Two Questions

Now, a few words from someone who can really write.

In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman makes the case that modern childhood, which he considers a good and beneficial thing, came into existence because children needed to be trained differently once the printing press came along and changed the location (and, to a large extent, the definition) of useful knowledge. Postman then observes that in the past fifty years modern childhood has begun disappearing rapidly, and he speculates that the disappearance is due to the increasing irrelevance of printed material.

Postman ends his book with an apology for making such a dire observation without having any sort of remedy to suggest. But he does ask and answer six questions that he thinks might point to a solution. The last two questions are nearly a manifesto for homeschooling:

Are there any social institutions strong enough and committed enough to resist the decline of childhood?

There are only two institutions that have an interest in the matter. The first is the family; the other, the school. As already noted, the structure and authority of the family have been severely weakened as parents have lost control over the information environment of the young. Margaret Mead once referred to television, for example, as the Second Parent, by which she meant that our children literally spend more time with television than with their fathers. In such terms, fathers may be the Fourth or Fifth Parent, trailing behind television, records, radio, and movies. Indeed, encouraged by the trend toward the devaluation of parenthood, Bell Telephone has had the effrontery to urge fathers to use “Dial-a-Story” as a substitute for telling their own stories to children. In any case, it is quite clear that the media have diminished the role of the family in shaping the values and sensibilities of the young.

Moreover, and possibly as a result of the enlarged sovereignty of the media, many parents have lost confidence in their ability to raise children because they believe that the information and instincts they have about child-rearing are unreliable. As a consequence, they not only do not resist media influence, they turn to experts who are presumed to know what is best for children. Thus, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, and others representing an institutional point of view invade large areas of parental authority, mostly by invitation. What this means is that there is a loss in the intimacy, dependence, and loyalty that traditionally characterize the parent-child relationship. Indeed, it is now believed by some that the parent-child relationship is essentially neurotic, and that children are better served by institutions than by their families.

Even more devastating to the power of the family is the women’s liberation movement. So that I am not misunderstood on this point, I must say at once that the liberation of women from limited social roles is one of the truly humane effects of the technological revolution and deserves the full support of enlightened people. But it cannot be denied that as women find their place in business, in the arts, in industry, and in the professions, there must be a serious decline in the strength and meaning of traditional patterns of child care. For whatever criticisms may be made of the exclusive role of women as nurturers, the fact is that it is women, and women
alone, who have been the overseers of childhood, shaping it and protecting it. It is unlikely that men will assume anything like the role women have played, and still do, in raising children, no matter how sensible it might be for men to do so. Thus, as parents of both sexes make their way in the world, children become something of a burden, and, increasingly, it is deemed best that their childhood end as early as possible. All of this adds up to the fact that unless there occurs a 180 degree turn in social trends, the American family will not stand in strong opposition to the contraction and then dissolution of childhood.

As for school, it is the only public institution left to us based on the assumption that there are important differences between childhood and adulthood and that adults have things of value to teach children. For this reason, childlike optimists still write books advising educators on how they ought to conduct themselves, and, in particular, on how they might pursue conserving activities. But the declining authority of the schools has been well documented, and amid a radically changed communication structure they have become (to quote Marshall McLuhan)
houses of detention rather than attention. Educators, of course, are confused about what they are expected to do with children. For example, as the teaching of literacy becomes more difficult to do, educators are even losing their enthusiasm for that time-honored task and wonder if it ought not be abandoned altogether. For another example, equally depressing: In some schools, children as young as eleven and twelve have inflicted upon them what is called “career training,” a clear symptom of the reemergence of the miniature adult. It is evident that schools reflect social trends far more powerfully than they can direct them, and are close to impotent in opposing them.

Nonetheless, as a creation of literacy, the school will not easily join in the assault on its parentage. In one form or another, no matter how diluted the effort, the school will stand as the last defense against the disappearance of childhood.

It goes without saying that in due course, when all teachers and administrators are themselves products of the Television Age, resistance will not only lose whatever strength it may have had but its point will have been forgotten.

Is the individual powerless to resist what is happening?

