If you’ve told a child a thousand times, and the child still has not learned, then it is not the child who is the slow learner.
~Walter B. Barbe
If you’ve told a child a thousand times, and the child still has not learned, then it is not the child who is the slow learner.
~Walter B. Barbe
Last night I had the good fortune to attend a parenting workshop at a local private educational institution. The topic of the talk was “Setting Respectful Limits” and was led by Karla Kuester, a RIE Associate, two heuristic indicators of an event that is perfect for a Peaceful Parenting enthusiast such as myself. As our Little Lion is entering toddlerhood, I was eager to learn more about tools and techniques for establishing and enforcing boundaries that can help us and him.
The presenter’s website is http://www.karlakuester.com; I will reproduce the titles of her slides in order along with my annotations.
First some basics
A New Look at the Word Respect
Respectful behavior is based on observation. The roots of the word respect are “to look again”. This implies being present-oriented, focusing on what you see right in front of you, in the moment, rather than what you want it to be, what you hope for, expect, etc. Begin your interactions with your child by observing what is and you will start to find the basis for respect.
Noticing is Everything; The Start of the Plan
A child’s security is based on knowing that adults are in charge. This requires consistency in word and action on behalf of the adults. Observations lead to information, and information is the basis of planning. By creating trust in the adult, everyone can relax and and be their authentic selves.
The Goodness of Narration
Verbalizing what you see helps the child connect words to actions (in RIE, this is called “sportscasting”). For adults, it connects the mind to observations and restrains impulsive behavior. Narrating observed events links bodily sensations in the child to cognitive experience. Sportscasting is the key tool to changing your relationship with your child as it slows things down and helps everyone become more aware of the present.
Building Better Relationships
Relationships are not linear, they have meaningful ups and downs. The relationship you build with your child is the foundation for all their learning. It also connects the child to their future life in the world. Always keep in mind the long-term relationship consequences of your decisions and you’ll avoid the mistake of making decisions that are “good for now.”
The Adult’s Job: To Show the World to the Child
The parent’s job is to keep the child safe and acclimate them to society. Life is fun for parents and child when everybody follows the rules. Parents provide children with visibility and a sense of being understood. For children to stay safe, they must stick together with the parents. “You cannot care from a distance.”
The watchwords here are: Designation (what’s the parents’ role?), Availability (being present for the child’s needs), Proximity (being close enough to make an impact in the child’s well-being).
Adults help children learn how to take care of people and property.
Empowering the Captain of the Ship
The Captain steers the ship in a safe direction while maintaining respect and self-esteem with the crew. To do this, the Captain has to stay one step ahead of the crew and anticipate their needs and actions. In this way, the Captain can model for the crew problem-solving and executive functions which will be helpful for them later on in their own lives.
“Lean with a teen; squat with a tot”
It’s important to learn how to move to the child’s level, physically and emotionally, when interacting with them. Maintaining eye contact is a key part of showing respect. With small children, this often means squatting down or sitting on the floor; with teenagers, this often means leaning back and giving them some space to unload. Be present with the child where they are at and they will be able to feel seen and heard.
Can’t or Won’t?
It’s easy when dealing with children to confuse their resistance to a request as a “won’t” when it might actually be a “can’t”. Always check for developmental appropriateness of a request, such as:
Some creative ways to set and maintain boundaries and ways to avoid saying “no”
The Function of Behavior
All behaviors are communication. This is true for both the parent and child. What we do communicates who we are, what we want or need, and what we stand for. The parent should strive to get in the habit of thinking about what information is being shared by the other person in what you observe in their behavior; also, what they are sharing about themselves in the way they act.
The Function of Boundaries
Boundaries create a safe space for functioning. Boundaries must be enforced to be effective in creating security through predictable order.
Giving Children Appropriate Choices
Offer children choices you consider acceptable, regardless of which one they choose. Avoid offering choice when none is available, or you would only accept one of the choices. Children learn to be cynical of adults who offer false choices and become uncooperative in response.
Taking the Phrase “OK?” Out of Your Vocabulary
A better alternative than ending a request with “OK?” is “Do you understand?” Asking “OK?” implies a choice for whether or not the child wants to comply, or signals a request for validation (ie, being unsure about one’s authority to make or enforce the request). Avoid power struggles over choices that don’t exist.
Don’t Offer Children ‘Big Person’ Jobs
Be consistent in enforcing rules and verbalizing why they exist and children will learn to follow them. Be clear and firm, not harsh; use a flat voice and expression and simple language, not impassioned speech.
Items for Adult Use
Some items should remain off limits to children. The child can look forward to growing up and getting an opportunity to use them when appropriate. You can establish early on the notion of property by establishing whose is whose.
If your child is out of control, don’t follow them there. If you expect them to change their behavior, you must do so as well.
Use Temporal Priming
Give children a sense of when an activity will come to an end. Give them an opportunity to think about what they’d like to do next, or instead.
Give Time Warnings
Establish time before a transition occurs, using a clock or timer. Let the child see you setting the timer, and then the timer determines when changes occur, rather than the adult. This also helps children understand the phenomenon of the passage of time, because for the child there is often confusion about the difference between five minutes and thirty minutes, for example.
Create an Activity Schedule
Create a visual sequence of the day, verbalize it and follow it. This creates a predictable rhythm to the day and helps them anticipate what comes next in their life.
“My Turn”/”Your Turn”
Instead of sharing, introduce the concept of taking turns. This creates a predictable cycle of action with a clear time frame for the child to anticipate. With very young children it can be a game initially, and later on it becomes a concept they can utilize when there is conflict over a limited resource.
