Friday, December 24, 2010

The Values of Useless Gifts. Part I: Why Bother at All?

At this time of year, thoughts and deeds naturally turn to gift giving, and I realize I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. Too many to condense into one post unless I subjected you all to a totally bizarre mish mash…So I’ll cut to the chase: gift giving can sometimes feel like a fundamentally frustrating enterprise. You go out, you make a lot of effort to buy things for people who all too often don’t like them. This is hard. After all the trouble, the recipient doesn’t like or doesn’t need your gift—or not really. I was confronted with this drama not so long ago when looking for a present for a friend. At my stage in life, most presents for my friends aren’t really *necessary*--almost no one expects them. I found something that I really liked—but was a more than I had intended to spend. So I got to thinking...Would she really like it? Would she appreciate the sacrifice that purchasing it for her entailed for me? Maybe she wouldn’t like it. Maybe I should forget the whole thing. Maybe I should just forget the whole thing and buy something for myself.....

That’s where I stopped. Too often, we make gift giving all about ourselves. About the recognition and respect we want others to give us because we bought them something great. But it can’t be just about that.( I am not a big fan of the concept of gift giving as a form of tipping or financial exchange, while I recognize the importance and relevance of those in certain cases.) Giving a gift also sends a message to myself: I value my relationship with this person enough that I am going to buy something that requires a sacrifice on my end. A sacrifice of my time, energy, and money. That sacrifice may not be ‘worth it’ in terms of the gratification I’ll get by seeing their appreciation. But it’s worth it in principle for myself—to remind me that I love people enough to sacrifice for them, even when they’re not always grateful.

I often think of the famous “Gift of the Magi” story by O.Henry, where a poor couple each have one treasure in the world: the husband his watch, and the wife, her beautiful long hair. The husband sells his watch to buy hair combs for his wife, while the wife cuts off her hair and sells it to buy a chain for his watch. The story ironic, but not tragic—which makes all the difference. You could look at the situation as a terrible waste: neither of them gets anything for their pains. But that’s not true—both of them see that the other was willing to part with what most precious. That most precious thing was still less precious than the other person.

Isn’t that something worth remembering on the day before Christmas?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Can You Really Succeed if You’re Young for Your Year? Outliers of Various Kinds….

Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers is a great book, and its author has a quirky sort of genius. A number of Gladwell’s points have peculiar relevance for parents and parenting—peculiar because Gladwell doesn’t talk about parents and kids much at all directly. I’ll start with the most obvious: Gladwell’s piece on the fact that the vast majority of players on Canadian National Hockey Team have birthdays in the first quarter of the year. This is, in essence, because hockey is a very important and competitive sport in Canada; it requires (unlike basketball) the use of a space that’s not easy to come by (skating rink); and the cut off age is January 1. The basic argument is that what starts out as a minor developmental advantage due to age ends up getting magnified every year: the slightly better kids get a lot more attention, thus making them better players, which makes them more likely to be selected the next year…and so on.

Some of these realities are hockey-specific, but not all of them. School districts with Talented and Gifted Programs select in a somewhat similar way (rarely do kids get second chances to play in, say, middle school). This often motivates people to hold a child back who’s on “the cusp” --or even just at the young end of his grade. This is especially the case with boys. A friend living in (very affluent) Westchester County, NY, told me that she’s facing pressure to hold back her son whose birthday is in the middle of the school year. The pressure is from other parents, since so many are keeping their kids at home for an extra year to give them an edge. I faced all this myself when dealing with my oldest daughter. She has a late birthday, as does her sister two years her junior. I didn’t like the idea of my girls being one year apart in school when they were two years apart in everything else. So for me, deciding for one was like deciding for both. In my search to figure out what was best for her I was amazed by the total lack of explanation. Every time I talked to someone about it, they told me to hold her back. But they could never give me a single good reason! As I often said to people, if we say it’s better for every child to stay back in these cases, the problem is the curriculum!

But Gladwell would probably be keeping his son back. And I see where he’s coming from: there are distinct advantages to being a big fish in a small pond. But I wonder if, in our pursuit of success that we can measure, we’re missing other factors. My sister in law has two brothers who were both young for their school year, both of whom went on to be real leaders in their time at the Naval Academy. The disadvantages of being young seemed to have worked to their favor in some way (something which Gladwell recognizes in fascinating detail elsewhere in Outliers.

