor in the film Whiplash. Isn’t good, after all, the enemy of the best? Fletcher’s psychopathic devices sucked me right into the vortex of the questions I ask as my son’s teacher. How much do I push? And how? With the promise of Pokémon cards? There’s the drum student Andrew in the movie. His single eye upon Whiplash, the jazz piece he determines to conquer, he denies himself even the distraction of girlfriends. Would I have my boy bleed in the pursuit of excellence? Of course not. Except – the first time Andrew plows right through practice as the blood on his finger oozes from useless bandaids would’ve been cinematic cliché if he were Korean. Because falling short would’ve hurt more. So logic and genes say I should at least allow my son to bruise a little.

Last year when he was not yet eight, we went for the optional Memory Master challenge in our Classical homeschool program. Tennyson had to recite the hundreds of facts he had learned in seven subjects (English Grammar, Latin, History, Science, Math, Geography, Timeline of 161 events in human history) through four rounds of testing. Beyond the one mistake allowed per subject in the second round, he had to come through with 100% accuracy in the last two proofs. He was so close but made more than the one error in the second sitting. He had rocked the memory review games in class and the teacher told the director he knew his stuff. The director was willing to give him a chance at the next round of testing. I bowed out.

I could see he’d felt the pressure – from me. After some yoga out back under a full moon, his hippy dippy mother had suddenly shapeshifted into Tiger Mom (from New York at that, double jeopardy). She kept putting raw meat in front of him. Testing season came and I was my Old Self again, the one who unblinkingly had bled for grades at his age, the one who was now oh, ambitious for her son. On the cusp of the third test, I realized I simply should have started reviewing the material with him sooner. We were running short on time and though the potholes were few, we were cramming. I was drilling Tennyson in the little time remaining and overwhelmed, he got headaches and spilled tears of frustration. Sigh. He had bruised enough. I chewed the last of my raw lamb liver, the mineral taste and feel of flesh a sad memory in the swallowing. And in the privacy of my backyard morphed back into the California homeschooler who wanted to honor the sacred whole child and spare him the pain of that great modern evil, stress. What I really didn’t want was to get in – make the hallowed halls of Memory Masters – by the skin of our teeth. I could’ve kept pushing him and been able to applaud as his name was called in the awards ceremony. But I didn’t want to barely make it. I wanted him to own it. Mastery means mastery, not hope crossing fingers that he doesn’t slip in the testing. I loved how high we set the bar in the program, that we had such tall demands to aspire to. I would submit to them. And when my son reached for them again, they would be his without question.

So he went for it again this year. And he did it. He went up on stage recently, where one-eighth of the students in Kindergarten-Grade 6 received their Memory Master certificate.

I paced the material in such a way as to prepare him months in advance and by the time testing rolled around, the countries and their capitals, the math multiples and linking verbs, each continent’s highest mountain and the history of Western Africa were in his bones. I found myself at peace in the third proof – fingers uncrossed – where he could’ve lost it all. After an hour-and-a-half, he came out of the room smiling. I had told him to enjoy himself and the teacher said yes, he had himself a grand old time. Two days later, he did the Hokey Pokey as we got ready to leave for the final test. So I’m not Fletcher. I didn’t throw chairs at my son for him to get it right. But Fletcher had zero tolerance for mediocrity (well yes, if you despise it) and that’s something to appreciate. I’m still trying to figure out just what it is Tennyson needs to give up while we uphold those standards but I can’t sit with the majority and tell my child he’s doing a good job when he can – and should – be doing an outstanding job. It wasn’t recognition I was after. At the most practical level, the journey was about nailing down a solid foundation of knowledge he can retrieve at will and use in the older years. But the process was really about self-respect. That whatever his resources and abilities, he discovers he can use them to extend into his outer world of possibility and turn it into reality. I love the scene where Andrew’s got it. He’s mastered the impossible Whiplash and, when he finds himself in the band competition, it’s a part of him. He sails through the piece, sticks dancing on the snare still stained with blood. His new reality.

Here’s a glimpse of what Tennyson learned this school year. I threw random questions at him from the year’s work for you. I am proud of him for keeping the joy and must say, of myself for not ruining it.