Holding the Place for Turn Taking
An adult can “take a turn” for the child and model a wanted behavior when the child demonstrates they aren’t up for it. In this way the child can consider doing it themselves next time after they’ve processed the significance of the adult taking their turn for them.
“First ___, Then ___.” Statements
You can help children understand the priority of tasks before receiving something they prefer by showing them what comes first and then what follows. This is slightly different from “If ___, then ___.” because the conditionality of “if” implies a kind of role-playing or moral hoop to jump through, whereas “first” implies an existing natural order to the world they must comply with. This is an especially useful tool for dealing with multiple children and daily routines; by showing children who gets what in a consistent order, they can come to accept their place in “line” and have security that they will be cared for when it is their turn.
Focus On What You Want Your Child to Do, Not What You Want to Stop
When communicating with your child, focus on positive actions not negative actions. Often children do the last thing they heard, so if you say “Don’t X” they hear “X”. Also, asking for what you would like prevents guessing or the chance that they choose an alternative behavior you still find unacceptable.
“You get what you get, and you don’t get upset!”
Help children understand that they won’t always get what they want in life. It’s important to learn to accept situations where a lack of control over the outcome exists.
Never Underestimate the Power of Taking a Break
Model the ability to self-soothe for your children when a situation heats up between the two of you. Regain your calm and composure by informing the child that you intend to take a step back, catch your breath, have a glass of water, etc. before addressing the conflict again.
Catch Your Family ‘Doing Something Right’
Point out behaviors you like and identify the specific action you appreciated and why. It is far more motivating for people to be recognized for what they are doing well than to be reminded of their failures.
Consistency and Repetition: The Name of the Game
To be effective, boundaries must be enforced consistently by ALL caregivers in a child’s life. Allow no wiggle room or your efforts to enforce boundaries will go to waste.
Respect Takes Time
There are no shortcuts to building a respectful relationship.
“We say respect is ‘worthwhile.’ So isn’t it worth the little while it takes to be respectful of the children in our care?” ~Polly Elam, President of RIE
“You have all the time in the world if you start right now. Take a breath in, feel your feet on the ground, exhale and ‘carry on bravely.'” ~Kenneth James Kuester
The real preparation to education is the study of one’s self. The training of the teacher is something far more than learning ideas. It includes the training of character. It is a preparation of the spirit.
Since the market low in March of 2009, I have not managed to keep pace with the passive return of the S&P 500 index. In no year in the last 8 have I met or exceeded the return of the index on a portfolio-wide basis. I would’ve been much richer by now if I had just turned my capital over to Mr. Market almost a decade ago and spent my time and energy worrying about anything but investing.
And I managed to do this primarily by being uninvested throughout this time period. I have not gone back and done a trade-by-trade and year-by-year study of my portfolio returns over this time period (I am including here my personal accounts as well as other accounts I manage) but just eye-balling it I think it’s safe to say the most exposure I’ve ever had to equities over this time period was no more than 25% of any of the portfolios and probably a lot closer to 20% on a gross capital basis. In essence, I sat out one of the biggest bull markets in history and missed an opportunity to capture a 271% total return through passive management. That’s something like 18% a year, an impressive long-term rate of return by most standards.
How did I manage to let this happen? And what have I learned from this experience? More importantly, what do I plan to do differently going forward?
The story of this mishap is complicated in my mind and is over ten years in the making. I was aware of the stock market as a concept since my early teenage years. On Friday nights after dinner my family would watch a battery of shows on PBS including “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser.” I learned nothing about investing from watching this show other than there was this place called a stock market and people had a lot of opinions about what was happening there. My father was no investment guru and my clearest memory of him with regards to the stock market (aside from watching this show beside him) was him coming home during the Tech Bubble — which I did not know it as such at the time, nor did he — and saying things like, “Wow, I can’t believe it, my AOL stock doubled again today” as he set his briefcase down and went to change for dinner. He did not work to understand what was going on with the companies he owned and he did not encourage me to be curious about it.
In high school I never took one of those “business” classes where everyone plays the “stock market game” and creates a fantasy portfolio. In retrospect, this is a terrible way to introduce young people to the idea of common stock investing as most learn from it what I learned– it’s “fun”, it’s “random” (the winner was inevitably some kid who got lucky betting on things that happened to go up during the course of the game) and there are no costs if you’re wrong because everyone was playing with funny money. But I remember being disappointed I didn’t get to play, and excited when I realized I could find the website on my own and play on my own time, although I quickly gave up when I realized I had no idea how to pick a stock and was basically just rolling dice.
When I began working over the summers in between school years and accumulating some savings I began looking for yield beyond my bank account. This was during a time where a “safe” money market fund was yielding just over 5% a year. I put my savings with Vanguard’s MMF and felt quite wealthy watching it grow at 5%, not knowing what a money market fund was or why it offered more than a bank account and not knowing that with a little elbow grease I could earn much more than that as a proper stock investor.
Fast forward to sometime in college and I was much more interested in this idea of investing as a discipline. I was becoming aware of the world of finance, likely in part due to my proximity to the global center of it (“Wall Street”), in part because many classmates and friends were talking about it as a career opportunity and in part because my readings and interests and slowly taken me there. I became aware of the hedge fund industry and the idea that people made their living making investments all day long. I decided that sounded pretty interesting to me (much more on this topic in a future post I plan to write) and might be something I’d like to pursue as well.