The answer to this, in my opinion, is “No.” But, as with all resistance, there is a price to pay. Specifically, resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture. For example, for parents merely to remain married is itself an act of disobedience and an insult to the spirit of a throwaway culture in which continuity has little value. It is also at least ninety percent un-American to remain in close proximity to one’s extended family so that children can experience, daily, the meaning of kinship and the value of deference and responsibility to elders. Similarly, to insist that one’s children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in their sexuality, or self-restraint in manners, language, and style is to place oneself in opposition to almost every social trend. Even further, to ensure that one’s children work hard at becoming literate is extraordinarily time-consuming and even expensive. But most rebellious of all is the attempt to control the media’s access to one’s children. There are, in fact, two ways to do this. The first is to limit the amount of exposure children have to media. The second is to monitor carefully what they are exposed to, and to provide them with a continuously running critique of the themes and values of the media’s content. Both are very difficult to do and require a level of attention that most parents are not prepared to give to child-rearing.

Nonetheless, there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things, who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are not only helping their children to have a childhood but are, at the same time, creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. What can we say of the long run? Only this: Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will help to keep alive a humane tradition. It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children. But it is halfway toward for getting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service.

Practice what you know

A friend of mine once made the observation that too often folks who think they are on a spiritual journey are actually watching a travelogue. Over the years I’ve decided that it still holds if you leave out the “spiritual,” i.e. people often believe that it is just as good to vicariously experience an activity as it is to actually participate. It’s usually easier to read another book about homeschooling, or child training, or farming, or hospitality, or bible study, or simple living, or discipleship, than it is to take what you already know and put it into practice.

There are many things that can only be learned in practice, by making an effort and failing and trying again. Books can tell you some useful things about how to train a child, but the only way to learn how to teach your own child is to get on with it. It’s possible that you are struggling because you lack some vital piece of knowledge that the parents of smart and well-behaved possess. But it’s more likely that those parents have no special knowledge, but simply plunged ahead with a heart for raising their children to the best of their ability, and through much struggle of their own they figured out what was needed to raise their own children properly.

Legend has it that Euclid was engaged by Ptolemy I of Greece to teach him geometry. As Euclid began to work with him through the proofs of the Elements, Ptolemy complained about how long and tedious the process was, and asked if there wasn’t a quicker way to learn the subject. Euclid’s famous reply was, “Sire, there is no royal road to geometry.” As with many other things, the learning is in the doing.

I was pleasantly surprised this afternoon when while reading Chad Degenhart’s weblog I ran across another version of my friend’s observation, made by none other than Richard Baxter:

A subtle hindrance to the heavenly life is CONTENTMENT WITH THE MERE PREPARATION for it. When we are satisfied with merely studying of heavenly things, or of talking with one another about them, we miss the life itself. None are more in danger of this trap than those who are employed in leading the devotions of others, especially preachers of the Gospel. O, how easily may such be deceived! While they read and study of heaven, preach and pray and talk of heaven—is this not the heavenly life? Unfortunately, all this is only preparation. This is only collecting the materials, not erecting the building itself, let alone dwelling in it. As he that sits at home may draw exact maps of countries, and yet never see them nor travel towards them, so may you describe to others the joys of heaven, and yet never come near it yourself. This temptation is so subtle because studying and preaching about heaven does resemble a heavenly life more than does thinking and talking about the world. This is apt to deceive us. This is to die for thirst while we draw water for others.

And now that I think about it, a vignette I just read in Eric Brende’s book Better Off speaks to exactly the same point. Brende and his wife were college students from Boston who were curious to learn exactly how little technology they could live with before the lack of it became painful. They made contacts in an Amish-like community and arranged to live with them for a couple of years. At one point Brende mentioned to one of the elders of the community that very few of his fellow students ended up making a living using the knowledge they acquired in college; the elder was surprised, and teased him with this bit of doggerel:

He who studies, studies, studies
And does not practice what he knows
Is like one who plows, plows, plows
And never sows

Household economy

Some questions from a friend about my post on preparing daughters helped me see thatI should probably explain a few things about how we view our household economy, since it may be in part unusual.

We do our best to live our life as a family, and not as competing interests within the family unit. Time and resources are available to the family as a whole. We allocate them as seems best for a happy family life, not according to any fairness-driven scheme.

