Kids learn by comparison. They learn to walk, and talk, and use a fork by watching their parents. As a child grows older, they learn to read and dress themselves and drink soda (or kombucha) and eat steak (or chitlins) and watch football (or Doctor Who).
This is just how human beings are wired. We learn by comparing ourselves to others. We pit ourselves against other people, against animals, against the environment, against the stars, in our struggle for mastery and knowledge. This is one of our great strengths as a species.
It’s also one of our downfalls.
The Realm Makers writer’s conference is this weekend. It’s been out of the question for me for the past few years, but I still watch wistfully from the sidelines as all my friends get together for what amounts to a retreat. There’s fantastic teaching. There’s costumes. There’s a nerf battle.
It got me thinking about the way we writers compare ourselves to each other. The trouble is, being a writer is like rally racing. You don’t race the other drivers. You race your own best time. On the surface, we know that. But underneath, our nature is urging us to look at other authors’ writing, or their sales, or the size of their Twitter following, and wonder why ours isn’t so good.
Now, if we take it as an opportunity to learn, then comparison is fine. Everybody needs better tools and techniques–its how you grow. But so often we use it to feed our envy and pride.
I’ve been reading a stack of homeschooling books from the 90s in preparation for this school year. Every time I read one, I get monstrously discouraged. Finally I asked my mom about them, since this was the way her generation thought. These books trumpet the same things:
- Have as many children as humanly possible (the Quiverfull movement)
- Homeschooling is the Path of Righteousness
- Mary Pride says that working outside the home is bad (see The Way Home)
- Embrace the chaos!
- We’ll make the colleges accept us!
- Extra-curricular activities!
- Be more! Do more! Check your blood pressure!
I grew up in that school of thought, and I don’t like it. Comparing myself to that, I’m the biggest underachiever on the face of the earth. I don’t want as many kids as humanly possible–five is about as many as I can manage. Homeschooling works for our family, but it’s not for everyone. Working outside the home is necessary for survival (especially if you’re a single parent).
Mom pointed out that there were women who killed themselves and their kids because they couldn’t measure up to these teachings. The Quiverfull movement is horrible and is being taken apart for the cult that it is. Too much comparison. Too much groupthink.
So I look around to see what my generation is talking about in homeschooling. The big deal for us is special needs. Autism, ADHD, Aspergers, everything that can go wrong with a child’s brain. There’s a big move toward simplicity–in learning and living. People still have lots of kids, but it’s not the virtue that it once was. Instead of magazines, there’s blogs and bloggers. Many of the modern homeschoolers were homeschooled as kids, but not all. It’s a movement that has grown beyond Christians and into mainstream. (There’s homeschoolers who … GASP … aren’t Christians!)
So I’ve been grappling with not only comparing myself to others, but the clear outcome of groupthink. I have at my fingertips the thinking of twenty years ago, and the results. All I have to do is look around at my peers. In particular, the adults at Realm Makers who as kids were denied fantasy and science fiction. As backlash, they’re walking around in costume and quoting Star Wars.
I guess what I’m seeing is that life has to be about balance. Protect your kids, but not to the extreme of never letting them glimpse real life. Let them read Narnia, but let them read Harry Potter, too. (As kids fantasy goes, Harry Potter is absolutely benign. Christians scream about it, but nobody ever dissects the weirdness in Madeline L’Engle or the So You Want To Be A Wizard series.)
So I’m going to continue with my simplistic approach to homeschooling. I’m going to read aloud Harry Potter, Little House on the Prairie, Wheel on the School, and the Magic Thief.
As John Taylor Gatto points out, every teen is taught to drive a car. It’s a hugely complex task that, if done poorly, results in DEATH. But every teen is taught to drive within a couple of weeks, and they will successfully perform it for their whole lives. Why must math or grammar be any different? They’re just tools to perform a task. In real life, if you don’t know the equation to calculate the diameter of a circle, you look it up. But knowing how to look things up, and where, is the trick.