And somewhere in there I came across a recommendation to read The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. Which I proceeded to do, but, despite reading the book from cover-to-cover, including the end chapter commentary by Jason Zweig that many people detest but which I think actually adds some value and can even be enjoyed as a standalone reading, I really did not understand much of what I read. And the even greater sin was that I failed to apply what little I understood.
I did not begin searching for Ben Graham stocks. I did not use his principles of risk management in constructing my own portfolio. I did not look for opportunities to spite Mr. Market and buy stocks when he was panicking and sell them when he was giddy. I did not begin looking at stocks as ownership certificates in real businesses. I did not even do any investing beyond my Vanguard MMF! For whatever reason at this stage in my life investing was a purely academic interest.
This began to change as I neared the end of college and was seriously considering a career in finance. Around this same time, I had been reading deeply of Austrian economics and had become convinced, like many who had, that we were on the precipice of a global economic calamity that would start with the housing sector and quickly come to overwhelm the banking sector. I was obsessed with this End Times prognostication and spent most of my time working to understand what was coming and thinking about an investment strategy that would stand to benefit from macro disruption. I was finally ready to take some action and I ended up doing two things.
The first thing I did was to sow doubt about my parents’ equity holdings in their mind, particularly their heavy concentration in the financial sector (prime offender: Citibank), which their broker was convinced was one of the cheapest parts of the market and thus he had increased the total exposure in their blue chip portfolio. I told them the end was coming and they should liquidate everything and go to cash. I was initially unsuccessful, but when the first hiccup in the markets occurred, my dad got worried and decided to at least follow my advice to sell all his financial stocks, including Citibank, his largest position, which the broker bleated about painfully for weeks afterward.
The second thing I did was to follow Peter Schiff’s strategy regarding the Great Decoupling of the United States from the rest of the world, and what better way than to open an account with Schiff’s firm, Europacific Capital, to buy all these great foreign stocks (especially commodity companies and infrastructure businesses) at rich commissions? I put essentially my life savings to date into this account, naively trusted my broker when he told me he’d help keep an eye on the portfolio and recommend trades to me at appropriate times, and chose five companies (“that should be plenty of diversification!”) from a list of about 15 or 20 he pulled for me on a basis that was then entirely arbitrary and is now completely unmemorable for me. All I know is I did not use any of Ben Graham’s principles or ideas and I think I feigned a knowing approach by saying the P/E ratios of the companies I was about to buy out loud, almost like an invocation, but beyond that I had little idea what these companies did, what valuation I was buying them at and how big my Margin of Safety was.
The way the story turned out is my parents were grateful and I was obliterated. I saved my parents a lot of money with the move to liquidate the financial stocks as that blunted most of the pain that was to come. After the markets had tumbled some 20-25% (and maybe about 30-40% of the total move down) they ended up liquidating the rest of the stock portfolio and held on to their high quality bonds, something that I had no opinion on despite reading Ben Graham and being pretty opinionated about most other credits in the market (I could talk your head off about CDOs and what a danger they were long before Michael Lewis wrote any books on the subject) which was a good move as interest rates went ZIRP. They really thought I was a genius and neither of us knew I just happened to be lucky. I should’ve been more clued in by what happened in my own portfolio.
My own portfolio lost a lot. At one point I was down about 70%. America did not decouple from the world and the world did not decouple from America. Everybody rode the coaster down together and because I picked economically sensitive businesses at near peak valuations it was indeed a painful ride. I had no idea what to do other than to just hold on (actually, not a bad response and much better than the typical mistake of panicking and selling to Mr. Market at the worst time). But after about two or three years of waiting after the crisis, my portfolio was still down about 50% and I decided it was time to admit I had screwed up and realize my losses. If I had just been more patient, I might have been down at most 20-25%– a bad drawdown, for sure, but much different in terms of wounded pride and sucked out capital than a 50% permanent impairment; even my crappy picks which had amounted to little more than throwing darts at a stock table would’ve caught a bid like everything else during the Great Global Reflation.
Being massively right in my parents’ case and massively wrong in my own should’ve been a good indication I didn’t know what I was doing. Instead, I took away the lesson that macro investing worked and I might actually be good at it if I could learn how to do it consistently well, and stock picking on the other hand didn’t seem to work because I had picked stocks and that went poorly for me. It was embarrassing, particularly because I had told a lot of people ahead of time what I was doing and why, but I found myself still interested in the subject and wanting to explore it more.
That was hard to do as a career because the aftermath of the global financial crisis made getting a job in the industry almost impossible. I went to work for another large company and made more idiotic macro bets while I bided my time. Somehow I was able to stifle the cognitive dissonance of reading Security Analysis at my desk at work (covered wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag, and only when I had gotten my paid work finished for the day) while buying things like the 3X leveraged short financial ETF in what was left of one of my personal accounts. I have no idea why I was reading Ben Graham’s magnum opus analyst handbook at this time or how I had even heard of it and once again I understood little of what I read despite going cover-to-cover, and applied none of it. I scraped some short-term capital gains on these stupid trades and then gave it all back and then some when my luck ran out. I finally threw in the towel and swore off “investing” for awhile as a personal practice while I continued to be interested in getting into it as a career.
After months of pestering a small global macro fund I had heard about in Texas about an analyst position, they agreed to hire me and suddenly it seemed my dreams were coming true. I was convinced this was just the beginning of a long and successful career as a professional investor and despite my initial failures at investing I was excited to come on board and learn what it was really all about.
