Monday, August 12, 2013

Things Doctor Andy Doesn't Think Anything About: Raising Children

There are several things that I try never to offer opinions about. These topics are things that fall outside my set of experiences, so any words I have to say are just conjecture, opinion, and received knowledge. These topics are also usually important and often serious, making me even more reluctant to offer pithy sarcasticality.

One of those items is raising children.

Children and I have always had a tense relationship. The first negative experience I remember that wasn't concerning one of my own brothers (sorry for smashing your fingers, Ben!) was at a high school football game. The student teacher was old enough to have wife and children, and he asked me to escort his 3 or 4 year old to the concession stand to buy him something.

When I escorted the child back, I found the parents laughing hysterically. It turns out they were laughing at me, because I carried the child partway "like a sack of corn." I still don't know what that means, but I wasn't in any mood to ask. The derisive laughter was enough to tell me that however I did it, it wasn't the way one carried children.

In 1999, the first of my close friends had a child. To the great benefit of all of mankind, they were too busy raising children to ever ask my opinion on how to raise children.

I have never had children. At best, I have visited them socially with an infrequence one might save for a particularly pinchy aunt. At the first sign of a diaper needing to be changed or a particular amount of food needing to be crammed into any of the available face holes, children rapidly lose any charm they have over me. Should I ever have children, these will be issues that I will deal with, but I see no need to practice beforehand.

People ask me things about children because they see me interact with children and think (because I can get them to answer questions and generally be pleasant around me) that I have some sort of thoughts on the matter. I don't.

I have found it generally easy to be around children once they get to a particular stage of development. Namely, the stage in which they develop enough of their personality to become amusing. Once they are at this stage, I can engage in my favorite game with children, "Silly Andy."

"Silly Andy" consists of me convincing the child that I don't know a particular correct answer - an answer the child does know. A sample session might unfold like this:

Short Person: "Andy, come sit by me. I have apple slices."
Andy: "Yum. But I don't think these are apples."
SP: <blank look. Brain working overtime, because these most certainly ARE apples>
A: "All the apples I've ever seen are blue. These are not blue."
SP: <looking at me warily> "These are red. Apples are red."
A: "I don't know. These might be broccoli."
SP: "But these are apples. Apples are red. And sometimes green."
A: <energetically> "Aha! I told you it was broccoli! Broccoli is green, too."
SP: "Silly Andy, we don't slice broccoli for snacks. These are sweet, too. Broccoli isn't sweet."
A: <properly informed> "That makes a lot of sense. I was wrong: these must be apples."

Giving the child a chance to teach me reinforces everything I want for children. It teaches them to be confident about knowledge they know to be true, even if someone they respect disagrees. It teaches them that adults (who are not their parents) can make mistakes. It gives them a chance to show off knowledge they've accumulated from their parents, teachers, Sesame Street, etc.

Most importantly, it shows how a person can believe incorrect things and then change their mind, given the proper amount of good information. I'm always saying that I "made a mistake," in an effort to show them that there's no shame or stigma in changing your mind in the face of evidence.

As the children get older, the game gets more complicated, since I start trying to show them that I know the right answer, but arrive at it for the wrong reasons. Then it becomes even more of a critical thinking puzzle, because the method needs to be unpacked.

Is this useful to child development and cognitive reasoning? Hell if I know. All I know is that it keeps me amused and keeps the children amused. If it turns out to be detrimental, then hopefully the fact that only Andy does it will keep them from being scarred for life. They'll just think I'm weird. Weirder.

In all things, I leave the task of raising children to those with children. I have no experience in the matter, and while they may not have any experience either, they have to live with their choices. I remain free to walk away. The process of educating and shaping children involves a hundred thousand tricks, choices, and compromises. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way.

It is a fashion, now that I have so many acquaintences with children, to judge other people's parenting. That's something else I avoid. I don't know which kids needed extra help, have impairments of attention or cognition, or just march to their own drums. I wouldn't want people silently judging my ability to raise children, so I pre-emptively return the favor.

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