Math: Counting by 12s

Science
What are the major groups of invertebrates?
Sponges, stinging cell animals, flatworms, roundworms, segmented worms, mollusks, sea stars, arthropods

What are the major groups of vertebrates?
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds

Latin Noun Cases
Nominative – Subject
Genitive – Possessive
Dative – Indirect Object
Accusative – Direct Object
Ablative – Object of the Preposition

First and Second Declension Noun Endings, Singular and Plural

English Grammar
A preposition relates a noun or a pronoun to another word.
About Above Across After Against Along Amid Among Around At Atop Before Behind Below Beneath Beside Between Beyond But By Concerning Down During Except For From In Inside Into
Like Near Of Off On Onto Out Outside Over Past Regarding Since Through Throughout To Toward Under Underneath Until Up Upon With Within Without

History
Tell me about the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Imperialism, the British established rule over India in 1858, and Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in 1877. Before his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi led the passive resistance movement, which helped win India’s independence.

Tell me about the Heian empire.
As the Heian government weakened in Japan, Shoguns began to rule and expelled all foreigners during the period of isolation. Circa 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. restored trade, allowing the Meiji to modernize Japan.

Science
Some kinds of leaves and leaf parts?
Spines, needles, tendrils, bracts, bud scales, palmate

What are the four kinds of volcanoes?
Active, intermittent, dormant, extinct

What are the five major circles of latitude?
Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle

Long Live Latin

colosseum

At seven-and-a-half, Tennyson memorized
the first seven verses of John 1 in Latin and
English in the homeschooling with
Classical Conversations, a global home
education program based on the ancient
Classical model of learning. I set each text
to song and he downed them like dessert.

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat
apud Deum,
et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc
erat in principio apud Deum.
Omnia per
ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est
nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat,
et vita
erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris
lucet, et
tenebrae eam non
comprehenderunt. Fuit homo
missus a
Deo, cui nomen erat Joannes. Hic venit in
testimonium ut testimonium perhiberet de
lumine,
ut omnes crederent per illum.

In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was
God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has
been made. In him was life, and that life
was the light of all mankind. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it. There was a man
sent from God whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify concerning
that light, so that through him all might
believe.

The Writing Process II, Part 3: From the Grammar Mafia

Godfather2Those who might have thought the Wayfarer congenial up until now must know The Godmother from New York has taken over this leg of the trip (see Uncle?) and California Girl’s backseat, engrossed in a book.

Last I checked, blogosphere was a beautiful democracy. If you are offended by what follows, remember you are free as the wind to check out or unfollow this blog. My point today is simple: learn the basics. Please.

I am not speaking of the innocent blue-moon typo. This proof of human fallibility is why we’re thankful for the saving grace of the edit. I’m not speaking to those whose native tongue is a language other than English. I’m talking to people who publish anything blissfully careless in the basics. You who faithfully streak your blog with words missing apostrophes or a whole letter as in your vs you’re, unabashed at the moments you regress to the achievements of a second grader. Before we get to the grammar, I’m talking about the mechanics that school drilled into you every darn year, third grade to middle. Do you know how to turn on the headlights so you’re visible to oncoming traffic? How’s the rear view? It’s the preliminary stuff the driving instructor wants to see you know before you pull away.

What have you to say of your intellectual laziness? Why would you give yourself license to be sloppy, to reduce your art, vandalize your presentation? If you were to take offense that I came over and markered your work, it would be curious irony given that’s what you do yourself. You owe it to yourself not to look less intelligent than you are. You owe it to your readers to be clean on paper and screen. Pave their way, shovel off the stones and debris so it’s that much easier for them. Why do you not show up to the office in slippers and the shirt you slept in – even if everyday were the Casual Friday it is in the Sunny State? An inkling of social protocol, respect for the boss. A hassle to learn once for all, you say? Honestly, it is doable. If fourth graders can get it, so can you. The mechanics are just a hairsbreadth up a notch from the alphabet. I’m not talking about complex constructions, style, voice.