It turned out not to be so. I learned little about financial analysis or portfolio management in a positive sense although my time spent with this firm armed me with an abundance of lessons in what not to do. The gentlemen I worked for were extremely intelligent, talented and honest and had made out like bandits during the crisis with their own successful predictions and even more successful operations, but like me they had been fooled by luck and had failed to appreciate that successful investing is a practical exercise, not a moral one. They could not let go of their critical view of economic events and the connection they had to the market and they became as embittered as they were emboldened to soldier on against the forces that be in hopes of teaching the world a lesson in folly.
That they did, but the folly was their own. Sadly, it was my folly, too, because despite seeing that it wasn’t working, I was also rather gung ho about it. I couldn’t figure out HOW to invest like that in my own portfolio, so I was mostly inactive as an investor. I also began work on another project in cognitive dissonance. This time, I had managed to figure out that Ben Graham had a student, Warren Buffett, and that there was all kinds of information out there about Buffett, his life, his investment record and his method for investing and risk management. I began drinking heavily at this fountain while taking another turn at the writings of Ben Graham. I was beginning to wonder if maybe the macro stuff was a dead end and there wasn’t something to this value investing concept. I was thinking about doing it in my own account. My timing was again almost impeccable, but I did not know it!
First though, I decided to pitch my bosses on value investing. Maybe we could balance out some of the short exposure in the portfolio with some of this Ben Graham stuff? There seemed to be a lot of opportunities out there based on some quick screens I ran. That’s when I got the dumpster diving speech.
Value investing is a lot like dumpster diving– every once in awhile you come up with a Picasso, but most of the time you come up smelling like garbage!
And besides, everyone knows Warren Buffett is an asshole and just lucky, he’s been on the side of the establishment which has put the wind in his sails, he got a bailout when his house of cards almost came tumbling down in the crisis and no one has been able to replicate his success, likely because he is working some kind of fraud. You don’t want to go there, kid, and neither will we!
My confidence was completely shot! This turned out to be the second best time to get into value investing besides the March 2009 low itself, but I had just been told this was basically the stupidest idea a person could come up with– and since I hadn’t managed to learn much from them, this was about the only idea I had. I was burned out on them, burned out on my broken dream and burned out on how bad I seemed to be at investing in general. So I called it quits.
I ended up joining the family business while I licked my wounds, egotistical and otherwise. The idea was to have a hideout while I figured out where my next heist would be. I was trying to figure out how to go be an analyst somewhere else but I didn’t know where. It seemed like I needed an education, so I began what I came to call my “Personal MBA” program, an intense, year-long effort of reading everything I could get my hands on about business, finance and investing. I’ve written about that earlier on this blog.
Buffett talks about value investing as something that a person either takes to immediately or rejects outright. While I hadn’t yet successfully employed the concepts in my investment practice, it had clearly infected my mind. The macro thing did not make sense to me at a conceptual level but the idea of studying stocks as businesses and looking for indications of cheapness that lent a margin of safety did. I think this is why I kept pushing on and went through my Personal MBA despite having no track record otherwise.
A few interesting things happened during this time period and shortly thereafter. First, I began doing real research and analysis on individual companies– I built spreadsheets and collected operating data, I read SEC filings and books about industry and company history and began to appreciate what it meant to approach the process of investing like a businessman. Second, I actually made some investments– some net-nets in the US (what remained at this stage in the game), some good companies at great prices and even a wonderful company at an un-fair price and later, a basket of foreign net-nets (my JNet strategy), along with a few special situations and some capital structure arbitrages I was coattailing on with another investor friend. While there were a few flops that either went nowhere or I lost a little on, for the most part my results on an individual investment basis were good to great and a few were even outstanding. Third, I continued believing I had some kind of crystal ball as far as market timing was concerned and I let that dominate my overall investment program– as described at the beginning of this essay, I took small, almost meaningless positions in most of the companies I invested in (aside from the JNet basket) such that when they worked, they didn’t have much of an impact on my portfolio overall and when they failed, they also didn’t have much of an impact. It was an excellent way to have nothing to show for the effort I put into it!
While this exercise helped me to build intellectual confidence, I was still not matching it with practical confidence and I doubted myself a lot along the way. What’s worse, my obligations in the family business continued to compete with my interest and efforts in investment management such that they were not only a serious distraction at times from a more meaningful and concentrated effort in this space but they were also a suitable rationalization for why I couldn’t just go all-in and really commit to my investment activity.
At one point I changed operational roles within our business and finally had no bandwidth to spare for investing. I went functionally inactive on investing for almost two years and decided ahead of time that it would be irresponsible to have the portfolios exposed even the minor amount they were at that point in time (especially because I kept not liking what I was seeing as I gazed into my crystal ball!) while I wasn’t paying any attention to them so I liquidated to concentrate on operational issues full time. Incredible, given that sitting on one’s hands is said to be the hardest part of managing a well-constructed portfolio and I missed out on even more returns, meager as they were, with this decision.
Recently I have returned to a more strategic role in the family business and it is more clear now than ever that we need someone to be working on sound capital allocation for us. The most logical person to do this is me, in part because I was the person to point out the need and in part because I’m the only person with that kind of knowledge base. But do I have the experience?
This is where we come to some of the learnings I have taken away from my journey to date. As I mentioned before, I made some grievous errors early on in my investment career. I violated the first rule of investing countless times and I am lucky to still be standing thanks in large part to my extreme propensity to save which has allowed me to accumulate savings faster than my early rate of depletion. But since that time period, when I have actually applied the value investing framework knowingly and cautiously, my results have been good and within expectation. If I had not been so lacking in confidence and tried to make up for my initial indiscretion by being over-conservative, my investment operations at scale would’ve yielded an agreeable rate of return on the capital employed. Just as I must be honest with myself about my initial mistakes, I must be honest about some of my virtues and I think I can count these decisions as part and parcel.
