Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Conversations at night

As long as my daughter could talk, I’ve spent the evenings with her, first reading stories and singing lullabies, later reading with her and doing home-schooling lessons. Full-time home-schoolers teach a full range of subjects, but as she goes to Catholic school during the day and I must work in the city, I focused on the subjects I wish all children were taught but that few schools teach.

Some nights we read the Greek and Roman classics, touching on the poets and philosophers of Western Civilisation. Some nights we’ve talked about the Bible, or history, or logic and rhetoric. And some nights we cover science: keystone species and thermodynamics, carrying capacities and overshoot. Now that she is an adolescent she has more homework and hobbies, and needs more time to herself, but we still take a few hours on Saturday and Sunday to continue the lessons. Last weekend we were talking about Plato. 

“Daddy, why are you still teaching me philosophy?” she asked.

It’s important to me that you learn certain things, I said, even if the reasons don’t appear obvious when you’re twelve. You’ll be an adult during a difficult time, I expect, and you’ll have to make touch choices. I wanted to teach you the Good Book and Plato, the Epicurians and the Stoics while you were still a child, before you became a teenager and knew everything.

She gave me the Oh, Please look that comes so naturally to teenaged girls. “I don’t claim to know everything,” she said. “But I think I’ve got the morals part down. I think my morals are really good.”

That’s easy to say, I said, and easy to believe – until they’re tested. Remember what Thomas Paine said about summer soldiers?

“So test me,” she said with adolescent confidence. “Use the Socratic Method.”

I smiled. I bet you can give me a good argument with the Socratic Method, and that’s great – I’m proud of that. But I meant tested by life.

You never know what life will throw at you, and I think the decades ahead will throw more things at us than usual. I want you to be ready – not just to survive, not just to make the best choices, but to empathise with the people who make different ones.  

“Okay, but I can’t promise you everything I’ll do in life,” she said.

I don’t expect you to make that kind of promise, I said – especially not at this age.

“Can you test me with the Socratic method, though?” she said. “I want to show you how well I can do.”

I laughed – sure, I said. Let’s go.

She smiled. “I can see you putting on your game face,” she said.


Donna OShaughnessy said...

I admire your continued efforts, as they get older it's so much harder to pin them down. My kids are all grown and at times you think no one heard a word you said and then...they shock you and bring you to tears with their wonderful actions. Keep it up, you'll both benefit.

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you! I know exactly what you mean -- on some nights she's a stranger now, and not one I want to know. On others she's my daughter again, and still others she amazes me with the woman she's becoming.