Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

Interesting article arguing against sending kids to top schools. I’m sympathetic to some of the author’s views and think it’s better for kids to 1) focus less on grades and career prospects and more on learning and personal development, 2) take more risks and worry less about failing,  and 3) mix with people from different background and social class, including those from lower incomes. At the same time, I don’t think we can deny that there are many benefits from studying in top institutions. As I noted previously, today’s education system is like an arms race. I don’t like it but nevertheless need to find a path that I think will be best for my children.

Some excerpts below. The whole article is interesting.

A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:

Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.


So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”


Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to…


The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families evenenroll at four-year schools.


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Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Hirschman lived an extraordinary life. He’s an intellect with original ideas and on-the-ground experience as well as talents to make the most out of life. His Exit, Voice, Loyalty still provides a useful framework for me to think about things.

Pleasure disappoints, possibility never!


Being open to many possibilities meant accepting uncertainty and embracing the fact that one could learn from experience in the world by forfeiting presumptions that one could not know it all.


Hirschman’s odyssey can be read as a journey with no particular end, the life of an idealist with no utopia because he believed that the voyage of life itself yielded enough lessons to change who we are and what we aspire to be; to require and stay on course toward an abstract destination threatened to deprive the journey of its richest possibilities.

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success. Many good advice from Megan. I clearly suffer from the impostor syndrome. Here‘s Megan on EconTalk.

The fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome.


The metaphor for our age is the disappearance of high monkey bars from playgrounds across the country. We have made it impossible for children to fall very far–and in so doing, we have robbed them of the joys of climbing high.


Dweck encourages parents and teachers to praise children for their effort, rather than their intelligence, talent, or looks.


As anyone who has raised a kid can attest, the same is true of children: swift and consistent punishment is by far the best way to change behavior…Consistency is probably the most important tool of parenting.


Learning to fail well means learning to understand your mistakes, because unless you know what went wrong, you may do the wrong things to correct it…Most of all, learning to fail well means overcoming our natural instincts to blame someone–maybe ourselves–whenever something goes wrong. Societies and people fail best when they err on the side of forgiveness. Not forgetting: the information gained by failing is far too valuable to be lost by pretending that nothing happened.


The secret to catching your mistakes quickly is simple: treat outside information as if it were inside information. When someone tells you you’re off track, don’t look for reasons why they may be wrong; listen for reasons why they might be right.

Rethinking Housing Bubbles: The Role of Household and Bank Balance Sheets in Modeling Economic Cycles. The authors’ main argument seems to be that asset bubbles in durable goods (housing in particular), when financed with excessive debt, have been the main driver of US business cycles. I wish they had focused more on the insights gained from experiments and how well they fit with historical events, or ways we could apply those insights to analyse various situations.


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Stephen Levitt’s on parenting:

Passion and curiosity are two qualities he hopes to instil in his children, who range in age from 10 to 14. “A lot of parents emphasise achievement, but I think that’s the wrong approach. Almost every kid knows how to read and do math, but when I look at my students, what separates the truly exceptional ones is a combination of creativity and excitement for life,” he says. “Very early on I made my goal not to have my kids be really good readers or really good at math but instead to try to instil in them this idea of thinking and excitement of pursuing what they love.”

I’m looking forward to read his new book.

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The cult of children.

Much of what privileged parents are trying to accomplish, says Wolf, is to ensure that their children do not fall out of the upper-middle class. To that end, parents work on their children’s résumés, almost from birth. As infants, their toys need to be educational as well as enjoyable. Getting into the right preschool is a precursor to getting into the right elementary school, and so on, right up until they are set up to get into the most prestigious colleges and beyond. I believe obsessive parenting, born of insecurity about the future, imagines the world to be more precarious than it probably is for upper-middle-class children……

The consequences of hyperparenting are unknown, since the phenomenon is only a few decades old. My views are shaped largely by observing my own family and friends, and that is not much to rely on, but I will speculate anyway. I see great advantages for the children, but also some warning signs. Young upper-middle-class children are, indeed, remarkably precocious. Since they have been exposed to adult conversations almost constantly from birth, they are much more articulate and broadly knowledgeable than children were a generation ago. They are also remarkably at ease with other people, both adults and children, because they are with them so much—with their parents’ friends, in early preschool, and in playgroups often organized among nannies. And having endured little frustration or isolation, they seem to me happier and more affectionate than children were in earlier generations. They love being with their parents (and why not?). They don’t go “up the street” to do “nothing,” as my friends and I did. They stick close to home, and their best friends are their parents. Of course, as they get older, they are subject to the influences of their peers and wider culture, including the omnipresent social media—a mixed bag.

My concerns are the other side of the same coin. If children are the center of their universe, if their parents’ feelings are so contingent on theirs, will they expect that always to be the case? The risk is that these children come to feel entitled and become narcissistic—while they may have a devastating sense of failure if they don’t meet expectations. Moreover, when parents anticipate and fend off all adversity, children might not develop the resilience and confidence to deal with adversity on their own, or the self-discipline necessary to navigate life as an adult. And they might not have enough solitude to learn to think their own thoughts, a lack that Facebook and other social media exacerbate.

Why speed reading is for fools?

‘There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” – Bertrand Russell

Life is not a race. Speed is good for things you want to get past, not for important things you enjoy.

Intimacy is slow. Depth takes time. If you want intimate thoughts, intimate friends, intimate experiences it can’t happen quickly.  Some people tell me they have great reading comprehension even at speed. They challenge me to test them about information from the book. But I don’t care what they can recall. Being able to recall a fact does not mean they’ve considered it, examined it, or used it to change their thinking or how they feel about the world. Reading comprehension does not equal reading wisdom. Comprehension is for a test, wisdom is for your life.