Our vacations have always been family vacations, planned according to what would make the entire family happiest. This has ruled out traveling to any adult-oriented location that Debbie and I would enjoy but the kids would not. It has not, though, ruled out traveling to locations that are heavily kid-oriented, because Debbie and I have learned to take much of our delight from the delight that our kids are experiencing.

Our gift-giving has evolved to the point where we give only token gifts, and those at Christmas. Birthdays are marked with cards, special meals, and special activities. This is because we got tired of having major purchases for the kids driven by the calendar. If Chris could use some musical equipment now, or Maggie needs a sewing machine now, or Matthew could use some woodworking equipment now, then we want to be able to give them at the moment, without calculating whether they fit into some birthday or Christmas budget. (This has also helped us avoid acquiring a lot of expensive but useless toys, the kind that kids ask for when you give them a gift budget; every purchase has to be a reasonable purchase.)

Special attention works the same way, made available as it is called for. Right now Chris is making extraordinary demands on the family’s time–he and I are away frequently and for long periods, and much of our time at home is spent practicing together. Much of the family’s money and my time is devoted to our musical adventure. But nobody begrudges him that special attention, because his moment of need is right now; in a year or two he will be well on his way, and attention can be turned to others in the family. And those others are well aware of that; Maggie is just entering a similar stage, and attention is turning to her in the form of sewing equipment and large chunks of her mom’s time. Matthew is not yet ready to capitalize on such attention, but he knows that when he is ready, his turn will come.

As the kids get older, they become capable of taking responsibility for pursuing their own interests. Chris started with instruments we already owned, but is now responsible for purchasing his instruments with money he has earned working for friends or doing major jobs around the house. Maggie will soon be expected to fund her craftwork with money she has earned, possibly from selling that craftwork. However, we don’t look at the music as “Chris’s thing” or the craftwork as “Maggie’s thing.” They have brought those things into the family economy, and we all enjoy the benefits in the form of music being made and clothes being sewn.

We also understand a large part of our family’s wealth to be the contribution we can make to the community at large. We are more “valuable” as a family because Chris can do a good day’s work for a friend, and because Maggie can do craftwork for others. If, say, Maggie chose to study midwifery, she (and we) would be a treasured asset in the community, and her worth to our family (or her own once she marries) would go far beyond whatever income she would earn in that work.

When it comes time to leave and cleave, we hope that we will deal wisely with the family’s wealth. After all, it doesn’t need to be part of our household directly under our control to be part of our legacy. We hope that if and when Maggie and Elizabeth marry, they will bring to their new household a dowry far richer than anything that math would have dictated. And we hope that one or more of our sons will choose to take over and continue building our family operation, with mom and dad relinquishing control yet still contributing as they are able, especially in the form of wisdom. There are four sons now, and it is probably too much to expect that all four could stay part of the family operation; those who don’t can certainly expect to take with them the resources they’ll need to start a separate operation of their own.

Perhaps the above will make it clearer why our answer to the question, “What should a daughter do between the time she is prepared for marriage and the time she marries?” is “Exactly what she did before she was prepared.” Put another way, we don’t think of ourselves as preparing our children for a life elsewhere, we think that they are to live a full and productive life from the day that they arrive in our household. For most daughters, the bulk of that life is lived running a household different than the one she was raised in. But if God chooses to delay marriage for one of our daughters, she will already be well situated to continue living a full and productive life, in our own household.

New arrival

Our sixth child, Benjamin Elliott Saenz, arrived at 8:40pm today, February 24. He weighs in at 8lbs, 12oz. Mother and child are doing fine.

Benjamin is our second child to be born at home. As a reminder of one reason that we’re happy about that, I’ll repeat a post I made 2 1/2 years ago about our last hospital birth:

Modern fascism. Does the state exist for our sake, or do we exist for its sake? Put another way: who does your child belong to, your family or the state?