Many of you have published. Tell me, would Doubleday or Bantam put out your final copy with the strings of indifferent technical blotches in your story? Okay then, would you self-publish that way? Then why in — name do you blog as you do? So you never claimed to be a writer. You’re here to share your hobbies and talk about your cat. Or showcase your art. If you’re going to put out more than two sentences and want anyone besides Nana and your best friend to see them, retain a measure of self-respect and file and sand, please. Ah, but you mean only to encourage others in their faith. Well, Scripture enjoins us to pursue excellence in all we do, and rewards the endeavor. “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings.” Proverbs 22.29. God-fearing Mafia, you must know. You’re not wired for the screws and ratchet of language; you’re a genius Right-Brain who’s busy being creative. It’s the (professing) artist who believes there is no harm in exchanging blue for purple. What musician would shrug a B for C? They might be only a note apart but a single note changes the chord, Bach lives on to say through his arpeggios of precision. Please don’t insult me. Would you be as satisfied as the construction engineer who wasn’t so worried about the details to the foundation of your house? But he was preoccupied with the layout and paint. The rigorous Left Brains get this. You might be easy about donating a penny to the Ronald McDonald House but see how happy you’ll stay with the accountant who doesn’t believe numbers must be accurate. Don’t gyp your readers.

The blitzkrieg of analogies is to bring home the simple reminder that the fundamentals remain nonnegotiable in every area of life. If you’re going to take up the dignified name of writer or poet and need some work with the simple Dos and Don’ts, do retrain yourself – once for all. I begin with the epidemic glitches which happen to be the most elementary and move up to high school for those who care:

THE APOSTROPHE
1) Before you throw it in there, make sure it’s a possession (Sarah’s bag) or contraction (it’s = it is) you want to express. That apostrophe stands for something.

You’re book
Your book

2) On this one matter of words ending in s, I dare to disagree with the Writers’ Bible The Elements of Style by Strunk Jr. and White: The authors favor the possessive with the additional ‘s (Charles’s friend) and go on to differentiate the times you tack on the apostrophe by itself (Moses’ staff), but the distinctions are just too much. Stick to the smokers’ room. The book has been out fifty years. Language favors elision over time, likes the path of least resistance. If it can drop something, it will.

3) The pronouns its, yours, hers, theirs take on no apostrophe because they already indicate possession.

its own ethic
song of yours
they took hers
that lodge of theirs

OBJECT PRONOUN
The preposition between takes objects, not subjects.

between he and I
between him and I
between her and I

between him and me
between her and me

ALL RIGHT
The law of elision, i.e. the law of human laziness, will eventually canonize alright. But all right stand as two words.

A LOT
alot
Also two words.

REFLEXIVE PRONOUN
Use the simple subject pronoun.

Cary and myself arrived at the lake.
Cary and I arrived at the lake.

The reflexive pronouns like myself, himself, yourself need a noun or pronoun in the sentence to reflect back to.

I congratulated me.
There’s the I, the referent.

I congratulated myself.

I’m fine.  And yourself?
There is no you the yourself can hearken back to.

I’m fine.  And you?

Tanya hurt herself.
Tanya hurt her. (She hurt someone else.)

SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT
The numbers must match.
1) Each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, someone call for a singular verb.

Everybody thinks they are cool. (Here, they refer to the subject everybody.)
Everybody thinks he is cool.

2) When none means not one or no one, it takes a singular verb.

None of them are going.
None of them is going.

3) Either and neither take a singular verb.

Neither of you are coming.
Neither of you is coming.
Do you know if either of these is used?

4) It’s one number:

A number of cases have revealed that
A number of cases has revealed that
[One number of cases]

MISPLACED MODIFIER
You can only think when writing.
You can think only when writing.

In the first instance, the only thing you’re doing is thinking because the only modifies whatever act follows. What you meant was to qualify the circumstance that allows you to write.

SUBJECT OF A PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE
the point of what us writers are about

The underlined phrase modifies of and behaves as one noun. Try “the point of the story.” When uncertain between the object and subject form of a pronoun, cover the distraction and you’ll hear it:

what us [writers] are about —> what us are about

Now you know the phrase needs the subject: what we are about

the point of what we writers are about

=======================================

If you’re still here, feeling positive that I wrote this just for you, I assure you it is not personal. How I would love the luxury of time to be able to keep track of who violated which writing law when. Maybe if I drew up a hit list of bloggers…

If you’re gun-shy at this point, you may breathe: I’m giving it back over to the Wayfarer. Decided on the hate mail? Send it to me. She’s a sweetie. I wish she were tougher. The girl refuses to police grammar in readers’ comments. Oh, homeschooling calls: Holistic Godmother goes off to teach her boy the ways of the Grammar Mafia.