One standard I tried to live by in my earlier investing was perfection. I often failed to act because I could not be sure of absolutely safety and I had determined that if I ever made another mistake in my investment operations, particularly with regard to the macro environment and crystal-ball gazing, that these mistakes would be unforgivable and would reveal how I was in actuality no better, in a moral sense, than any of the other petty mortals plying this trade.
This is, after much contemplation, an unreasonable standard to try to live up to because it is impossible to act at all under this standard. To be a successful investor, one does not need to be the best– one needs to simply act prudently according to sound methods. But, as my re-reading of Benjamin Graham’s classic text recently helped me to appreciate, one must act. Facing this fact, what can I do? The best I can, is the only answer I’ve found. Given that I know how I made my earlier mistakes, and I believe I understand how I succeeded the few times I did, there is really little risk for me of reprising the role of the vaunted “fuck up artist”.
I’ve also decided to give up my crystal ball and related esoteric knowledge I don’t actually possess. In exchange, I will accept Ben Graham’s portfolio maxim of the 25/75 split, ie, that the maximum exposure to stocks or bonds in one’s portfolio at any one time ought to be no more than 75%, and the minimum exposure ought to be no less than 25%. (And I read “cash and cash-like instruments” as part of the bond allocation, which I think of as “cash yield”.) Having more than 75% exposure suggests a kind of enthusiasm which is, short of a few specific scenarios, likely to involve a speculative-gambling attitude about the future and its risks. And having less than 25% exposure (specifically to stocks) makes it hard to even consider oneself an investor and seems to be evidence of falling prey to crystal ball reading.
This part is really hard right now. “But aren’t we at all time highs for the market?” Yes, we are. It’s very painful to consider that and I feel very nervous about taking the plunge now, so to speak, only to find myself suspended in mid-air as I see the plug being pulled from the pool. I comfort myself a bit by realizing that I am not making a timing “call” in trying to follow this approach, ie, the water is fine, come on in! In fact, I am trying to do the opposite, to resist the temptation of thinking I know and to allow myself an opportunity to take risk, prudently, regardless of what I think of the “market.” The other thing I remind myself is that I will not simply start making investments to achieve some arbitrary portfolio exposure level as quickly as possible. Instead, I now have granted myself “permission” psychologically to invest up to 25% of our capital in appealing opportunities if I should find them. Before, I would’ve had to stop and ask my crystal ball for directions first.
Another thing I’ve learned is that successful investing takes patience no matter what. Even the ideas that worked out well for me on an annualized basis took several years to play out or ripen to their full value. Part of the pressure I used to put on myself in this space was figuring out how I was going to generate X% a year, that year. I didn’t know where to find such an opportunity that was that quick and that safe. It doesn’t exist. Another investment chimera. If I pick safe ideas with a strong upside option and can wait patiently fortune will favor me in time.
There are many people, value investors especially, who have outstanding long term track records who are not Warren Buffett. They are unlikely to be doing something corrupt and they do not have his unique genius. They never seem to have set out for themselves the goal that they must be the best or perfect. They’ve all made mistakes. And they’ve all continued investing in a variety of market conditions, with the wind in their face and the wind at their backs. If they can do it, I can, too.
There are also many obviously lesser people trying their hand at this. They are the gambling fanatics who aren’t even trying to hide it, and the weak minds who have donned the clothing and the diction of the sage investor but do not realize they’re only engaging with the methods at a superficial level. These people are bound for disaster, and yet many of them manage to practice as investors and even confuse other people into letting them run their money. It would be a shame to let the world be dominated by those types and it boggles the mind why they should live with confidence and cheerfully go about their business and I should not.
It has been a long, odd journey to get where I am today. Of course I wish that I had learned these lessons earlier, or in some other way and in so doing to have been spared this trying ordeal to manifest my own confidence. But one of my goals is to learn to live my life without apology or regret and I’ve come to realize that taking the path I took is simply one of the data of my life. I’ve accepted it and I am ready to make good on what I’ve learned by putting the lessons learned to work today, not “when the time is right.” The best time to live life as wisely as one knows how is always today, not tomorrow.
A friend of mine once told me that I would not know true terror until I had had a kid. And he didn’t mean that children were terrible or terrifying– he was talking about the sense of dread one carries around being responsible for another human’s life and security. You invest so much time and energy and concern into your child and it seems so very easy for something to go wrong and snuff it out in one awful instant.
That is why I read with interest a blog on “Free Range Kids” that another friend linked me to a few months ago. The premise of the blog is that helicopter parenting and other approaches to child development and risk management are grossly flawed. The author argues that the risks of accidental death, molestation by sexual predators, etc., are overblown and parents tend to do more harm than good in trying to shield their children from such threats rather than raising them to be conscious of the risks and competent to deal with them on their own. It’s another classic example of the intervention versus interdependence mindset.
Reading the blog got me thinking about my own experiences with navigating childhood risk, and how the Wolf and I might approach this subject with our Little Lion and any other issuance in our line. But first, a quick anecdote.
The Wolf and I live near the ocean, and two weeks ago we went down to an area on the water for a morning dog walk. As we passed by the various docks and inlets, we stopped to admire three young boys (probably about age 10 or 11) sitting in small motor dinghy by the shore, clearly about to begin a fishing expedition. The boys were all wearing life jackets and seemed appropriately attired for a somewhat chilly expedition on the water. One boy was working vigorously to start the uncooperative outboard motor while the other two boys chatted and gave him backseat driver advice. It was a beautiful sight!
