Continuing yesterday’s summer activity list with our eight-year-old son…
The list began with reasonable “OK, sure, a boy might enjoy that” activities such as learning how to execute that piercing mega-whistle that’ll get someone’s attention from 100 yards away, learning how to juggle, and collecting bottlecaps and rocks. The carrot for all of this is a big Lego set at the end of summer, provided we complete the entire list. Why is a carrot needed at all? Because the second half of the list sounds a lot like Dad’s Dreadful Summer School, and even though I’m convinced he’ll enjoy himself once we’re doing this stuff for 30 minutes a day, it often takes a bribe to get a child motivated.
This is a worthy bribe when you think about it: we as parents will spend $100 to encourage our son to engage in a summer’s worth of character-building, non-video-game, practical enrichment. It’s pretty badass for an eight-year-old to enjoy chess and Mesopotamian history and rousing battle speeches. He’s already getting loads of freewheeling summertime at camp, running and swimming and goofing off and doing the healthy, vacationy things that kids need after a full year of school. But for a slice of each day, he’s learning good skills and knowledge and having fun doing so. That’s a hundred bucks well spent.
So back to the list. Here’s where it starts getting ugly at a first glance, but if we approach it with vigor and zest, it’s going to work out beautifully. Everything here excites me, the parent, which is critical. Think of your all-time favorite teachers: weren’t they they ones who truly loved their material and infected you with it, even if the subject wasn’t really your thing? There’s a magical time when your child looks up to you and trusts you absolutely. They might not ask to learn about the early Roman Empire, but if their Mom or Dad is visibly enthused, they’ll believe it’s worth being enthused about. I wouldn’t have thought this before I became a parent, and I can’t imagine it works as well with adolescents, but when your child is under the age of ten and you give him/her a crazy fact, relating it with as much “whoa, check it out” spirit as you would with a funny YouTube video, they’re going to pay attention.
It’s easy to forget that much of the knowledge we adults find overfamiliar and boring is brand new to a child. You know the story of Moses, for example, and yawn. But yesterday I told that story to our son and he was fascinated by the plagues of blood and frogs, the Angel of Death, the Red Sea drowning an army. Because it’s amazing and children will recognize that, and then we parents can see the story anew in their reaction and recapture some of our own amazement.
Same goes for music. If I never heard “Stairway to Heaven” again, that’d be AOK by me. But our son’s been learning electric guitar and we’ve been introducing him to a lot of those must-know classic rock songs. Watching your own child react to Zepplin or AC-DC for the first time is a thrill. Everything old is new again, at least for a little while.
Without further ado, here’s the rest of the list. PART 1 is here.
I wish I learned more history growing up. I read some now but it’s embarrassing how little I know at the age of 37. And although the goal is not expressly to prepare our son for an illustrious college career, he’s bound to encounter a lot of this material along the way, and wouldn’t it be swell to enter a potentially dreary history class in high school or college and realize, “Hey, I’ve already got a handle on this stuff!”
History gets easier the more you know, because your mind is able to correctly place people and events along the timeline, and connections start to form, and so instead of feeling overwhelmed by loads of entirely new information, things click and resonate and stay in your memory more securely.
We’re starting at the beginning, way back in the prehistoric nomad days. But it has to be approachable and fun or it’ll soil the boy on history forever, and it can’t be so detailed as to overwhelm him. I also like a history book that incorporates not only the ironclad facts but the colorful myths that have been, and continue to be, so significant in the story of humanity. I’m using an excellent set of books by Susan Wise Bauer, who’s in the process of writing a much larger grownup history of the entire world.
Her books include, for example, the stories of Gilgamesh and Anasi the Spider and God Speaking to Abraham right alongside the established histories of Mesopotamia, West Africa, and the Israelites. Wise Bauer has taken some heat for including religious stories in her histories, and she’s taken additional heat from fundamentalists for not going far enough with the religious angle. But she presents it all beautifully and her critics need to chill. She incorporates the material respectfully and fairly–and covers the East along with the West–and allows her readers to make their own judgments with regard to personal beliefs. If you believe Buddhism is the true path, here’s the story of Buddha. If you don’t, here’s Buddha anyway, because it’s an excellent story and one that matters to millions of people, has shaped history, and ought to be known.
As for the rest, Wise Bauer makes history fun without babying the facts and dumbing it down, and she delivers it all in digestible chapters with illustrations. Our son enjoys and remembers what I read to him. We’re both learning tons. There are also quiz books associated with each volume, so I can grill him after every chapter. He needs to score 90% on the final end-of-summer test, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Kids have shocking good memories, and our son frequently answers questions that I’m forced to verify in the key because my old-person brain didn’t retain it.
Will he retain it? Who cares? We’re just reading a good story together.
He has to do 20 hours of Khan Academy. Nothing too intense here. I want to keep him fresh for next year’s math, which is the point at which my own math knowledge becomes extremely shaky. I’ll be doing Khan Academy with him in order to stay apace.