When we went to pick up Debbie and Elizabeth at the hospital, the nurses insisted that we not leave because they hadn’t had a chance to run either a hearing test or a PKU test—both of them “required by state law,” of course. No matter that we had no interest in having those tests run. No matter that the doctor would be running the PKU test in two weeks at his office. No matter that the doctor had just been there fifteen minutes earlier, examined mother and baby, and signed all the discharge papers. Eventually they begrudged us a phone call to the doctor. Five minute later they present a clipboard with a form to sign, stating that we were leaving the hospital “against medical advice.” Against our doctor’s advice? No, against their advice. We signed it, and then they said we could go.

As we left, a nurse walked with us out the door and to the car. To wish us well? No, to make sure that there was a proper car seat for Elizabeth. And to make sure that we knew how to strap her in properly. I don’t know which was more insulting—that they thought it was necessary to see for themselves rather than taking our word for it, or that they thought we would be so submissive to “state law” that it was sufficient to send along a forty-something female nurse as an enforcer.

Can movies be works of art?

I’ve been thinking about this again since watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly the background documentaries that come on the DVD. Certainly the films are an amazing technical achievement, and if you enjoy that sort of thing (I do) they are an excellent entertainment. And it’s clearly some sort of aesthetic object. But can a three-year, $100 million collaborative project that employs thousands of artists (with competing visions, as the documentaries show) really be called a work of art?

Here’s what I wrote about this a couple of years ago, after watching another movie I like:

I once made a pretentious friend nearly apoplectic by claiming that the best possible movie could never have as much artistic value as a decent book. Now, the truth of that observation depends a lot on the definition of “decent” (and I didn’t bother clarifying, because it was too much fun watching him sputter), but I think it’s accurate. One of the reasons is the obvious one, namely that it is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to create a visual image that comes anywhere close to what we are capable of imagining. Maybe this is why I prefer movies that go down strange and unexpected paths; since they portray things I never would have though to imagine, it is easy for them to astonish me.

I thought about this as we were watching the first part of The Godfather Part II last night. I think the first two Godfather movies are among the best ever made, although I’ve never bothered to work out why I think that; part of it is because I can watch them repeatedly and still find depth there. But as I was watching it, I kept thinking how incredibly expensive it must have been to get the visuals right. The first communion party at Lake Tahoe, the processing center at Ellis Island, the festival on a New York City street—each of these required having hundreds of paid actors hanging around for who knows how long, just for the purpose of being the background in a scene. And I heard an interview recently with Gordon Willis, who was the cinematographer for the movie, saying that it was incredibly difficult and time-consuming to decorate the NYC streets they were using so that they would look authentic.

I suppose there’s a case to be made that all this is just fine, that it is a good thing that we have people who can use the mass market to produce incredibly expensive, yet even more lucrative, objects of art. But somehow I wonder if things like movies are so large and complex that they have simply moved out of the realm of art, in the sense that there is an artist behind them. When I write an article for Every Thought Captive (and, to a lesser extent, when I write an entry for this weblog), as time permits I try to approach the task as an artist—or at least an artisan. In word choice, turn of phrase, clarity of expression, even small victories are costly and time-consuming. And control over the final product is still lost when others enter into the process, whether it be a typesetter who bobbles the punctuation or a web browser that lays out the text in an unexpected way. Can even Francis Ford Coppola, who must work through thousands of others to realize his artistic vision, really be said to have created a work of art on the order of a sculpture or a painting or a novel, each largely the work of a single person?

Preparing daughters

I think families make a mistake if they prepare a daughter only for marriage. That job will be done one day, the daughter will be ready to marry—and then what? Since marriage is all she has prepared for, she has nothing to do but mark time until it happens. And if God decides not to send a husband right away, aimless waiting can turn to despair, followed perhaps by a pious resignation to settle for second best as long as God would have it that way.

Like many other Christian parents, my wife and I are working diligently to prepare each daughter for marriage. But we are also diligently preparing her for something else—life as a single adult. After all, it is certain that she will be one, from the time she is ready for marriage until the time (if and when it comes) that she marries. That time may be brief, or it may not. Either way, we want it to be the natural next step after girlhood, with marriage the natural next step after that. It is a phase that should be expected and welcomed, not dreaded.

What is the role of an unmarried adult daughter? The same, more or less, as her role prior to becoming an adult—to contribute to the household economy. Now that she is prepared for marriage, the time and energy she devoted to that can be applied to other things. But the role itself is not new, and she has been filling the role since her earliest years, contributing as she was able. There is no reason for that to change.

