Parenting and “Stuff”

Joule loses things.  She picks things up that she has no use for, just because she’s near them, and then puts them down somewhere else without ever being conscious of it.  She does this in my wife’s craft room, while I’m on the computer, and she’s talking to me.  My daughter and I both get in trouble for it.

I’m sympathetic. When I first got a cell phone, I managed to lose it within a month.  Used the insurance to get it replaced.  The girl at the call center was awesome and promised to name a new WoW character “Shadrach” for me. After the replacement came I lost it 2 weeks later. While desperately searching the submarine for it, I was completely stressed out. My friend Amrani asked what’s the matter, and I replied “I’m an idiot.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I lost 2 cell phones in 6 weeks.”

“Aw man, you’re not an idiot.  You’re just not… good with ‘stuff.’”

This made me laugh and break the tension, and then I decided that I must learn to be good with stuff.

I’m sympathetic to my daughter’s plight, but this does not mean that I go easy on her. I don’t want her to get to be 28 before she learns the value of keeping up with stuff…

The other day my daughter lost a shoe.  We were in memphis (an hour from home) working on the (currently empty) condo we rent out.  After 4 people spent 15 minutes searching an unfurnished house we gave up and took her out to dinner with only one shoe on. There were some boxes that had been given away to charity and we posited that the shoe disappeared with them. We threw out the 2nd shoe the next day because there was no point in keeping it. I explained to her the amount of time she would save if she always kept them together. I explained that there was nothing to gain by putting them in separate places. I applied all the logic I could to the situation. I gave her practical advice.  I told her whenever she puts something down she should ask herself “is this the right place?” and if it’s not don’t put it there.

I had a flashback to 32 years ago when my parents were working on a rental property (which ended up becoming dad’s house a couple of years later when they divorced) and everyone had to spend a long time looking for my other shoe. When I finally “found it” I realized we had found both shoes over 5 minutes ago, and I just thought it was the same shoe over and over again.  I was VERY “not good with stuff”.

Today I find one shoe in the hall by the dining room table right before dinner.

“JOULE! Why is there one shoe here?!”

“Oh, Sorry.” *pick up shoe and haul ass to my bedroom. return with zero shoes*

Where Logos has failed Pathos may find traction.

I got down on my knees. I grabbed her by both shoulders and held her at arms length.  I stared enraged into her eyes and let my arms tremble with the frustration of hundreds of hours spent searching for things and thousands of dollars of lost items throughout my life. Through clenched teeth I said (not loud, but intense) “Joule! Do Better!” and let her go to the table. I take 2 Deep Breaths as an emotional reset before going to the dinner table myself and heard my wonderful co-parent making sure the emotion connected to the relevant context;

“Why was Papa mad?”

“Cause I didn’t keep up with my shoes.”

Was this a failure to detach my emotions and properly relate to my daughter? No. This was a deliberately display of emotion for behavior modifying  impact.

Was this hypocrisy to expect things of my daughter at 6 that I hadn’t mastered at 10?(28?)  Maybe, but I don’t care. My goal is to make her life better than mine, not equal to it.


Learning to read

My wonderful son has a language delay.  He’s “on the spectrum” as people like to refer to functioning autistics.  I actually don’t think autism is the correct diagnosis because he doesn’t have the aversion to people and extreme disengagement that seem to be defining of the disorder, but it doesn’t really matter.  In all things all people are individuals and this is especially true of psychological symptoms.

His speach delay is all but cured with a little persistent mispronunciation of the blended “r”s.  He can say rap and par but “twap” kicks his butt.

He was in the third grade and struggling to read on the 2nd grade level.  After giving up on the school system saving him we hired a tutor I found online.  She’s $30/hr for 2 hrs a week.  She’s very generous with her time and actually keeps him for a full hour a session instead of 40 min so he can have breaks to refocus.  $60 didn’t sound bad in February, but come September I’m much more aware of how much this has cost me.