Until next time.

Genius

Two years and 11 months

Two years and 11 months

According to Malcolm Gladwell, behind the genius of high-achievers that leaves us awestruck is really just 10,000 hours of practice.

Let’s see what this might look like for you as a drummer, Tennyson:

You’ve put in at least 500 hours thus far.

1 hour of practice a day, 35 free days in a year –>
330 hours
the next 5 years –>
1650 hours plus the 500 = 2150 hours by the age of 12

The next 12 years, double the daily hour –>
660 hours every year, a total of 7920 hours
plus the ones from the first 12 years = 10,070 hours by the age of 24

Unless an earthquake brings this house down or you find yourself with a single parent, you will continue to have every opportunity to play. And even in the tightest straits we will sell the furniture before we touch your drums. Every hour on the set you’ll get to exchange for more options as an adult musician. Every hour brings your dreams that much closer within reach. You easily played for an hour-and-a-half when you were five. It is up to you whether you want to hit your 10,000 sooner or later than 24. But a good idea to develop your art as deeply as you can, find its place in our world before you settle down? Keep those two hours a day sacred and you will learn self-mastery, excellence, and your happier self. We know the more we love our music, the more we love it, right? Play your joy and never make excuses. I don’t want you to end up looking on as Joe blows smoke out of his set, saying “I could’ve done that.” He just practiced longer than you.

Your biggest fan,
Mom

Carry You In The Rain

Your toe broke through the sole of your shoe. I didn’t want you stepping on the cold, wet ground. I put you on my back – my boy almost seven – and had trouble walking. With a friend of mine, we peeped into some run-down restaurants for a new shoe. Leaving the row of shops, we stood on a threshold under the eaves, facing the pavement. I cradled you.

I would carry you in the rain.

You grew a few years smaller in my arms. As I asked my friend to cover your face with your blue jacket, you slipped into bed with me, pulling me out into the fresh, dry morning. The first thing you asked was what I’d dreamt.

Last week you mused, “I wonder what’s inside the sun, Umma. I want to see.” You expressed this so imploringly. Should I not have told you that you will burn? Should I have left you to dream impossible dreams? Did I kill your wondering?

The other day you took car tracks bereft of car and remote, and turned them into a runway for your plane. The delight on your face when that plane took off. And Daddy and I had wanted to get rid of the tracks. You blow me away. Life blows you away.

I forget why I keep you close. To free you to stand on your slab of questions and ingenuity, ready to run into the sun. I know that this side of dreams, there’ll be no carrying you in the rain.

 

sunbig

 

We Underestimate The Human Brain

I couldn’t resist this post. Five-year-olds memorized facts in seven subject areas along with 1) the names of all the U.S. presidents 2) 24 verses of a chapter from the book of Ephesians and 3) enjoyed hands-on explorations in science, art, and music. Middle and high schoolers also wrote papers, redrew the map of the world from memory, analyzed text, and debated. These activities have kept the kids in our local homeschool community busy since the fall. I had to give you a glimpse of what some of this work looked like. My first grader loved every minute with our weekly small group. I have played the audios of songs and recitations almost every day the last eight months to drive them in nice and deep, and never has he tired of them.

Classical Conversations is a Christian version of the approach to education that draws its roots from the ancient Classical world. The Classical model takes its cue from the developing mind. We take advantage of the tremendous capacity for information the early years offer. We then encourage kids to draw relationships among the facts they’ve retained. Older teens integrate principles and articulate their reasoning. The students work hard. They even get a bit overwhelmed in transitioning between the levels as public schoolers moving on to high school do. But our students rise to the challenge and don’t see the memorization as such. It is doable, palatably apportioned week to week. As you can see, it’s fun.

The clips are from the cumulative memory work of 24 weeks that the students presented before family and friends two weeks ago. Turn up the volume for the indefinite pronouns rap:

The kids closed the event with the 204-point timeline of human history; here are the first 40 seconds. The hand motions include American Sign Language for tactile learners. Yes, the kids recited every word of the timeline you see listed. I think the best part is their enthusiasm in the learning.

timeline1

timeline2

timeline3

timeline4

A Biblical Perspective of Achievement

These thoughts emerged as a personal response to the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Law professor Amy Chua who pushed her daughters to excel in ways that earned her praise and censure. She writes: I do believe that we in America can ask more of children than we typically do, and they will not only respond to the challenge, but thrive. I think we should assume strength in our children, not weakness. My grapplings found their way into a magazine article that studies the Biblical roots Christians might do well to lay down in their quest for achievement. The question that I realized has been little discussed in the Church applies not just to parents or homeschoolers but to all Christians seeking excellence in their calling.