There were no adults in sight. In fact, on our little walking path there weren’t even any other passersby at this particular moment. While I don’t KNOW that the boys arranged, dressed and transported themselves to their shared outing, it certainly didn’t look like anyone was responsible for the get together but them. And while ten year olds are not toddlers, they’re still quite immature in many ways, but they seemed to be plenty capable to handle the logistics of a fishing trip, the mechanics of motorized water conveyance and the social grace of maintaining a civil and friendly atmosphere in the confined space of a small boat. And they paid attention to safety, wearing their life jackets even on the tranquil waters of the inlet with no scolding adult nearby to remind them.
Such a sight is common where we live. Many young people enjoy surfing, sailing and other water sports and can often be seen biking themselves down to the water and conducting these kinds of outings with limited or no adult supervision. For many water-born children, especially boys, it is something like a rite of passage to either get permission to use the family watercraft, or to be given a small watercraft of one’s own at a certain stage in one’s youth. In fact, it is one of the very special things about living where we live, that this kind of activity is available to young children and that the local culture seems to support it. The harbor patrol stayed in their berths that morning, like many others, as thankfully the neighbors didn’t feel the need to call the cops on a few kids out to have a good time by themselves.
The Wolf and I were quite pleased with this entire thing and thought about it as an ideal for our Little Lion to achieve one day as well. We really admired the (unseen) parents for having the good sense and the trust in their children to simply sleep in and let them do their thing! How would children who can go on a fishing trip on their own at age 10 ever become a burden to themselves, their parents or society?
Still, so much could go wrong! The boys could scald themselves with the hot engine and its liquids. They could shred their hand on an exposed propeller. They could get a fish hook in the eye, or topple over into the water and float out to sea. They could get hit by a larger boat. They could get too cold! I’m being facetious, but it is still scary for me on some level to think about the simple things that could go wrong. Then, I started thinking about my own childhood experiences, and those of my parents.
Growing up in the same community, I didn’t spend much time on the waterfront, but I did manage to have an active and independent play life. I spent a lot of time riding my bike around the neighborhood, sometimes with friends nearby and other times by myself. I liked doing “jumps” off the curb, where a driveway sloped up to meet the angled curb in the street. I also liked riding up on steep driveways and then using the momentum to get speed on the way down, often ending in a “jump”. I played “soldier” with neighborhood kids, army crawling over people’s lawns and through their hedges, which they probably didn’t appreciate but we sure thought was a blast.
One of my best friends growing up lived about three miles away from me, in a part of town that was most easily accessed by riding one’s bike through an unpaved semi-wilderness area. Today, that area has an asphalt-paved trail with hundreds of people on it daily, but back then it was dirt (heavily irregular and eroded by rainfall and drought conditions) mixed with tall grass and flowering weeds, strewn with cactus, patrolled by skunks and other odd wildlife and not well traveled by others. Meaning, if you fell or ran into a “bad guy”, it was unlikely anyone would know about it right away. Yet, I made that 3 mile bike ride once a week, sometimes riding home before dark and other times getting picked up by my parents if it got too late. I never had any problems and they always trusted me to be careful.
In another part of town where this semi-wilderness existed, you could ride your bike around dirt jumps and giant puddles created by the high school kids, avoid homeless bums squatting out in the bush and if you wanted to, ride your bike right off a steep cliff into the ocean below. There were no fences or guardrails at the time, although today it is covered with a housing development and a proper, paved and fenced walking trail. My parents never worried I’d become a casualty, and I never heard of anyone else becoming one. The most regretful thing that happened to any young people growing up was a drunk-driving incident on prom night on the paved curve road in town in which these poor kids flipped their vehicle and many fell out and died or had severe brain trauma.
Thinking about my parents, I know Grandpa Lion was a boy scout. Although boy scouts typically go on their camping expeditions in groups, the act of camping in the wilderness itself is basically an invitation to unnecessary risks that don’t exist back in “civilization”. My dad raced dirt bikes, go carts and other motorized contraptions as a child. I don’t know what Grandma Lion did that was risky for a young girl, but I know her brother tells tales of throwing lit firecrackers at other children and shooting pellet guns across his balcony at his friend next door and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t condone firing pellet guns, even with eye protection, but the point is that young people seemed to do all kinds of dangerous stuff back then and they managed to survive.
When the Wolf and I talk about how we hope to handle our anxiety with our Little Lion, a few themes present themselves again and again. First, the goal we have in mind, as mentioned above, is to give him the opportunity to be trusted and provided resources to explore life on his own or with friends and not to create a paradigm of control and “protection”. Second, our plan is to actively look for opportunities to build his knowledge of risk and measure his awareness and responsiveness to it. In other words, building trust in him, and competence to manage risks he will face, will be an ongoing process learned on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we do not feel comfortable just sending him off into the world and seeing what happens but rather, we will observe his level of maturity and personal capability over time and provide him exposure to settings and circumstances, with our supervision, he seems to be ready for and see how he does. If he demonstrates he’s got it, he earns more leniency, and if he demonstrates he is still figuring it out, we will keep working with him on it until both parties can feel secure that the level of responsibility involved is met by and appropriate level of mastery.
That being said, that mastery is always going to be something he will have to create for himself through a bit of his own risk-taking. He can never know HIS limits if he has ever only had the opportunity to deal with OURS. That’s a fact of life we need to be aware of and learn to accept!
This is adapted from an email I recently sent to a friend, who asked, “Why do you plan to homeschool your child?”
