Friday, November 29, 2013

Reading Required

So I recently rediscovered this old blog. Why? Because I was looking up an old post. Why? Because I wanted to recall the last few lines of A River Runs Through It. Why? Because I wanted to read them to my daughter. Why? Because hearing our voices helps calm soothe her, and it matters little at this age what you say, however it is nice to say things that you feel good about welcoming someone into the world with.

After all, in addition to rediscovering this blog, I did recently become a father, which was, well, pretty far and away the most awesome (in the literal sense) experience of my life. My daughter Cedar is now 2.5 weeks old and it has been great fun spending time away from work getting to know her and becoming a family with her and Taska.

So that's fun but why worry about reading at this point? At a few weeks old she doesn't really do much other than eat sleep and poop, but when trying to move her from one of those states to the next (usually eating to sleeping) it seems that talking and reading to her is helpful. She doesn't, of course, understand what I'm saying, but it feels good to talk to her about things that I'd like her to hear.

When she was first born I spent some time thinking about nature vs nurture and how amazing it was to think that for an old person like me, nature vs nurture is an academic discussion about how I got to be who I am today. We look back post facto and attempt to discern the causes of various skills, shortcomings, and quirks. Amusing for sure, but not really practical. For Cedar, though, nature vs nurture is the difference between what has been done and what is left to do. Nurture hasn't happened yet, and to a large extent, it is on me to do it. Thus the discussion becomes far more practical.

So bearing in mind the weighty responsibility of providing the nurture half of the equation, I stop and think a bit before reading anything to her. I'm not foolish enough to think that everything we do must be perfectly aligned with the parenting master plan, that way lies certain madness. Kids don't really like master plans, and are sure to make attempts at planning look foolish. However, having a roadmap is really helpful, even if we all know that no battle plan survives its first contact with the enemy.

So, I starting thinking about my roadmap for teaching things to Cedar, and really haven't gotten too far. I know what I don't want, but I'm not sure I know what I do want. Since you are rearding this, you probably know me well, but, keeping the fiction of a reader who doesn't know me, let me explain a bit about my values. I clearly want to arm my daughter with a few tools that I think will serve her well. Among these are:

  1. Analytic thinking. Math, science, engineering, technology. Aka STEM. Aka the most effective tools our species has ever found to understand our world and make our lives better
  2. Atheism. Knowing that there is only this life, and knowing that we must rely only on each other to guide us through it.
  3. Spirituality grounded in natural beauty. An appreciation for the wonders of the world, the mountains, the desert, and a desire to be out moving in that world.
  4. Compassion and empathy. Understanding that we are all in this life together and that distinctions such as us and them are rarely useful.

Ok, so that isn't a cogent and coherent set of principles for life, so don't get hung up there, if I had to set down 4 and only 4 values to live by, I'd think a lot harder and maybe do a bit better. However, that's not too bad a start, and if I manage to raise a daughter who, at some point in her life, gets why some of those concepts are important, then I think I'll feel like I've done a fair bit on the nurture side. Most importantly it's a reasonable rubric for what I want to do here.

Of course, again, I know it sounds like I'm overthinking this, and I know that at most levels this won't really matter. She doesn't understand what I'm saying, and it is more important that we spend quality time, hearing my voice, etc than the content of any specific thing. Still, some things, (the bible, for example) just wouldn't feel right to me, to read to her. So while reading certain things is about as effective as writing equations on Taska's belly while she was pregnant, that's still a thing I'd like to do. Something about the tone and perspective is what I'd like to have feel right.

Here's what I have read to her so far:

  • The ending to a river runs through it Beautiful and sentimental prose, but not really advancing the values above. Also, short.
  • Calculus for infants. A wicked cool book, but really not age appropriate. It's mostly a picture book, and here I'm looking for words to start her off right (yes I know she doesn't understand, but still.
  • Fox in socks (no link needed). One of my faves, and I'm sure this will be fun later for both of us, but until it's fun for both of us, it probably isn't that meaningful.
  • A random academic paper on probability theory. She liked that, but of course the content was really too detailed to even pretend that it was useful.
  • A few random feminist blog posts. Ok this was fun. They are the right length, conversational in tone, from a perspective I can agree with, or at least not feel wrong about, and often apropos. But the quality is hit or miss.
  • Winnie the Pooh. Of course this is fun too, and will hopefully be more fun later, though there are not enough pictures in my copy to hold her attention. I think this one probably does pretty well with a couple of my values above too.
  • A random essay from Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas. There were a couple I tried, but they were a bit too erudite, and I just felt silly reading them to a 2 week old (not that this would generally stop me, but ...)

So at the end of all this, the real question is where do I find a list of awesome things that someone like me would enjoy reading to their daughter? A little looking on amazon lists and similar didn't really reveal much, and many of the books that claim to be good training for math or similar (mostly for a bit older) aren't really that good, or even aligned with my philosophy on such things. Dr Seuss and A A Milne are generations old, and while they are still good, there are surely new folks who've written things like the Lorax which are good children's literature that also carries a good message. Similarly there must be folks who've done this before and started reading something fun, say A Brief History of Time, or similar?

As usual the problem is reduced to a search problem, and in this case it's probably more of a filtering problem. Hence I cast the question to the masses (I.e. the two of my friends who actually read this blog).


Valkyrie Savage said...

Evan Savage said...

OK, here goes:

Vi Hart's mathematical videos are fun. (That reminds me: if you're in NYC, you should take her to the newly opened Museum of Mathematics, which also sells a few awesome math-themed toys.) In that vein, there's plenty of K-12 STEM videos out there on KA, etc. For non-dualistic philosophy in a non-academic tone, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is kinda canonical. Polya's How to Solve It is useful for general problem solving but dry. Ravi Vakil's A Mathematical Mosaic is a great selection of math topics/problems, but perhaps in the same "useful, but not quite yet" boat. You could do worse than National Geographic for instilling a visceral sense of "hey, nature and people are awesome". Biomimicry, Silent Spring, etc. fit in that sort of bridge space between nature/STEM.

Jim Brooks said...

At least one of Cedar's great grandmothers wrote some poems that hover on some of those values.