Achievement-page-001

Before the Homeschooling
Homeschooling opens a family to freedom in style and pace not viable in schools. Free rein in hand, I watched my boy full of joie de vivre opine at three-and-a-half years, “obla dee, obla da, life goes o-o-o-n, la la life goes o-o-on,” and wrestled with the unsophisticated question I had trouble answering. So how much do I push this little guy?

Hard work is a practice and philosophy I still struggle to keep in the balance. As a workaholic who has let work tip my life even to the compromise of my health, I found myself picking through what were defining cultural, educational, professional, even physical experiences to sort out a theology of achievement as both parent and home educator.

A walking paradox, I am a product of Asian culture and the academic zeitgeist of the East Coast, a former teacher of the gifted and talented program, and an eventual coast-to-coast transplant converted happily to the gentler lifestyle of California. I’m also a Christian. These thumbprints converged on the table where I set out to homeschool Tennyson and pulled me in conflicting directions. Discipleship would define our schooling but the West Coast Hippy whose educational goals for her son were relaxed and unhurried caught the Tiger Mom from New York encroaching on her plans.

There is a cost to anything worth achieving. The building blocks of accomplishment are sacrifice. How much of that was I willing to exact from my son? My parents immigrated, and raising me here by the sweat of their brow, bequeathed to me the firstfruits of something American culture offers so wonderfully: the assumption of choice. The freedom to pursue my passion with no obligation beyond itself. I say firstfruits because while I did not have to study and work to stay alive at the level my parents did, my drive to excel academically and professionally was not entirely free of constraints. There was an element of spurn against the prejudice my parents faced and a mission to redeem their suffering.

My child, however, remains at liberty – even at leisure – to dream and indulge his gifts. In short, to enjoy his work when he’s grown and to explore the options along the way. Will this freedom weaken him or his character in any way? The fact that he is under no compulsion to be or do something? That he is, well, comfortable?  After all, comfort does not soldiers make. We build muscle by defying resistance. And the higher we set the bar, the more we gain in the reach. We gain by the stretch up as well as the one down into the resources of the spirit where character is forged. All to say some measure of trial is good for the soul. So what should we be straining for in our studies, and why?

A Portrait of a Pupil
Working these questions through, I was reminded of a sermon I heard in college. Dr. James Boice in Pennsylvania pointed out that Jesus will not commend, “Well done, good and successful servant.” Our Lord looks forward to declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And in Genesis 39.3 I see “the Lord was with Joseph and he prospered…his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did…”  Joseph concerned himself to keep faithful. Success was something God saw to grant.

As we are to pursue faithfulness rather than idolize success, excellence should mark our endeavors.  The imprint of this distinction ought to be evident in the work of Christians to bring God honor as His image-bearers, showing forth the beauty of His excellence. Achievement ends up the sweet fruit of labor. Consider the Scriptures:

Ecclesiastes 9.10  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
Colossians 3.23  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Proverbs 22.29  Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.

My graduate degree in education says I mastered learning in 1997. It was only in the the baby steps toward homeschooling, however, that I really got it. Sure, I had worked to foster critical and creative thinking in my public and private students. But here I was with a budding life entrusted entirely to my nurture. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What were my hopes for this mind of his? His soul? Yes, we’ve got our road map for strong SATs. But while a reputable college is an admitted temptation of a goal in the schooling, is this really what skillful writing, creativity in the arts, becoming a well-rounded adult should be about?  I am assuming the glory of God that should predispose the studies and am seeking to trace the functional role of formal learning. Days he doesn’t feel like it, why should Tennyson tackle the books?

My hope is that he grows to enjoy the challenge of learning to learn. Not memorize for grades. And what he is required to retain, that he takes up as the opportunity to understand more of his Father’s world. That he will become a self-directed learner so he can be motivated to develop whatever new skills all those opportunities beyond school will call for. That he will appreciate the freedom to discover the person that God is making him. For education begins and ends with Him, the source of all that is true. I want Tennyson to think for himself in keeping with God’s truth, independent even of pundits. I want him to learn how to live, to know he is a glorious creature made in the very image of God. Talk about self-esteem! In other words, education is more than academics.