Our oldest daughter Maggie is thirteen now, and while much of her time is spent on learning to be a proper wife, a good amount has always been spent on learning how to contribute to the family economy. When she was younger most of that was learning how to do chores—prepare food, clean house, wash clothes, care for younger children—and then doing them. These were not merely learning exercises for her, they were ways in which she tangibly contributed to the family economy.

(As an aside, this is exactly the same thinking that leads us to keep our children with us during Sunday worship services from the time they are born. It’s not because we have something against nurseries—although we do. And it’s not because we want them to learn to worship—although they will. It is because they are there to worship right alongside us.)

Now that she is able to take on larger responsibilities, we are thinking about helping her start a small home-based business involving handcrafts, probably sewing. The idea is simply to teach her to be productive, and then let her produce. She will learn the importance of being productive, and the skills required to be productive. And what she produces will be an important part of the operation of our family economy. And as she continues to grow in wisdom and stature, we expect her to take an increasingly active role in deciding how she wants to contribute.

There will come a time when Maggie is ready to marry, and her preparation for marriage will end. And there may come a time after that when she actually does marry. But there will not come a time where she is no longer an active participant in a family economy. When Maggie marries, she will join with her husband to build a new family economy. Until that time, she will continue to contribute to ours.

Ritual sayings

Maybe it’s just me, but I like it when a saying, no matter how silly, gets enshrined as family wisdom. One of our rituals is purely my fault, both for originating it and for sustaining it. Let’s imagine that Elizabeth, age 2, howls after biting her finger (or lip, or tongue, or cheek) while eating. I’ll stop the conversation, look gravely at her, and say:

Elizabeth …

at which point there will be an unspoken “Oh, no, here it comes!”, in the form of laughs from the older ones who have heard this forever, and groans from the younger ones who were subject to this ritual all too recently. And I’ll finish up, as seriously as possible:

Your finger (or lip, or tongue, or cheek) is not food.

Everyone else wraps up with laughter, or rolling of eyes, or sounds of disgust—a general “Oh, Daddy!”

I guess I must have started that one as a way of distracting a child from crying, since that’s what always happens. But I ritualized it because it was funny. Or at least I thought it was funny.

We have a long list of ritual sayings, things the kids have heard Debbie or me say to them hundreds of times, most of which are wiser and more serious than that one. They are our family’s own proverbs, and I probably ought to work harder at recording them.

Here’s one I find very helpful during those junior high school girl moments I sometimes experience, where a friend behaved differently than I expected him to behave, and I’m tempted to imagine all sorts of reasons why—maybe I offended him, maybe he doesn’t like me anymore, maybe someone told him something bad about me. I pick a nice large number, say ten thousand, and then another number almost as large, say ninety nine hundred, and then I tell myself:

There are ten thousand reasons why he might have done that, ninety nine hundred of which I couldn’t possibly know.

Once I remember that, it’s usually fairly easy for me to stop speculating about my friend’s motives and simply assume that his intentions were good.


This time I decided not to look for shortcuts, but to make my roux for the gumbo the old fashioned, time consuming way. I took an eight-quart pot, melted a half-cup of butter, slowly mixed in a cup of flour, then added just enough vegetable oil to get the consistency I wanted. Then for about forty-five minutes I stirred the roux over medium heat, using a flat-edged spatula to continuously scrape the mixture from the bottom of the pan.

From the beginning it stayed very smooth, and gradually it turned a beautiful dark brown. I didn’t have the nerve to go all the way to “dark chocolate” as the recipe called for, since there is an ever-present danger of ruining the roux by burning it. So when it was about as dark as I could stand, I tossed in the chopped vegetables—onions, bell peppers, celery, scallions, parsley, and garlic—and stirred quickly to cool the mixture enough to stop browning. Then about three quarts of boiling chicken broth were added, a ladle-full at a time. The resulting liquid was beautiful, dark brown and thick.

Debbie was doing more of the work than me at this point. She had chopped all the vegetables so they would be ready for me to add, as well as the andouille sausage which I added to the gumbo at this point. Then she proceded to take the chicken pieces she had cut and seasoned beforehand, dredge them in flour, then fry them in oil. Once all the chicken was cooked, it went into the pot as well.