Education is informed by parenting and values
When we think about the purpose of parenting, we take a page out of Maria Montessori’s handbook and assume that our Little Lion basically has everything he needs already inside of him to be who he is going to be. It is not our job to give him personality, values or direction in life. Since we brought him into the world through no choice of his own and in a helpless state, it is our job to care for him and aid him in his own natural development so he can achieve independence and be whoever it is he will be. We hope to provide positive models and examples of what kind of person he can be and believe we will inevitably teach him the only thing we can teach him — who we are — by simply being authentic around him, but we don’t see it as our job to select values for him and teach him that he should value them.
We think this is different from a “traditional” parenting model which is built around the idea of the parents instructing the child in a particular set of values so they can become a “good” instance of that kind of person. For example, a Catholic parent might hope to raise a “good Catholic” and make religious values part of the child’s upbringing and instruction. A sports enthusiast might hope to see his child become a “good golfer”, and so instruct the child on the techniques and discipline necessary to excel at the sport. Thinking culturally, a Chinese person might see it as important to raise a “good Chinese child” with all the cultural implications that entails in terms of diet, attitudes toward life, behaviors and interests.. A materialist might think it important to raise a child who is a “good moneymaker”. And so on. We don’t see “goodness” as a goal of our efforts as parents, necessarily.
Our value framework
That being said, we are people and we do have values. We operate within a paradigm of what we see as desirable behavior, values and goals and what we see as opposed or detrimental to those things. This can’t seem to be avoided as thinking, acting beings– every moment we are faced with choices and the act of choosing implies moving toward some things and away from other alternatives. If one’s life has any consistency, these values and choices add up and create some coherence. Our coherence forms around interdependence and voluntaryism. We prefer a paradigm where people interact with one another on a peaceful basis, out of mutual desire and aimed at mutual benefit. This stands opposed to the narrative of “zero sum” and “dog eat dog”, where some must be slaves and some must be masters. We don’t see value in “using” people, which is one reason why we don’t plan to “use” our son to fulfill our own desires to create a good X.
By not pursuing “traditional” parenting, we have to use some other system of values to guide our choices and this is it. It inevitably informs our education decisions.
Education is socialization
Our theory of education is that education inevitably involves two concepts: grasping cause-effect relationships existent in reality and the pattern of facts that occurs as a result, and transmitting a system of values explicitly and implicitly about the role of individuals in society (what people refer to as socialization). Far from naively believing that education should only be about teaching cause-effect and facts, we embrace the reality that it is the very selection of which cause-effect relationships and which facts to focus on in a system of education that is itself a form of meta-socialization, before even formal social instruction is reached.
The intersection of parenting, values and education
Now I will try to put these three pieces together– our desire to give our child sufficient degrees of freedom to realize his inherent potential free of interference or intervention from us or others, our own system of values which idealizes free exchange, and our belief that education accomplishes two things in instructing a student about the nature of reality and also about their social role.
There seems to be an appropriate educational means to each set of values or goals in life. If you want a religious society, you need an education system focused on religious instruction. If you want a democratic society, you need an education system open to all and controlled by the government. If you want a free society, you need an education system (or lack of one!) that acknowledges individual differences and caters to them.
When I think about some of the alternatives we can consider when educating our child, they seem to fall short in various meaningful ways. Public or private, our child’s education will largely be guided by dictates of minimum standards and required instructional curricula handed down by people we don’t know from hundreds of miles away. We are socializing our child to understand that parents don’t have an important role to play in developing and implementing an educational program in their child’s life, this is something that can be given to “society” and its representatives, therefore, the child is to serve society because it is being instructed in things society deems it important for it to learn.
We will be telling our child that what it thinks is interesting, exciting, or important to learn is not germane to the process of education. We will be telling our child that education is something that happens in a prescribed place for a prescribed amount of time under tutelage of people who are “approved to teach.”
This seems like an overly regimented way to approach learning that denies the diversity of learning opportunities we believe actually exist. Our child won’t be able to listen to their own mind and body in knowing when to focus on studying something and when to take a break. And they will be inculcated into a pattern of hoop-jumping and test-taking that will push their sense of self outward, to what other people think about their competencies and capabilities, rather than inward in terms of what they think of these things relative to their values and goals.
It’s possible specific, market-based institutions can serve an educational role in our child’s life at various times and for various reasons, but it’s unlikely our educational habits will ever involve the kind of structure where we say goodbye to our child in the morning and hello in the afternoon, Monday through Friday. Homeschooling seems to meet our needs better.
How we plan to homeschool
So what does our homeschool curriculum look like? There are really only three “subjects” we think it is important we instruct our child in, at his own pace and based on his own developing interest– reading, writing and arithmetic. If our child learns to read, he will be able to follow his own interests by studying texts and other written resources imparting knowledge to any degree he would like. If he can write, he can communicate his ideas in another way besides verbally and improve his ability to connect and exchange with others. And if he can do basic math, he can think about personal circumstances (finance, time-keeping, etc.) and the nature of reality (“science”) in more sophisticated ways. These three disciplines are the fundamental building blocks of all other subjects of human knowledge he might like to instruct himself in. We would encourage him to consider learning these things and make every effort to provide him excellent instruction whenever he desires it until he has competency or mastery over them.
From there, the world is his oyster. He can be a self-guided learner and follow his passions, instincts and curiosities wherever they might lead. And we believe that by creating a paradigm for him from the get go that moves at his pace, he will maintain more innate enthusiasm for learning and growing than if he is faced with a “mandatory curriculum” and told he has to learn things he isn’t interested in and doesn’t care about, which don’t help him solve real problems he is facing. And we believe that by observing us, he will come to see the desirability of reading, writing and arithmetic because it will allow him to have more meaningful interactions with us.
