Conduct Human Experiments of the Word Kind

bring back obscure words, get people to say strange words,

Human experimentation is banned unless the subjects are volunteers who have provided their informed consent. I believe the more casual research my son recently tried is exempt from those rules.

Let me explain.

Over the summer he worked with the grounds crew for a local park system. Being the sort who enjoys occupying his mind with more lively endeavors than weed whacking, he found other ways to keep himself amused. It may be helpful to point out that he and his siblings know many more words than they can pronounce. Their vocabularies are considered odd by others. Their dinner table discussions are, at best, eccentric. These tendencies can be almost entirely blamed one habit: avid reading.

He used this social liability as the basis for the human experimentation trials he conducted on his unwitting co-workers. The research took all summer. His subjects were not aware that they were part of the study until it was too late. The damage had been done. The results are now in. His experiment was a resounding success. I’m going to tell you how to conduct the same experiment.

Purpose. 

You, the experimenter, can bring  nearly extinct words and phrases back into regular usage. (See, you’re providing a service to an endangered vocabulary.)

Hypothesis. 

Employing an outmoded word or phrase on a daily basis will subtly promote its usefulness and stimulate others to add it to their ordinary lexicon. Yes, you get people to say funny words.

Materials.

1. You will need subjects. Rely on people you see everyday. Your children, co-workers, neighbors, and friends are excellent victims candidates for your experiment. The more the merrier. If you want to get all science-y, choose a group of people you interact with separately from all other groups. They will form your experimental group, while everyone else in your life will be your control group.

2. You will need a word or phrase you think shouldn’t have fallen out of popular usage. My son chose “dagnabbit,” one of the many oddly amusing words his grandfather used without a hint of irony. (That was a rich well indeed. Other possibilities from my paternal line included “holy mackerel,” “jehoshaphat,”  and “tarnation.”)

Method.

This is a casual experiment, best done over a long period of time. Begin using your chosen word or phrase regularly but naturally in your conversation. Pay no obvious heed to the word as it is adopted by others.

If people make a fuss over your use of the word, you might choose to insist it is back in style. Or you might use the opportunity to expand the experiment by promoting those subjects to fellow experimenters. Explain what you are doing in the most noble terms possible, then implore the person use his or her own outdated word or phrase in daily conversation. You’re simply enlarging this Human Experiments of the Word Kind study, surely to enhance the world as we know it.

Observation.

See how long it takes to firmly embed your word or phrase in other people’s regular discourse.

Conclusion. 

Have you gotten subjects to saying funny words? Then you’ve proven the hypothesis and done your part to save endangered terms. Another successful Human Experiment of the Word Kind!

Thanksgiving: A Holiday To Prevent War

A Peaceful Thanksgiving cardcow.com

Kids draw bright crayoned versions pictures of the “first” Thanksgiving, although chances are they don’t depict the original celebrants eating venison and eel, or engaging in shooting demonstrations. It’s certainly not an event the Wampanoag would have recognized. The Thanksgiving holidays we celebrate today center around family and togetherness. That’s due to one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale (who incidentally was the author of the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” later put to music).

Before Hale’s campaign to create a national holiday, Thanksgiving was held at different times in different jurisdictions on any date between October and January. Or not at all. And in the South the holiday was largely unknown.

Thanksgiving origins, Thanksgiving peace,

Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

But Hale was editor of the most widely circulated magazine of the time, Godey’s Lady’s Book. This publication, largely aimed at women, published influential poetry, art, and fiction, and under Hale, advocated for women’s educational attainment. Beginning in 1846, Hale used this platform to push for a national day of gratitude. She hoped such a holiday would help to unify the North and South, even prevent a Civil War. Violating the magazine’s policy against politics, she wrote editorials year after year asking the nation’s leaders to declare the last Thursday in November a national holiday–Thanksgiving Day.

In an editorial published November 1857 she wrote:

Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories set down together to the “feast of fat things” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all the world. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world.

She also steered public sentiment by promoting Thanksgiving recipes (including roast turkey and pumpkin pie), poems, stories, and drawings of families gathered at the Thanksgiving table. She wrote hundreds of letters to governors, presidents, and secretaries of state as part of her campaign.

Seventeen years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that Thanksgiving Day be celebrated as a national holiday. This day, which many of this country’s original inhabitants consider a national day of mourning, is also a day established to promote peace and goodwill. Never underestimate the power of an idea, pushed by a pen and persuasive pumpkin pie recipes.

Don’t Deprive Kids Of Risk

let kids take risks, don't overprotect,

jessicareeder’s flickr photostream

I publicly admitted to letting my teen take risks that would make most parents shudder. I’m not talking about the month long backpacking trip my 16-year-old took with his older brother and a friend. Nope, I’m talking about letting him meet up with middle-aged guys he talks to online.