If you’re not familiar with Khan, you ought to be, whether you’re a parent or not. The site is free and features hundreds of mini-lessons that’ll take you through math, the sciences, art, history, economics, you name it. It’s constantly growing and the lessons are wonderful. You’ll want to listen to this guy forever, and if you or your child needs help mastering a concept or brushing up on subjects, I’ve never encountered a better, more customizable resource.
Shakespeare’s HENRY V
“It takes years to recover from the stupor of being taught Shakespeare in English Lit.”
I’m not the first to point out that with the murder, intrigue, humor, sex, crudity, fighting, and action in Shakespeare’s plays, it’s incredible that nearly every kid and teenager hates reading these works. Though maybe not incredible after all, because the language is a barrier, and you have to grow accustomed to reading straight dialogue (unless you’re attending a production or watching a movie), and, perhaps most significantly, it’s generally taught with lots of consideration of THEME and STRUCTURE and all the other crap that should always, always be secondary to the immediate cut and thrust of these hugely entertaining and gut-wrenching plays.
Try to read them naturally. It’s surprising how quickly they begin to feel natural.
A lot of the plays aren’t right for kids. I’m not talking about “inappropriate material” here. I mean that I didn’t appreciate Hamlet until I turned thirty and started believing in my own mortality. A friend of mine recently said that he and his wife picked up King Lear, which had been good dark fun when they were twenty, and found — now that they were parents and approaching middle age — that the play was totally, horrifyingly different. Imagine reading it when you’re 80 and on the cusp of dementia and death. My point is that Shakespeare is always right and eerily true, and if he doesn’t seem that way, you might just be reading the play at the wrong time of your life.
Henry V seems a good start for an 8-year-old boy. It’s a simple pageant without much complicated soul-searching (although there is some that he’ll appreciate), and it features plenty of battle talk and wartime maneuvering and after we’re done, we can watch the Branagh movie and I know he’ll appreciate Shakespeare then.
Henry V leapt to mind because I often quote it to our son when he pulls the usual “but my friends were fooling around, too”. There’s a scene in Henry V where the king is sneaking around in disguise, getting his soldiers’ thoughts on the upcoming battle against the French. One of the soldiers says that regardless of how bloodied their souls become in battle, the ultimate guilt must fall to the king, who sent them into battle in the first place. The right response, which I enjoy dishing out to our son: “Every subject’s soul is his own.” He always nods his head like yeah, yeah, here goes King Dad with his quote again, but he really does get the meaning. And there’s so much more to be had in Shakespeare that I’m totally forcing him to read it with me over the summer. He’s already intrigued that there are prequels.
FIVE GREAT SHORT STORIES
I haven’t settled on the list yet, but they’ll be very short and appealing. “The Cask of Amontillado” is a shoo-in. One of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Maybe “Light Is Like Water” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where the children crack lightbulbs and flood the house with light and row around in boats.
TEN BEETHOVEN WORKS
As with the rest of this list, it wouldn’t work if I didn’t like Beethoven. The point isn’t to give the boy bogus culture and brag to other parents that he can recognize certain symphonies. The point is my belief that Beethoven, like Shakespeare, is something a kid could love if it didn’t arrive in a dusty dead package full of bad-tasting medicine.
We all know children who could listen to the Star Wars or Harry Potter scores for hours, so it’s not as if kids hate orchestras. You need a good version of the selected piece. Definitely NOT a crappy kid’s version. Honestly: whose idea was it to introduce young people to classical music by presenting them with Baby Mozart, which no one in their right mind could possibly endure? What’s the thinking here — that a real violin is too intense for little ears? That toddlers loathe excitement? No wonder so many kids grow up dismissing classical music. I would, too, if I thought it sounded like bland, background-listening pap.
It doesn’t. It sounds astonishing, and it ought to be played LOUD and really listened to, the way you’d listen to the newest album from your favorite band. There’s no getting bored when you’re listening to Beethoven at high volume with a kid who — as with “Stairway to Heaven” — is experiencing this music for the first time ever. We played Beethoven’s super-familiar 5th Symphony last week and it was mind-boggling. I haven’t paid strict attention to that work in years, and doing so with our son let me rediscover how ballsy and funny and sinister and wild Beethoven is. Our son enjoyed it, too, and now he’ll remember the symphony not in a lame-o music-appreciation way, but in a damn that was cool kind of way.
Will he love doing this entire list? Will some of it be a bust? It doesn’t matter if he ends up disliking Henry V or Beethoven’s late quartets. It doesn’t matter if can’t remember the right knot when he needs it five years later. Because really, this list is about discovering new things and realizing that there’s always something to do with an empty hour, and he will like a lot of what we do, and how great will it be to look back at the summer of 2012 someday, as either the child or the parent, and think man — that was the year we learned about knots and Beethoven and the Battle of Agincourt. That was a year we had fun together, eye-to-eye and brain-to-brain, and made the most of a season.
Plus the list is only part of the summer anyway. He’s still swimming and goofing around with friends, still playing with our dog and watching TV and getting ordinary attention from his parents. The rest is merely bonus, because why not? We could all use lists like this.
So yeah, this is basically me this summer, and we’re going to WIN:
(PS: Check out the boy actor at the 1:44 mark. That’s Christian Bale.)