Good writing, or good anything, offers us the chance to pause and reflect. It’s good to read a good book slowly. To take time to consider the new ideas you’re taking in. To ask questions with other smart people about what you’re reading as you read it. If you’re reading to learn you want to read thoughtfully. If you are reading good books you will be engaged and have little concern about how long it’s taking or how long they are.

Life in the nineties.

Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

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The Cult of Overwork – “Overwork has become a credential of prosperity” even though we know “long hours diminish both productivity and quality”. The puzzle is why we (at least for those living in relatively high income places) still work so much, and don’t enjoy more leisure as Keynes wrote back in the 1930, or as Bertrand Russell recommended in In Praise of Idleness (excerpts below).

What Chinese officials learn from the Party training school – Some officials are impressive indeed, though not sure how much can be attributed to the training. 

How I made sure all 12 of my kids  could pay for college themselves – Sensible parenting principles that seem to strive a balance between the extreme generalizations of the free-range Western style and the Asian tiger parenting style. Remind me of the highly recommended book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Memoirs of a Would-be Macroeconomist by Arnold Kling- Good coverage of the recent debates and development in macroeconomics from various schools of thought. I especially enjoy the description of his experience working at CBO and the Fed.

Excerpts from Russell’s In Praise of Idleness:

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.


It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.


When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours’ work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit. It is an essential part of any such social system that education should be carried further than it usually is at present, and should aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently. I am not thinking mainly of the sort of things that would be considered ‘highbrow’. Peasant dances have died out except in remote rural areas, but the impulses which caused them to be cultivated must still exist in human nature. The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

Excerpts from Keynes’s Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren:

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age  of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.


Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth-unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time.

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Mark Twain: “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.”

In today’s hyper-competitive, winner-take-all society, it’s understandable why many parents are anxious about their children’s education. The Tiger mom parenting style is not uncommon, and most parents want to send their kids to the best schools possible. In many parts of Asia, this means the kids have to start early. In Hong Kong for example, a decent family would send their children to nice play groups at 1 years old (sometimes younger), then try to get them into a good pre-nursery school, then nursery school, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, primary school, and so forth, not to mention other tutoring and extracurricular activities like drawing, music, or ballet lessons. Getting into a good school at each stage would increase the chance that the kids can get into another good school. It’s like an arms race that neither parents nor the children can afford not to play. South Korea is famous for it, and it’s not a surprise that students there seem unhappy.

Increasingly I’m inclined to opt out of this game. First, most studies find that genes play a big role in determining a person’s intelligence and personality (see here for a short summary, or Bryan’s highly readable book on parenting), so to a large extent a lot of the spending on formal education are likely wasteful.

Second, it’s far from clear that putting your kids in schools with high-performing peers (i.e. the best or most competitive schools) is the best for their development (see this study for example, which is consistent with findings cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book on the underdogs and Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book on competition). These studies suggest that sending one’s kid to an average school might not be such a bad thing. It also fits my experience. The schools and university I went to aren’t particularly good, which is probably a reason why I managed to excel in them and went on to top institutions for post graduate studies. Doing well in an average schools boost one’s confidence, and one can use the extra free time to play and learn things outside school. 

Lastly, while nurture matters, it’s unclear the traditional education system provides a good environment for learning. David Friedman makes a good case for unschooling (more here and here). My kids probably won’t be as smart as his and I might not have as much time to spend with them (though that’s another personal decision), so unschooling might not work for me. But I like the concept. I think education is all about learning how to learn. And it’s important for children to learn how to take responsibility for their own education, make their own decisions, and spend their time. As Peter Gray argues in his book Free to Play (excerpts below), traditional schooling doesn’t foster these traits, and if anything, it does the opposite.

There is no one size fits all answer, and we need to find paths that suit us. At the margin, I think parents should be more relaxed about their kids’ formal education and behave more like mentors to the kids’ development. It takes courage to not do things that the society deems normal (like go to a good school, take a good job, buy a nice house and car, get married and have a family, work until you are old and retire). But as Steve Jobs’ famous ad said, we should Think Different

Below are some excerpts from Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.


The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time.


Every time we reduce children’s opportunities for free play by increasing their time at school or at other adult-directed activities, we reduce further their opportunities to learn to control their own lives, to learn that they are not simply victims of circumstances and powerful others.


Curiosity drew the children to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.


The famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted long ago, in a classic study of children playing marbles, that children acquire a higher understanding of rules when they play under their own direction than when they are directed by adults. Adult direction leads to the assumption that rules are determined by an outside authority and thus not to be questioned. When children play just among themselves, however, they come to realize that rules are merely conventions, established to make the game more fun and more fair, and can be changed to meet changing conditions.


Our system of grading and ranking to motivate students seems almost perfectly designed to promote cynicism and cheating. Students are constantly told about the value of high grades. Advancement through the system and eventual freedom from it depend on them. Students understandably become convinced that high grades are the be-all and end-all of their schoolwork. By the time they are eleven or twelve years old, most are realistically cynical about the idea that school is fundamentally a place for learning. They realize that much of what they are required to do is senseless and that they will forget most of what they are tested on shortly after the test.


Whether your child succeeds or fails is up to your child, not you, and the measure of success or failure must be your child’s, not yours. The world is full of unhappy lawyers, doctors, and business executives, and many clerks and janitors are happy, fulfilled, and decent. Career success is not life success. You can be happy or unhappy in any profession, but you can’t be happy, at least not for long stretches, if you feel that your life is not yours.

Here is Sugata Mitra showing how kids in India can learn by themselves.

PS: I can’t wait to read Bryan Caplan’s upcoming book on the case against education.

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