The circumstances were perfectly suited to advancing his maturity as well as his skills. But to most parents, that decision marks me as a very bad mother. I’ll take that risk. Parenting has a lot to do with drawing the line between safe and unsafe. And then there’s that pesky line between good and bad.

It found it easier to see absolutes when my kids were babies. Bottle or breast, free play or playpen, guiding or scolding. The choices seemed easy. As they got older I didn’t lose my cherished parenting philosophies and obnoxiously healthy dietary scruples, but I did relax into the gray area. Some would say I’ve gotten too relaxed.

Every day I watch as parents pile their cars with their darling backpack-laden children, then transport them all the way to the end of the driveway where they sit, engines idling, until the school bus arrives. The reverse process takes place in the afternoon. These kids are spared more than the exercise required to get from house to curb. Presumably they’re also kept safe from potential child abduction. I don’t know if this is the case in your neighborhood but it’s a standard practice around here, even though I live in a rural township so small that it doesn’t have a single traffic light. (It’s rumored we may get lines painted on the streets.)

Despite the pastoral beauty of our area, kids rarely play outside. Clearly their parents are quite a bit more cautious than I am. Apparently this is a major trend. With the very best intentions kids are kept indoorswatched closely, even monitored. But why?

According to How to Live Dangerously by Warwick Cairns, “stranger danger” is so vastly overblown that you’d have to leave your child outside (statistically speaking) for about 500,000 years before he or she would be abducted by a stranger.

Violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. A teen is three times safer today than a teen in 1979. Sure, there was no Internet in the 70’s but online, the real danger to kids tends to be peer harassment. A larger danger? Kids who have no experience with real challenges.

Kids require escalating responsibility as well as escalating risk in order to grow toward a healthy adulthood. The common practice of delaying risk (and often responsibility as well) stems from the best motivations: love, concern for their safety, interest in staying closely involved. But today’s highly cautious approach to parenting actually inhibits a young person’s healthy development, according to Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by resilience expert Michael Ungar. It can result in young people who are overly anxious or who take unnecessarily dangerous risks. It can also leave them unprepared for adulthood.

The decisions I make for my family probably aren’t the ones you make for yours. I give my kids the go-ahead to build spud cannons in the name of science but I wouldn’t dream of giving them non-organic celery. I encourage them to join online special interest forums but abhor movies with gratuitous violence. It’s not easy to keep looking at where we draw the line, but just like you, I’ll risk anything for my kids.

We Don’t Need No Age Segregation

open-source teen learning, active learning, teen unschooling,

My teenaged son just spent the day with middle-aged guys he met online.

Let me explain. Before he could drive, my son earned enough money shoveling out horse stalls to buy a 1973 Opel GT. Or what was left of one.

The car sits out back in a dark barn, its classic little outline like a rough sketch waiting for functional automotive details to be filled in again. He is restoring it himself, but not alone. He’s in touch with an online community of automotive enthusiasts from around the world. They eagerly share experiences and resources on forums. They also boast, complain, and talk about their interests just as any friends do.

My son and his father have met some of these folks at auto meets and car shows. When my son discovered an Opel club not far from our family farm he was invited to join. Today he and his older brother drove out for a day-long gathering. Although my boys were the youngest by decades they enjoyed an open-hearted welcome.

Yes, I realize there are significant concerns about teens talking online with adults, let alone meeting them. I try to keep those concerns in perspective. Studies of online behavior by youth indicate the biggest risk they face is peer harassment, not sexual predation. Today’s young people are much more overprotected than previous generations even though violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. Overly cautious, restrictive parenting practices actually inhibit a teen’s growth toward maturity and responsibility. So I watch, ask questions, and recognize that my son benefits from online friends and mentors.

It’s a pivotal coming of age experience to be accepted by elders one admires. Until that time it’s hard to feel like an adult. These experiences are frequently depicted in movies, but children and teens in our culture are almost entirely segregated from meaningful and regular involvement with adults.

These days kids spend their formative years with age mates in day care, school, sports, and other activities. So their adult role models are largely those whose main function is to manage children. This subverts the way youth have learned and matured throughout human history. Children are drawn to watch, imitate, and gain useful skills. They want to see how people they admire handle a crisis, build a business, compose music, repair a car, and fall in love. Separate kids from purposeful, interesting interaction with adults and they have little to guide them other than their peers and the entertainment industry. That’s because our species learns by example. Ask any child development expert, neuroscientist, or great grandparent.

There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing, and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.