The Barton system of tutoring is mainly just really patient one on one work to teach him to sound out words. (sounds simple, but it’s a level of patience I don’t think I could come up with everyday for him)  The only trick to it is the gradual and ordered introduction of new sounds.  He’s now reading words that have blended sounds at the beginning and end of the same word



Another trick is that they’re still only using short vowel sounds.  He brought home a single page story about riding a sled, but due to use restrictions there’s were several words were conspicuously absent: Ride.  Snow. Ice

I’ve alway thought there weren’t enough letters for the sounds we use and the vowels particularly seem overworked.

Proof that the boy listens to his mother

Alaric: Has Silky been fed today?

Me: I don’t think he has.

Alaric: Do you like to eat everyday?

Me: Yes

Alaric: How do you think he feels when he doesn’t get to eat?

Me: I guess he feels hungry.

Alaric: That’s right, and when you’re hungry and can’t get food you feel sad, right?

Me: Yes

Alaric: Well since we don’t want him to be sad, maybe you should feed him.

Me: Ok

Alaric: See? That wasn’t so hard was it?

Failing School

I have a boy in the first grade with very mild autism.  He has a speech impediment which makes communicating difficult for/with him.  He often misses cues when someone’s mood changes, or when they react badly to something he did.  He has difficulty maintaining eye-contact.

All my life I have felt that people should be held to standards*.  That when kids failed in school they should be held back.  You weren’t doing them any favors by keeping them with their peers, and you were impeding the ability of the next year’s teacher to cover the material.  I heard stories of principal’s changing students grades so they showed fewer failures, or to placate angry parents and I was stunned.  This is a prime example of the degradation of standards and the race to mediocrity that’s going to keep America from being great in the future.  Idiocracy is destiny.

Then my boy went to kindergarten.  I don’t think I got grades in kindergarten, but he did… and the grades he got weren’t good.  I don’t remember learning to read, but I do remember that I had that shit down by the first day of kintergarden at age 5.  While all the other kids lay on their mats to nap I sat in Ms Hemphill’s lap and would read stories.  And thank goodness, because the few days when for whatever reason she had to be productive doing things that didn’t involve me during nap time felt like punishment to my restless little ass.

All my life I felt that people should have to earn progress… until my own kid was the one failing.  He can recognize all his letters and knows what sound they make, but the recall is not instantaneous.  So when he reads it’s like watching someone try to do a cryptogram without writing down any of the parts they’ve already solved.  I might be able to do this… and having done it I would have a sense of satisfaction, but that feeling of satisfaction is not really analogous to the feeling a kid is supposed to get as he reads Green Eggs and Ham.  Every time I talk to the teacher part of me expects her to bring up the possibility of holding him back a year (or “retaining” him to use the current euphemism… as if they would be choosing not to lay him off).  His kindergarten teacher only brought it up once and that was in the context of assuring us that she didn’t think it would be necessary and Mrs. McDowell has never brought it up and repeatedly assured us that despite the fact that he occasionally brings home test scores in the 30s and has an average of 63% she thinks that it’s appropriate to advance him.  And I agree with her.  After all, how much sense does it make to hold him back a year when his knowledge level is a month behind the other kids.

Furthermore it’s not clear that repeating a grade will actually help him.  Obviously if a student repeats a grade his academic performance will be better than it was the previous year when the material is new to him.  This does not clearly correlate to  the student performing better THE YEAR AFTER THAT when he is once again exposed to new material.  Does it make any sense to anyone to repeat EVERY year?  Scheduled to graduate highschool at the age of 30.  The chance of a student who gets held back twice of graduating at all is practically nil.

But if students who lack mastery aren’t held back what is an appropriate course of action? The assumed alternative of “social advancement” does not seem fair to the students/teacher of the next grade.  Not in the “no fair! You cheated!” kind of unfair, but that having a student who is behind affects the ability of the class to keep on schedule and learn as much as they can.  In fact a lot of my distaste for my own public school experience came from boredom in class when the teacher was recovering ground that I thought was already covered but not everybody got the first time.  I have a friend who taught highschool English who said “I can expose my students to poetry and give them that moment of clarity where they realize how beautiful language can be… or I can teach them to read, but it’s impossible to do both in the same class room.”