Acknowledging our limits, embracing a child’s potential
Beyond that, we just don’t think we’re competent, as parents, people or anything else, to successfully predict what his life will be like and what knowledge he’ll need to be “successful” at it. As a result, our plan is to put a lot of trust and faith in him to figure it out with limited initial guidance. We’re excited to see who he will become and we hope this approach will be less stressful and more loving for all involved when we let go of the standard parent temptation to fight a child’s nature and try to shape them into something more “desirable” or good, from the parent’s point of view.
And this is why we’re interested in RIE, by the way, we feel it is laying the groundwork for the type of relationship we’re planning to build with our Little Lion, and we think it dovetails with our belief in trusting him to be who he is and giving him the framework and structure to thrive as such.
To my Little Lion,
We’ve been reading up on the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) philosophy of Magda Gerber in more depth since you were born. We were already familiar with the basic principles from observing practicing friends, reading the introductory literature and hosting a RIE-class at our home before you were born. But now we’re eagerly doubling down to make sure we really understand it. The information is digested quite differently when a child like you isn’t a theoretical possibility but a living, breathing actuality. We want to try to get it right.
One of the things Magda Gerber stresses is that the most important thing we as your parents have to teach you is who we are as people. Everything we do and say in front of you you will be paying attention to and learning from. You’ll be internalizing ideas about what is normal, what is desirable, what is ideal or typical for parents, for adults, for people who are more powerful than you in various ways, etc. You’ll also be looking at us as examples of how to relate to oneself, and to others– is it with compassion, empathy, respect and benevolence? Or is it a pattern of vindictiveness, aggressive assertiveness, leverage and manipulation?
We feel relieved that this is really all we need to teach you, although it’s an epic task by itself! It makes sense to us also that this is really all we CAN teach you. If it was a parent’s job to teach their child everything they needed to know, every parent would be bound to fail from the get go. No parents are omniscient because no people are, and parents vary in their ability to communicate and educate about key ideas. But teaching who we are is something any parent can do and will do, as it happens normally in the course of living one’s life. We’re going to be mindful of this reality as we learn more about you, and you learn more about us.
One thing may give you pause, though– we will know almost everything about you, because we will have known you since the moment you were born. But we have lived for several decades before you arrived, and even if we do not mean or want to keep secrets, we can not possibly recount every detail of our lives as they existed prior to your arrival. We will try to share with you what we think is important and worth knowing, but you should understand that there is some bias inherent in this selection and try as we might, we may not always be objective in the telling of the facts. As always, it will be up to you to ask questions and make up your own mind. We hope we can be faithful partners in that process.
Now, there are other things that we can teach you and that we want to teach you, especially things we feel especially well-suited to provide guidance and our individual experience about. Your mother, the Wolf, is a talented home cook despite a lack of professional training, and she is eager to share her skill and passion with you if you’re interested. Your father is a bibliophile and has many books and stories to share with you, and years of methodology on how to extract the most juice from the pulp. These are just a few examples, there are many others.
Aside from teaching you about ourselves and modeling what it is we can model for you, you have a wealth of other family members and family friends who can enrich your life with other skills and wisdom as well.
Your Auntie Lionesses are students of film and photography, business and marketing, athleticism and foreign languages. One has picked up the guitar, which your father has never managed to learn but which he just might if you wanted to give it a go together. They can model great compassion and kindness for you.
Your Grandpa Lion is a mechanical person. He didn’t manage to impart many of these skills to your father, but he can probably be convinced to make good on that missed opportunity by teaching you how to use simple tools and DIY around the house, how to work on cars and motorcycles and other things with engines and transmissions. He’s also an outstanding businessman and leader. He knows how to rally excellent people to a cause he believes in and drive the effort forward to a successful conclusion, a timeless social skill you will benefit from immensely if you can learn it from him. Your Grandma Lion is extremely artistic and creative, with a strong eye for design. She can teach you about how to create a warm, decorated home environment, how to develop style in your clothing. Your Grandma Wolf can teach you about what it is like to grow up in another country, and the experience of leaving home behind to start over in some place unfamiliar. She can model what it means to work hard, which means getting on with life and its challenges and doing it with a smile. She can help you grow up to be bilingual so you’ll have an immediate advantage in your future travels, business opportunities and relationships.
Your mother and father have so may close personal friends with endless things you can learn about from them. One is a pioneer with his family, literally hacking a living out of a remote jungle location far from us. Another is learned in the ways of artisanal butchery and can teach you all about the cultivation and processing of nutritious animal proteins. We have friends who have had corporate careers, and those who are entrepreneurs. We know people who are incredible professional investors and people who are thrifty amateurs. We know people who know all about how to have a good time and others who know about being serious and keeping one’s head down. If you desire a balanced life, you’ll want to consider all these examples and choose what makes the most sense to you.
You have great grandparents and practically innumerable aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of your family. Your life is so abundant and rich in so many ways, the biggest challenge you will have will most likely be taking advantage of it all– you won’t have enough time or interest, so you’ll need to learn to be selective.
When people think of education, they primarily think of books and schools. There will be some of that in your learning process, no doubt, but where you can learn the most is by interacting with other capable people. Just like us, they can model who they are and what they know and love and in so doing offer you a wealth of ideas on how to get the most out of your life.
All of this you get just for showing up in life!