Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Raising my daughter by ten thousand suggestions

My 14 year-old daughter recently dug up a stick-figure drawing she made in kindergarten of herself scaling a smoking volcano. “I want to be a volcanologist”, she wrote, above the brown marker-haired figure in triangle-shaped skirt. That drawing, she remembers, set me into weeks of investigation about how one becomes a volcanologist--studying admissions policies at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, pulling up PBS films about Katia and Maurice Krafft, emailing Philip Kyle at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory in Antarctica, and Darcy Bevens at the Center for Study of Active Volcanoes at University of Hawaii at Hilo. We watched, played, read and talked to folks about volcanoes until, not long after, she announced that she no longer wants to be volcanologist.

That was 9 years and about ten thousand suggestions ago. As my daughter tells me, sometimes she wishes I was a more ‘normal’ mom. I learned along the way that I could create whole life-stories for my daughter, latch on to briefly-mentioned ideas and cook up must-see, must-try, must-read lists faster than she cared to notice. I learned that suggesting too hard sometimes turned her off completely. A once-fun experiment became a chore, or my insistence on background reading made conversation stilted. The most heartbreaking response she could give me was an indifferent shrug.

OK, so I also learned a few things about suggesting. Suggesting is better in sweetened spoonfuls than inundations. Suggesting doesn’t need to watch her reading over her shoulder. Or to follow-up every time. The silence between suggestions is probably more valuable than the suggestion itself.

Like watching a 2-year-old’s vocabulary tentatively emerge after months of listening, and then explode in complexity, I’m starting to see with my daughter how years of suggesting--people, ideas, careers, dilemmas--is beginning to articulate itself. Like the 6-month old listening to her mother sing, the 9-year old absorbs something from her mother’s suggestions that’s not apparent to either of them at the time. Like a thousand open-ended questions that are only partly answered in words, but move to the front of her mind and seem to build a lens through which she watches the world. Am I here by mistake or intentionally? Is there a metaphysical purpose to my life? When will I know? Are we all living under the same moral framework, or is each one of us building his own? Would that be fair? Is anything fair? How long will I live? What will be the thing that I do that makes a difference? I couldn’t tell that this was happening when she was 7, or 9 or 11. But now I walk up on her and she is curled up with her tablet watching a YouTube lecture about the sanctity of human life. Or making lip balm in a jar from ingredients we found in the market. Or researching municipal strategies to manage street dog populations.

I am on fire with motherly purposefulness, but I’m learning to hold it back to let my daughter emerge. Watching her find herself is a quieter triumph than those explosions of 2-year-old language. But being purposeful, I’m also curious. Are other families suggesting? Are mothers calling around to find experts to talk to their kids? Are fathers messaging article links? Are grandmas talking up internship possibilities with their friends at the gym?

For me, suggesting has become a crusade. But I wonder, is it scalable? Do families by and large entrust suggesting to school teachers and guidance counselors? Can they be coached as better suggesters? Could an algorithm help? Or would a flashy, edtech solution or auto-nudging mobile app do for adolescent self-discovery what 8 hours a day of PBSKids does for sedated 18-month olds in low-quality childcare settings--that is, pretend at doing the right thing, while getting it exactly wrong?

This is just as much a moral challenge as a business problem. Suggesting is not by definition helpful, just as televised speech does not necessarily promote language development, when not coming through an engaged human. Virtuous cycles of suggestion rely on life experience, insight, and connectedness. When done right, suggesting nudges the young person into a hundred not-so-comfortable situations. It prompts thousands of conversations, often with strangers. It drives toward countless unsolvable problems and apparent dead-ends. It’s as exhausting as it is stimulating. It’s time consuming, needs the time of close family and friends, and can’t be easily priced, because there’s no apparent payoff. When we try to tell ourselves that it could be massively scaled and replicated, we find out bad-suggesting looks like: mechanical, inert, rooted in default-settings and biases, one-size-fits-all, that just keeps hammering away.

How could I plant the seeds of healthy suggesting in families with pre-teens and teens? I’m excited to see what BreakAway Learning can do to help teens and their parents feel more comfortable about exploratory learning, to put it out there completely free, and see if it can drive a change in behavior. But I know the limits of what a website can do. Good suggesting comes from strong communities and strong families. And those aren’t scalable.

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