The answer to that dilemma when I was going through school was to put them in “remedial” classes.  The word remedial comes from the word remedy and implies that they are trying fix the problem, but in practice it was just a place to segregate the kids that are behind so that they don’t bother everybody else.


The RIGHT way to praise a kid.

When you are praising your kid’s school work, what do you say?

You will be tempted to tell them they’re “so smart,” or that they’re “really good at math.”  This is one of the worst things you can say.

“Smart” and “Talented” sound like fixed traits.  If your child internalizes these phrases they will think they are lucky to be smart, and “smart” will integrate itself into your child’s identity.  Being smart means learning easily.  And as long as the subjects continue to come easily the child will seem to have great self confidence.

But one day some subject won’t come easily.  One day the child who identifies himself as smart will struggle to understand something.  If being smart means learning easily, and this is hard, that must mean that everybody has been wrong and they’re not smart at all.  So to defend themselves they will avoid the challenge all together.

I did this.  I deliberately avoided doing homework, and did some minor grade sabotage.  At the time I thought it was about being lazy, but in hindsight I think this had something to do with it.  After all, if I didn’t put out any effort, then the poor grades didn’t reflect on my intelligence.  If I had tried, then my failure would’ve been devastating.

The way around this trap is to praise the work instead of the child.  Teach the child that the brain is like a muscle, the more you work it the stronger it gets.  Teach your kid to love the challenges, because that’s where the growth is.  Praise tenacity.  Praise effort.  Relate the ultimate success to the practice that got them there.

And for the record this is not my own touchy-feely theory.  It’s been shown that there’s a correlation between a student’s view of intelligence as intrinsic or incremental and long term outcomes.  It’s also been shown by experiment that if you teach kids struggling in math that the brain is like a muscle, they outperform a control group.  It’s been shown that paying kids to make good grades is LESS effective than paying them turn in their homework

  • Teach your kids that their intelligence isn’t fixed, that all skill and knowledge is built incrementally.
  • Love your kids unconditionally.
  • Don’t focus on outcomes.  Instead focus on the process and the outcomes will happen naturally.
  • Don’t praise them for what they are.  Instead praise them for what they DO.

Hat tip to Josh Waitzkin and his book “The Art of Learning.”

Engaging with the Teacher

Since school started back up Alaric has come home with some Shit-tastic grades.  4 weeks into the 1st grade and he’s bombed all 3 math tests and 3 of 6 reading tests.  In fact the only thing he really excelled at was science, which I understand consisted of making peanut butter flavored play-dough.

After going  to the school to schedule a massive  “Let’s get to the bottom of this” meeting with his teacher, his Speech therapist, and the head of the special education program about what changes need to be made to his IEP (Individualized Education Program) my lovely wife discovered that the school was transitioning between contractors for the speech therapy and no one had even LOOKED at his IEP.  The big  meeting did not get scheduled.

The next day I went in and talked to his teacher during her free period.  I let her talk at first, and got an earful about bureaucracy and state mandated tests not lining up with school district mandated text book.  She then said that a large part of his problem is focus, and that when she’s standing near him and he knows she’s watching he performs well.  That’s when I told her that he’s supposed to have been tested individually all along, but the office (apparently still) hadn’t given her a copy of his IEP.  This brought on another polite mini-rant about paperwork and idiots.  I think Mrs. McDowell might be a lot of fun to listen to once you’ve wound her up and got a couple of drinks in her.

ANYway I expect to see a pretty much instant jump in his grades, and I learned an important lesson about communication with my sons teachers.  It’s not enough to tell them that he has high functioning autism, you need to spell out the interventions instead of trusting the system to get the paperwork right.

