Sunday, 31 May 2009


We devote much of our lives to our children, knowing they are what’s left after we’re gone. Many people pay mortgages so they can have a yard to play in, pick homes based on the quality of the schools, plan their holidays around the kids' schedule and we keep themselves healthy to make sure they remain with the kids a good long while.

For most of history, people also taught their children what they needed to know to live – hunting, farming, the family trade – expecting life in their children’s age to be much as theirs had been. For recent generations across much of the world, though, this has changed completely – as the fossil fuel boom transformed the landscape, parents assumed life in the future would be very, very different, and for a while they have been right. Old professions – farmer, cobbler, mason, miller, wright – became mere surnames and vanished from census records. The skills themselves disappeared almost completely, as parents did not pass on what they thought would be obsolete.

Our children might face a world moving in the opposite direction. The world has used more oil every twenty years than in all previous history – and eventually, that number will begin to fall. The number of people on Earth has increased exponentially, but at some point it must also fall, slowly through our will or precipitously through Nature’s. Technology has accelarated and may continue, but there might be less industry to build it, less energy to run it and less money to pay for it.

Most people I talk to -- farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers -- understand that there is an ecological and economic crisis, even if they don't understand all the details. Most people also have children. Yet web sites and publications that discuss the environment or the economy rarely talk about children, and how to train them to deal with the world we anticipate.

It doesn’t help that we’re not sure what to prepare them for. Should we teach them how to write resumes and operate software to thrive in the businesses that exist today, or will they no longer exist a few decades from now? Should we teach them bushcraft skills to survive in the wild, or will those be useless standing in the unemployment line? We could teach them the old skills of farming and village crafts, but we don’t know for certain what crafts will make a comeback – and they would have to practice them while still making a living in the present-day world of suburbs and office complexes, and which does not have a ready market for farriers and cobblers.

The best solution is probably to teach them the broad basics, and let them develop more specialized skills as interest and opportunities allow. We can’t second-guess the world, but we can give them the fundamental knowledge and attitude to react to a wide spectrum of unforeseen events. If you home-school, you can turn these into full courses – but even if you send them to a conventional school, you can continue to teach, talk and explore while making supper, driving or reading bedtime stories.

You could start with cooking. Amazingly, more than half of all Americans don’t cook anything that didn’t come out of a package, and I don’t imagine Ireland is vastly different. Show them how to put meals together with the basic trinity of vegetables, starch and protein. Show them how to sautee onions, blanch beans, sear meat and make salad dressing. They don’t have to become a master chef – they just have to cook healthy things they like.

Introduce them to growing. Let them put beans on wet paper towels and watch them grow into sprouts. Have them plant seeds in a cup, and watch it painstakingly become cress. Take them into the garden with you to look for disease, eliminate pests, trim, weed and propagate.

You could teach them to forage, to pick flowers and shoots from fields in spring and fruits and nuts from trees in the fall. Most kids are fascinated by animals, and even unbidden would hunt for crayfish or snails like Easter eggs.

Show them how to turn one food into another – milk becomes yogurt, fruit can be dried for snacks, vegetables can be pickled. To a child, there are few things more fun than pounding and playing with bread dough. To an adult, there are few things more entertaining than their look of astonishment when you uncover the hidden dough and it’s twice as large as before.

Remember that children find their own routine normal, no matter how we feel about it, and they learn things not because we think they are important, but because we repeat them over and over. Make the lessons into song lyrics, set to some catchy tune they like. Make lessons into a game or a contest.

Read to them. They don’t need to learn computer games at a young age, and they don’t need much television, but they do need to see you reading multiple subjects for pleasure.

If they are school-age, show them how money works. Demonstrate that take-out food can be made more quickly at home, for a fraction of the price. Introduce them to compound interest – lend them money at five percent interest per day, and show them how their debt doubles in a fortnight. Later, when they are old enough to have credit cards and mortgages – if such things exist -- they might remember.

Introduce them cheerfully to the notion that accidents happen, things break and the centre does not hold. It probably won’t happen, and there’s no point worrying, but we’d best know what to do just in case. My four-year-old helped me pack an emergency bag, and we recited like a nursery rhyme the items we needed: If it rains we have ponchos, masks if there’s smoke. This filters the water if pipes ever broke. My daughter did not seem frightened by the thought of an emergency – on the contrary, she seemed more secure in the knowledge that we could handle it.