A Success Story
As a parent, I now am taken with the Daniel of chapter one even more so than the hero of the subsequent stories I learned of in Sunday School. Daniel was about 14 when he was kidnapped to Babylon, uprooted from his family and the rich life of the worship of Yahweh. What if my son were wrested from me like this? What if the worship at church last Sunday were the last such fellowship he would enjoy, songs sung in the English he’d taken for granted? What will enable him not only to persevere but flourish and impact his captor country with the gospel?

In what we today would call very stressful circumstances in a foreign land, Daniel remained unmoved in his convictions. How deep the reservoir of the knowledge of his God, how intimate his fellowship with his Creator, how reverent and fearful of the Lord was he. He knew whose he was and which King to fear. His roots not only ran deep, he grew fruitful with “aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed….God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning…At the end of the time set by the king…he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service.”

In mastering the writings of this pagan culture during his three years of study, Daniel came to understand its psyche as conveyed by the literature. He clearly discerned truth at critical junctures in the years that followed, but engaged the language and the art of writing that were part of God’s creative enterprise. Outperforming his peers, he so excelled in his secular education that he ended high up in government employment. Daniel was not charmed by the fruit of his labor: grades, status, three-chariot garage. He worshiped God alone. All his accomplishments brought him to speak into the lives of kings and help order the affairs of an empire in the strategic outworking of redemptive history. Note his honorable friends, like-minded men who helped one another stay the path. And we have 19-year-olds in America who blow time and money on campus, even Christians without the discipline and integrity to get up for morning class.

So let us be faithful like Daniel.

Is this exhortation our final word, the way to urge our children to excellence? The Scriptures Daniel had absorbed in youth were replete with God’s injunction to remember His faithfulness to Israel. This Daniel did. What his memory served him from the last 10 years before his exile were the lessons of spiritual posterity. When the Lord saved Daniel from the threat of execution by revealing to him the king’s dream, Daniel prayed, “I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers…” The unchanging God Who had been true to Abraham had come through for him. In his regular prayer life, he also was accustomed to the disclosures of his God.

If ten years were all I had left with Tennyson, what should remain central in our home instruction, the discipleship?  A whole lot of preaching that he stay true to God, to keep doing better?  This well-meaning moralism would be one great way to raise a spiritual drop-out. William Butler Yeats said, “Educating is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Many who decide down the road that Jesus never was for them began with knowledge. But they had not been kindled by the gospel of grace, by the truth that with His blood Jesus purchased for them the abiding, unremitting favor of the Lord.  Apart from the assurance and taste of this immovable love, our resolve of allegiance will — to borrow from the wife of CS Lewis – fall like a house of cards.

It is in the irreversible work of the Cross that I want to teach my son to rest. In the gospel truth that no one and nothing can pry nail-scarred Hands loose of that grip on him. I pray his journey will be no toilsome climb up the ladder of achievement but a pursuit of excellence marked by joy and freedom that flow from gratitude.

Greatness, Part 5: Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem

My launching pad is an enlightening New York Magazine article that explains how praising kids for being smart often backfires, straitjacketing them to fear of failure. It spoke to me not only as a parent of a boy fairly fresh on the path of formal education, but as the studious girl whose achievements were marked by a curious mix of confidence and anxiety. The ten-year string of studies on the effects of praise spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now at Stanford) University shed light on the aspects of overachieving we have been exploring in this series: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. She offers insights on the inverse power of praise:

A sizable portion of gifted students, the very ones who grew up hearing they are smart, lack confidence and will keep to the safer road of doable tasks rather than set out for the hill that promises challenges.

According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But recent landmark studies make the case that labeling kids just this way might actually cause them to underperform.

In one of her ground-breaking experiments with 400 New York fifth graders, Dweck took the students out of the classroom one at a time for an IQ test in the form of puzzles that pretty much guaranteed success. The students were divided into two random groups, one praised at the end for the kids’ intelligence, the other for effort. The children then chose a test for the second round. They were told that they’d learn a lot from the one that was more difficult. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids copped out. Why did this happen? When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a following round, students were offered no choice. The test actually designed for kids two grades higher set them up for failure. The groups exhibited a marked difference in response. The ones who were initially praised for their effort assumed they had not worked hard enough and went on to tackle the puzzles vigorously. Many actually commented that it was their favorite test. The kids who had been praised for their smarts deflated, taking their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.

Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can controlEmphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls – the very brightest girls especially.

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is their unflagging confidence and trust in my abilities. It was in my working years that I saw just how deep their affirmation had rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. While I was praised for being smart even in diapers, I also suffered migraines for taking elementary school so seriously. My mother not only vouched for my intellect, but urged me to work as hard as I could. I remember crying, asking for her forgiveness, in the face of her withering disappointment over the 98% on a test I’d brought home. It was decades later that she remorsefully revealed she’d feigned dissatisfaction to push me to my utmost.

Dweck slowly began to make sense of my confusing dance with ambition. Through all the praise from family, friends, and teachers, fear of failure –  the devil on my shoulder – goaded me to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before every piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze, turning cold and stiff. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school, rejecting the role before anyone could reject me. When my Latin and Linguistics professors later encouraged me to pursue a PhD, I rued having fooled them into thinking I was so capable. My mother wondered in exasperation why I volleyed every career suggestion with “it’s too hard.”  I had set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them. Deep inside, I feared being exposed as a fraud, of not meeting the expectations I wore.

To describe my metamorphosis in thinking is another post. But briefly: at 27, I visited Harvard for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture. I enjoyed meeting with a professor and sitting in on her class, although in the end, I left the the east coast for the California sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the storied institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that had come about largely at the encouragement of a principal I’d worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? What had locked me in the first place was the praise over my innate ability that had followed me in my youth. But when trepidation gives way, amazing things can happen. Because this release came so late for me, I am fascinated by people who dream bigger than the life they’ve known. My uncertainties in myself did not arise from low self-esteem. I always had a strong sense of self. Research has shown that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, was found to have no clothes on.

From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement…results often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 The Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature…Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standard…Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves)…Baumeister said his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of [his] career.’

I had little patience for  the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation I was told in graduate school to give my students. How can a society, let alone marriages, expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above else? (The sun does not orbit the earth.) We all should know our inherent worth, and no child should feel unloved or unworthy because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God. Self-esteem champions who haven’t quit this page by now may see it differently, but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their sense of worth on sand. Once they find themselves struggling in a more demanding setting, they “surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure.”

The ability to respond to repeat failure by exerting more effort – instead of simply giving up – is a trait well studied in psychology…persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain…While putting people through MRI scans…this switch [lit] up regularly in some. On others, barely at all…The key is intermittent reinforcement…The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear. We could be priming our kids for a chemical addiction to constant reward with bribes or effusive praise that’s misdirected, hijacking their capacity to work toward goals. The greats whose accomplishments we’ve been discussing apparently have a different brain. But the beauty of intelligence is its organic adaptability. I love how Dweck’s researchers improved math scores in low-achieving students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain works like a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.

The Little Man

The Little Man

Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts in science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some, long sentences. At this pace, he will go on to grow his knowledge base through the years ahead. I worried on Day 1 that I was overloading him. “What are the seven types of biomes? Grasslands, deserts, scrublands, tundra, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tropical rainforests.” Aye yaya. Since then, I’ve discovered that the brain of children expands like Mary Poppin’s bag. The more you require it to hold, the more it gladly will. With a modest estimate of 100,000 students worldwide on this Classical curriculum, my son is no exception and smarts can’t really take the credit. It’s work. And we make it fun. But there’s no getting around daily application. How do I encourage his success? The article describes the kinds of praise that encourages effectively: sincere, specific feedback with repeatable strategies that moves the child forward. I’ve replaced much of the “you’re so smart” with express pleasure at the evidence of effort and minilessons on the capacity of the mind.

We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard on this blog. It’s taken me 40 years to lay down my thoughts with a deep satisfaction that I have communicated my purpose. It is the pains and time I take to get it down just so that keep me on sure course. Faith in my aptitude? No. And it’s no timorous dissent. My work may not make the ranks of the literary pantheon. But with joy, great care, and dreams I answer my calling as a writer, standards higher than ever.