Petit Jean

I’m recently back from a week of vacation at Petit Jean state park.  I’ve been going to family reunions there for over 30 years.  When I was very young I thought the place was boring, a bunch of old people sitting around playing bridge.  Somewhere around 12 yrs old I discovered that there were miles of trails, and most of them were lined with climbable rocks. 

As a teenager and a couple of times in my twenties I went there to camp and climb.  We would often wonder off the official path, and hike the edges of the valleys on inviting washouts.  And I discovered a trend.  We would follow a trail to the bottom of the valley where it ties in to an official trail, and we’d have to duck to go under a big red sign announcing  “DANGEROUS AREA ENTRY UNLAWFUL.”  This didn’t happen too many times before we began to seek these unlawful paths out deliberately.  Sometimes you would even see a foothold cut into a rock on the path, or stones that were arranged in a suspiciously staircase fashion.  I have come to the conclusion that some time prior to the 90’s (when my exploration started in earnest),  these trails were officially sanctioned and maintained, but someone decided that they were too dangerous and that people would get hurt, so they put up signs telling lawful citizens to stay on the safe paths.

The rocks at petit jean are a mix of iron deposits and sedimentary layers.  Over years the sandstone washes out and leaves ridges of iron that are just perfect to grab.  “The Bear Cave” is full of these, as well as some places with stairs cut into the rocks so even someone completely unskilled, but of reasonable health can make it to the tops of the rocks.  I look at these and I know that if this park was newly made they would’ve never put these in.  They’d be too scared to get sued… either by idiots who got themselves hurt (and in several nearby universes I am such an idiot) or under the “American’s with Disabilities Act” (because it’s not fair for you to let people healthier (read luckier) than me have fun).

These stairs are steep. I hovered behind Alaric the whole way.

And that brings me to “Petit Jean gravesite and overlook.”  This used to be a gravel road that lead out to a pile of large bolders overlooking a bend in the Arkansas River.  In the last 10-15 years they’ve made improvements.  Now it has a parking lot (with stripes and everything) which leads to a 8’ wide walkway (wooden deck) bound in by decorative stonework and cast-iron fencing.  The walkway has 2 steps down onto the tops of the boulders.

There’s no sign saying not to climb on the boulders, but there has been a definite dampening effect on people’s behavior.  I watched a woman stand on the deck and hold her 7yr old son back by his shoulder.  She was definitely breathing hard. A few feet past her she could see this:

That’s my girl!

The decrease in climbing  is measurable by the visible growth of bushes and small trees in the cracks of the rocks where in the past they would’ve been crushed under the feet of adventurous tourist, who kept the area clear and climbable for years without any paid maintenance.

That’s me in 1989 with my ex-step-dad

‘Dem bushes didn’t use to be dere.

Next year I might bring a machete.
It’s not the same rock, but it’s the same overlook. This is the best I can do for comparison.

You probably can’t tell because of the overgrowth, but maybe you can tell by my white knuckles… it’s quite a fall from there.

All this raises some questions:

  • “Are there fewer injuries?”
  • “Are there fewer deaths?”
  • “Do people enjoy it more or less?”

These questions seem answerable, but it’s not as easy as you might think.  If you type “Petit Jean injury statistics” into google you do not get linked to the information I want.  And on the enjoyment question, you can’t answer it now.  Maybe if they’d done a baseline survey 20 years ago and asked the same questions again, but we still wouldn’t really know.

When I was 6ish my grandparents drove me from Memphis to Disney land.  I spent a lot of time laying in the back window of their car.  I remember my dad’s mazda RX3 in which he had actively hunted down and destroyed the buzzer for the seatbelt.  I remember the first time I ever saw a bicycle helmet.  I remember a trampoline without a safety net, and jumping onto it from the roof, and falling off of it onto the ground.  I remember riding in the back of my uncle’s truck on a boating trip.

I’m opposed to people getting killed in general, and especially kids and especially for something stupid.