There is a former student of mine who is a great counter example—I’ll call him “K.” K is the youngest of his family’s four sons. K is a bit on the young side, and his mother was undecided about what to do with him. She had a friend with a son whose birthday was close to K’s, and she decided that whatever her friend did her son, she’d do as well. The friend’s mom had her son start school; and so K did,too. K would seem like a prime candidate for bitterness over all this: he was a serious competitive swimmer in high school, and he (arguably, anyway) missed out on getting recruited as a result of his age. He probably could have gotten into a better college than the one where I teach (which is good, but not Ivy League material)—with all the advantages that represents—if he had been a grade behind.

But K isn’t bitter. Once he started college, he stopped swimming—and freed up a whole lot of time! An Electrical Engineering major, he’s about to graduate, and is poised to get a very good job in a time where jobs are scarce. And he doesn’t miss swimming at all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

How do YOU measure intelligence? (The “Tin-foil Standard” is my choice.)

So we all know there are kinds of intelligence. There is the traditional IQ test, but of course, everyone keeps talking about alternate measures of these things, since IQ alone doesn’t seem to be a big predictor of success and other relevant factors. I was reminded of this particularly recently as I was reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers (more on that to come!). Gladwell talks a lot about the discrepancy between IQ and success and has some very interesting things to say on the topic which I’ll come back to. But, in thinking about these things, it seems to me that there are a number of things to look for:

a) Interpersonal intelligence (“emotional” intelligence and so forth).

b) Creative intelligence (ability to use things for unexpected purposes).

c) Patience and work ethic (ability and willingness to take the time and care to do something right).

d) Intuition (a sensitivity to subtle things in the environment, whether that’s people or things) that allows for insights that others miss.

All these things are all important, and helping ourselves and our children develop our capacities in all these directions seems like a very worthy goal for parents. But sometimes, too, we want to have a sense of what kind of raw material we’re working with. When it comes to sheer, instinctive genius, I like to focus on the (seasonally appropriate) “tin foil standard.” It only works with very small children, but it clearly shows when there is greatness to come. The basic premises are these:

a) All children like candy

b) Many forms of candy come in tin foil

So….the smarter the child, the younger and more readily s/he recognizes that tin foil is something to be sought after and prized and, eventually consumed (though, hopefully, AFTER the removal of the foil itself). So what if tin foil is pretty and shiny and babies always try to eat things? If your baby tries to suck on a piece of tin foil at a very young age, s/he clearly has genius potential.

So: What’s the youngest age at which you’ve seen a kid go for a Twix bar? Or what’s your gold standard for intelligence? (Inquiring Mom wants to know…..)

Is this one precocious? Not sure yet.....

Friday, December 3, 2010

Finally, the Validation I've Been Waiting For!

One of the things that has always been clear—and funny-- to me is how we all tend to seek new items that reflect the opinions we already hold. So, I seem to remember the article that reports stronger immune systems in households that clean less frequently much better than the article noting how frequent, serious, handwashing helps prevent the majority of colds. But the sweetest moment of personal validation came recently, as I was searching the internet for pictures of haircuts. Now, before I get to the punch-line, I will note a couple of important things for the unfamiliar:

1) I have three daughters (my son’s the baby)

2) People seems to take a perverse pleasure in making irritating comments to mothers of daughters. Stuff like, “Just wait til she’s a teenager!” is frequently heard as someone peers over the side of a stroller or crib. There’s also the standard, “Uh-oh, that’s going to be expensive!” The most direct approach is taken by many, “Girls are so much harder to raise than boys.” And there is also the seemingly well-intentioned comment, which is particularly irritating to my husband (since it’s addressed to him), “She’ll have you wrapped around her finger.” (Just like her mom, haha).

So, now, I reveal my family’s recent moment of glory (forget about my doubts about “Science”).
Studies have shown it: ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO HAVE DAUGHTERS. I’ll say it again, in another way, in case it wasn't clear from the caps: Highly attractive people have a MORE than 50% chance of conceiving daughters. Scientists speculate yadda yadda. You get the drift. Validation.

Never mind the fine print—despite my new short haircut, I am feeling ├╝ber attractive. Hope you are, too!