After about fifteen minutes of cooking, I took my first taste. It was underseasoned, but otherwise delicious. I added a couple of tablespoons of creole seasoning and a little bit of salt, and that seemed like just barely enough, so I let it cook another forty-five minutes. Then we served it over rice, with good crusty bread and butter to accompany it.

It was spectacularly good. The liquid was dark, rich, and hearty, with a flavor you ended up craving. Chris, who had flipped over the gumbo served to us at Ginny and Tracy’s house, and been majorly disappointed by my first attempt, raved about this latest batch. It’s so much work that we won’t be making it frequently, but it’s so good that we’re certain to be trying it again and again.

Five minutes with Dr. Banjo

For the past two years we have immersed ourselves in bluegrass and old-time music. We have hundreds of CDs by artists who played an important role in the development of the music. Rather than listening to music just for pleasure, we’ve learned to enjoy listening to music that has something to teach us. We have a shelf full of music instructional videos, and another shelf of books on the history of the music. We play the music every day, and we talk about it every day.

Although you might think otherwise, we don’t do all this because we are obsessed with the music; in fact, most of our time is spent on other things. But we devote a significant amount of time to the music because it is still so early in the game for us that the orchard is still full of low-hanging fruit. We still know so little that reading a book about an important artist or listening to a compilation of their recordings can easily teach us new and vital things.

In teaching our children, we continually stress the importance of becoming an autodidact, of learning to teach oneself. There’s an obvious reason to do this, of course; sometimes you need to learn something and there’s no one available to teach you. But there’s a less obvious reason as well—it is lazy, wasteful, and inconsiderate to ask someone to teach you something you could have taught yourself.

Sometimes we are deliberately lazy and inconsiderate about this. We show up for the class without having bothered to read the assignment, expecting the teacher to lead us by the nose through the material. We challenge someone who has devoted much more time and research to a topic than we have, expecting him to teach us by defending himself while still treating our ill-informed opinions with the respect we think they deserve. We ask again and again how to do something, hoping that when we hear the words this time they will somehow motivate us in a way that the last hundred hearings did not.

And sometimes it is not so much a matter of deliberate laziness as a matter of a misguided sense of efficiency. We avoid spending time learning things that don’t lead directly and obviously to our goal. What we fail to understand is that it is often a thorough understanding of the basics that enables us to chart a path to our goal. We can’t even begin to know how to thread our way through the hard stuff until we have a good grasp of the easy stuff.

After our second visit to Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz for lessons, Ginny paid us a very nice compliment when she remarked that it was a pleasure to teach people who have steeped themselves in the music they are headed for. What she meant, I think, is that too often she has to spend way too much time teaching people things they could just as easily learned on their own before they are prepared to learn the things that she is especially qualified to teach.

When we were first attending Pete Wernick’s music camps, I spent a lot of time listening to music and playing it, and I pushed Chris to do the same. I explained it this way: “Look, we’re going to be attending a camp taught by one of the bluegrass world’s best musicians. Since there will be forty other people there, you can’t expect more than about five minutes of individual attention. Do you want to spend your five minutes with Dr. Banjo having him teach you things you could have taught yourself beforehand?”

While we were at one of those camps, I watched Pete tell another student that his playing would be dramatically better if he would form his chords the way that most players did, rather than the way he was doing it. The student complained that he knew about the traditional way, but his way made his hand hurt less. Pete explained to him why the harder way was critical to getting the proper bluegrass sound, and had the student try it out to show him why it was so. The student was persuaded, and spent the rest of the camp practicing the traditional chord formations.

I’m sure Pete could have taught that student many other, more useful things about playing his instrument, but the student wouldn’t be able to deal with them before mastering the traditional chord formations. And, besides, his five minutes were up.

An agrarian attitude

(I first posted this nearly two years ago, but it’s still good.)

Not exactly a definition, but I ran across a passage today that embodies the attitude pretty well:

Allen Tate conceded that he much preferred an indoor commode to an outhouse
“so long as I don’t have to kneel down and worship it before using it.”