However I’m not opposed to people getting hurt.  Especially kids and even for something stupid.  You have to get hurt to realize that getting hurt is not the end of the world.  You have to feel adrenaline to get a taste of what you’re really capable of.  You have to live though fear and come out on the other side to taste how sweet life can be.

Nurturing Brilliance

“If it’s a boy, he will be a scientist.”
Mellville Feynman -1918

I want to read that man’s blog on parenting.  Or maybe a book would be more elucidating.  From Richard Feynman’s memoirs, it didn’t sound like he was of the “Tiger Mom” philosophical camp.  In fact it sounds like at about age 16 Richard’s intellectual accomplishments began to surpass those of his father.

“Pity the student that doesn’t surpass his master”
Leonado Da Vinci

What this quote says to me is that a student’s goal is not to gain all the knowledge the master has to teach.  That philosophy would lead to an asymptotic trajectory, and a stagnation of all human knowledge.  What a good mentor wants  to bestow is the tools and the mentality that has gotten him where he is.  If you get that, and the knowledge of the master at an earlier point in your career that’s where new ideas come from.  That’s how new things get done.  Or that’s the traditional standing on the shoulders of giants way.

Aside:  When Isaac Newton said he only accomplished what he had by “Standing on the shoulders of giants” this was not an uncharacteristic statement of humility, but rather a short joke.


I consider myself very well spoken.  I take a pride in my vocabulary, but at the same time I rarely use words that are above my audiences comfort zone.  My speech patterns are influenced a lot by whatever group I’m submerged in, but I think this is mostly an advantage as it lets me pick up on colloquialisms and jargon that can get my point across more clearly.  It makes me more comfortable to listen to and mitigates my odd habit of using polysyllabic words among Arkansans.  On the other hand when I change milieu the change in speech patterns doesn’t happen instantly, which can get me some odd looks.

Growing up I was taught that cursing is wrong.  That it makes you look stupid.  But my uncles would curse, and I didn’t think they looked stupid, so eventually the power of that early programming eroded and was overcome by the desire to fit in.  At first there was a feeling of rebellion to it, but gradually it more or less became the way I talked.  Then when I was 15 after soccer practice I was unchaining my bicycle from the fence by the playground and messed up the combination and said to myself “stupid motherfucker.”  Then some adult came up and gave me a very mild-mannered lecture about respecting my right to free expression, but not wanting his kids exposed to that language.  I tried to get defensive and mad, but he just sounded so reasonable that I couldn’t build up any steam.  I just felt like a jerk.  I made a conscious decision to clean-up my language.

After all, the whole point of profanity is to have certain words that have more power than others, if you over use them you weaken that power.

As a high-schooler who had sworn off swearing, I was forced to get more creative in my argumentative retorts.  What’s a good comeback for “retarded little shit” that doesn’t use profanity?  I found “syphilitic come-bubble” and “vaginal secretion” to be more than adequate.  Though honestly “jerk-face” had enough humorous contrast to serve a purpose as well.

This cycle repeated itself in my mid twenties when I was working with a road crew laying foundations for overpasses.  I was at the grocery store with my lovely girlfriend (who has since been promoted to lovely wife) and yelled down the aisle “HEY! Are we out of fucking frosted flakes?!”  No lecture this time, just some woman who moved her young son to the other side of herself to shield him from the bad man.  Same effect on me though.

And again when I joined the navy.  It took years this time, and even when I was getting out I wasn’t as bad as my peers, but no doubt had I began to cuss somewhat causally.  From there I moved to a steel mill and then this power plant and have not yet straightened out.  I don’t know, maybe I won’t get another epiphany moment.  It didn’t hit me the same way when my boy (6 years old with a speech delay) said “Goddammit” over a stuck drawer.  Just a mild embarrassment.  Similarly when I said “Fuck” at the dinner table when telling an anecdote from work and he said “why you say that?”  and I said “because I’m talking about work.”  I felt a little chagrin, but not the kind of shame that represents hitting bottom and life change.