Because my kids are homeschooled they’ve have more opportunities (and a lot more time) to hang out with interesting adults. My daughter volunteers for hours each week alongside a woman who rehabilitates birds of prey. Another of my sons has played bagpipes for years with an 80-something gent who once served as a Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch. The age range of my kids’ friends spans decades. Natural mentors such as these are a rich source of authentic experience. And they’re in every community. It’s not hard to find them.

Along with other homeschooling families, my kids have also taken a close look at the workaday adult world. The owner of a steel drum company explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums displayed there. An engineer took us through his testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program. We’ve spent days with potters, woodworkers, architects, chemists, archeologists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics and others.

People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes. Age segregation goes both ways–adults are also separated from most youth in our society. After an afternoon together we’ve gotten the same feedback again and again. These adults say they had no idea the work they do would be so interesting to kids. They marvel at the questions asked, observations made, and ideas proffered by youth that the media portrays as disaffected or worse. They shake hands with young people who a few hours ago were strangers and say, “Come back in a few years, I’d like to have you intern here,” or “We could use an engineer who thinks the way you do. Think about going into the field,” or “Thanks for coming. I’ve never had this much fun at work.”

So today my teenaged son hung out with fellow Opel aficionados. They trust he will drive his car out of the dark barn and into the sunlight soon. It will be a shared accomplishment, the kind of thing that happens all the time when young people aren’t separated from the wider community.

unschooling teens, homeschooling teens, teens free to learn,

I wrote this piece nearly two years ago for Shareable.com. Since then this son of mine has become a mechanical engineering student at a private college. His fellow classmates brought with them years of advanced placement math and science classes. The advantage he brought? Lots of hands-on experience, an active approach to learning, and insatiable curiosity. He’s at the top of his class.   

Do Childhood Books Shape Us?

story and character formation, selfhood and book, self-image and books, girls and books,

Building a self. (andycarter’s flickr photostream)

Children’s inner lives may not seem all that complicated. But they are, even if kids aren’t fully aware of the complexities they’re dealing with until they’re much older. That’s one reason it’s hard for them to talk with their parents about ways they are gaining strength, inspiration, and a sense of self.

Their favorite books offer a clue.

Children are drawn to stories that resonate with the same challenges they’re facing. Authors know kids seek out tales that present certain compelling themes. Speaking one’s truth, overcoming adversity, enduring tragedy, relying on wit or cleverness, making a sacrifice, establishing one’s own values, finding a kindred spirit, gaining new powers or knowledge—this is the stuff that translates into purposeful meaning for the young reader.

To understand what kids are going through as they grow up, it helps to look back at the pivotal books that made a difference during our own formative years.

As I look back I realize two books I read over and over still echo in my life today. One of my favorites was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. It’s the story of a little girl who is taken to live in the mountains with her grumpy but kind grandfather. She loves to spend her days outdoors on the hillsides, playing with the goats, talking to Peter the goatherd and his blind grandmother, and eating simple wholesome foods like cheese made from goat’s milk. When Heidi is taken away to live in the city, a companion to her sickly cousin Clara, she’s deeply homesick. Although she happily learns to read, hoping she can go home to read to the blind grandmother, each day away from her beloved mountains haunts her. She convinces her uncle to let Clara come back with her for a summer visit. There they spend days outdoors, playing with the goats, eating her grandfather’s hearty food, and laughing. Her cousin recovers her health and Heidi is free to stay in the place she loves.

My other favorite book was so pivotal I’ve called it the book that saved me.  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is about a lonely girl named Mary who lives on the moors of England. She befriends a boy, Dickon, who can speak to animals. She also insists on becoming acquainted with an invalid named Colin. Mary doesn’t want dolls or toys. She wants the joy of helping a hidden garden come alive. She wants to remain free of lessons so she can learn Dickon’s wisdom. She wants to understand the mystery that makes flowers grow, helping Colin find that strength in himself.

Both books are about a certain kind of justice, one that permits self-determination and self-definition. Both are about the value of staying rooted and feeling nourished by a sense of place. Both are about the restorative power of nature. I feel those elements in my life strongly. Yet I see even more of these books in my choices. My children have grown up without schooling, as Heidi and Mary did. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, insist on wholesome food, and speak to all the animals on our little farm (though I’m still waiting for birds to alight on my arm as they did on Dickon’s). I have Heidi’s passion for reading and Mary’s passion for watching things grow. And I hope I have what both characters had in abundance, the determination to speak up for what they believed was right.

What books made you who you are today?

Did you share any of that book-related inner growth with the adults in your life?

And does looking back at these influences give you a glimpse of your own child’s complex emerging selfhood?