The older they get, the more they should learn how the world is connected. This new gadget all your friends have – where was it made? What is that country like? How much energy does it take to ship it here? How long does it last? You might not want to introduce them to too much global tragedy too early, of course, but older children might like the opportunity to solve a mystery, and would take more seriously a conclusion they’ve reached on their own. I used to be an investigative reporter, and think everyone should be one, just for a little while – it should be a year-long course for teenagers.

Let them be curious. If they ask you questions whose answer you don’t know, be careful not to dismiss them or make something up -- I know nobody thinks they would ever do it, but we get rushed. Admit you don’t know and look it up, or teach them to do so. Don’t let them accept Wikipedia or Google’s first entry. Demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing the answer, and there’s something very right about asking the question.

Bring them along. Let them see you shovel a community garden, shop at a boot sale (garage sale to Americans), split a bulk-food order with co-op members or speak to a neighbourhood meeting, and accept this, too, as a normal thing people do.

Finally, I try to remember that daughter is not a blog I fill with my own thoughts – she has her own interests and will, and her future is as uncertain as the world's. You can influence them as you influence your spouse, but you’re not going to make them into someone they’re not. Luckily, there are uses for every type of personality, and we will need everyone in the years ahead. Try to make your kids understand that too – we’re all in this together.

Photo: The Girl on Lough Derg.


lagedargent said...

Quite so, Brian, a well-considered essay this is, and a pleasure to read.
It took me back to the time my kids were young, and I taught them survival techniques for the urban jungle. Never, ever cross before looking left, and right, and left again, the way of the Continent.
Teaching them to ride a bycicle, and telling them bedtime stories of my own making. To my daughter a story of King Rumple and the Flying Cat in episodes, and to my son of Little Wolf and the Cooky Jar, as he loved everything sweet. I also read to him 'The Hobbit', translating it on the fly.

Reading your essay, I realised I never thought about the future of my kids to be less prosperous, than my own's, rather more. I tried to interest them in natural things, calling trees by their name, but it didn't catch on, I'm afraid.
My daughter from her early teens developed into a social animal, and thrived in a company of friends, and my son decided to be a whiz kid at the age of ten, shunning the outdoors if ever he could. He's making a living by it now.

Living in a city, and having a full-time job, doesn't go very well with teaching your kids the skills that you weren't taught yourself. It's even harder to motivate them to pay attention to things, lying in wait in one of all possible futures, which to them resound of the past, when the present is still so full of attractions.

When society turns sour, whenever it may be, I trust them to adapt, and find a way to survive.

Robin said...

Very well said Brian. It's only one of the many reasons that we chose unschooling as our approach to education. I'm convinced that what our kids will need more than any one group of skills or memorized knowledge (what is a coefficient, who was involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal) is the ability to learn, to be flexible, to work with their hands, to mentor and be mentored, to draw on many different resources, to find their own motivation.

Whether I'm working with my kids on a robotics program or a garden bed, we share skills (and sometimes they teach and mentor me!) and they are deeply involved and embedded in the land and the community. Largely, this is because we have the gift of time (via homeschooling) to do so.

Ann said...

What a lovely post. We unschooled our son also, Robin. What you both say is so true. I also can commiserate with you, Lagedargent, as our 17 year old son is mostly interested in drawing, writing, and making creative things on the computer. He's very creative and has the time for it, thanks to unschooling. He's not into the outdoors like we are, but still appreciates it in his own way. I think that as time goes by, our children will have the love of nature growing in them like a tiny seed. Someday, that seed may germinate and grow. They may come back to their love of "childish" things someday.

John O. Andersen said...

Unschooling worked for our daughter who is now a math major in college.

Our son is in public school, soon to go to an Early College High School program at the community college for 11th and 12th grades.

Both children volunteer with me at the state history museum.

A key I see is time and space to develop as individuals.

The mainstream corporate teamplayerish rush rush life of soccer moms, daily afternoon chauffeuring to lessons, practices, games, straight teeth, mall shopping, drivers license when you're 16, etc., is dead.

Kids on the "cutting edge" will be kids who read deeply, garden, work with their hands--all of the things that were common 50 years ago.

Frankly, I'm delighted with the changes that are happening even though there is a lot of pain.

It's the way people are supposed to live.

Brian Kaller said...

Lagedargent, thank you. Your bedtime stories sound charming, and I’m curious to hear them myself now. Perhaps your kids will pick up a love of the natural world again, after adolescence.
I hope I can trust my own daughter to find her own way someday.

Robin, thank you very much. I read your experiences with your children, and it sounds like they’re off to a good start.

Ann, thank you. I suspect those seeds have a good chance of sprouting.

John, I agree that a lot of good could come out of these changes, and I hope we can all make them as painless as possible. Thanks for reading.