Monday, February 23, 2009

Assume That Your Kids Know Nothing

My parents just expected me to know things.

Like my father, who was always spouting off something like: “That Mac Churchill is a regular Sammy Glick!”

“Who?” I would ask.

“Mac Churchill!” he would rail, naming a business associate that I had met many times.

“No, who’s Sammy Glick?”

“You know!” he would say, as if to an idiot, “Sammy Glick!”

Years later, I found out that Sammy Glick was the ambitious, grasping, unscrupulous protagonist of the 1941 novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” Why my father should have expected me to know anything about a novel published nineteen years before I was born, I’ll never know. And why he would have expected a ten-year-old to know the metaphorical significance of Craig’s Wife, Shylock, or Nevil Chamberlain without explanation, I’ll never know either. Similarly, at one time or another, he berated me for not knowing where Lithuania, Abyssinia, or Siam were on a map, when none of those names had appeared in an atlas since the 1930’s. (Lithuania has since re-appeared among the nations of the world, while Abyssinia and Siam are now known as Ethiopia and Thailand respectively.)

He could really make me feel stupid.

When I was about eight or ten, however, an incident made me realize that perhaps this was not my fault. We were staying at my Grandma’ Ruby’s house, and I was watching Victor Mature in “Samson and Delilah,” when my mom told me it was time for bed. I protested, “This is a cool movie! I want know how it ends.”

“It just the story from the Bible,” Ruby said, “You know how it ends.”

“No, I don’t.”

Ruby then insisted that I be allowed to watch the rest of the movie. Later, after I had been sent upstairs to bed, I could over-hear her telling my mother in no uncertain terms that I should be taught something about the Bible. “Even if you are agnostic, your children ought to know something about Christianity. Our culture is basically Christian, and he ought to be able to understand it!”

(I never was taught anything about Christianity by my parents, however, and was often caught short when anyone else talked about it. I didn’t, for instance, know the basic Gospel story of Jesus until I saw Jesus Christ Superstar in junior high school. I grew up assuming that everyone accepted Darwin, and was shocked to find out that some people believed in a literal seven days of creation. After that, I assumed that all Christians were Biblical literalists, and was just as embarrassed later when I was told otherwise in the most sneering of terms by a very offended woman Episcopal priest. And the Biblical references in Shakespeare and poetry — take 10% off my English Literature grades for that!)

When I had kids I resolved never to assume that they already knew something, or would just pick it up as they went along.

Perhaps I was pedantic about it, perhaps I was lecturing, but they were never stung by their ignorance as I had been so many times. I trained them to speak-up when they didn’t know something, to look it up themselves if they couldn’t ask, and never to be ashamed when they didn’t know something. I would interrupt myself to explain a word ("… he had a certain adiposity. Adiposity: do you know what that means?"), quizzed them to make sure they knew what I was talking about ("Croats are Catholic and Serbs are Orthodox — what do we mean by 'Orthodox'?"), asked them what words in movies and lectures meant ("What does she mean by 'Evangelical'?") They joke about it (“Dad’s in lecture mode now!”) but they don’t hesitate to pester me with questions night and day (“Dad — what does ‘rueful’ mean?”).

Recently, I came to realized that I might have succeeded at this. My favorite professor from college came to Chicago for a lecture recently and I took the opportunity to see her for the first time in twenty-five years by having her over for dinner. The whole family was at the table, and she was talking about her husband (“… that was just after he had gotten his terminal degree …”), when I interrupted her.

“Pardon me,” I said holding up a finger to motion for her to hold that thought. Then, turning to my kids, I asked, “Do you know what a terminal degree is?” When they all shook their heads, I explained, “It’s the highest degree that one can get in one’s field. Usually, it’s a Ph.D.” Then I turned back to my professor, “Sorry to interrupt, but I didn’t think they knew that.”

“Oh, I don’t mind at all!” she smiled at me brightly, “Now I know why you have such bright kids!”


Anonymous said...

Dear friend,
The reason for writing this is to direct you to a special site for
prayers and devotions so badly needed for these end times. Remember
the wise words of st. Augustine: understanding is the reward of
faith, so seek not to understand so as to believe but to believe so as
to understand.
Please do recite the chaplets contained therein and heed to the
revelations to that apostolate.
God bless.

The Dutchman said...

Hey, Jay, you know what?

Quit spamming my blog!

John Jansen said...

Your post here illustrates the great importance of "meeting people where they're at". Since children are people too, this principle applies just as much to them as anyone else.

Maggie said...

This is such great advice.

When I taught 7th grade CCD, I learned quickly that a lot of my students didn't know the basic prayers by heart or the reason behind so many everyday things in our faith. I tried to intersperse these basics with the "7th grade curriculum" provided.

CCD in general (in my opinion) spends way too much time on "feelings" and not enough on explaining the catechism and gospels to young adults. My kids were way more engaged when learning the story of Paul (adventure on the high seas!) than to write a poem about how they feel about Jesus.