I should have insisted my son learn French, because I’m not fluent, but I’m close. Instead he is learning Spanish and while I thought I’d be useful (it’s a romance language!) I find all I do is pronounce French words like they’re Spanish and hope they are.

They usually aren’t. So my son is on his own. He interviewed tutors and found one he liked, and he devised a flashcard system that seems to be working.

Except that he writes really slowly — to the point that it was taking him longer to write the word than to memorize it. I liked the flashcard app Quizlet, but he wants a stack of flashcards he holds in his hand.

So, fine. I told him to buy a printer.

At first he had no idea what to do. He said, “How about if you just buy it?”

“No,” I said.”You find one you like because you’re using it.”

So he started looking and he found one at Staples – an HP Office Jet Pro printer that does mobile printing and color printing and all sorts of stuff I was having to ask my assistant to do for me because I have a terrible printer for my business.

So now he uses the printer for flashcards and I use the printer for my business, and we end up saving money on the tutor (he is learning faster on his own) and my assistant (I don’t send her to Kinkos as often.)

My son feels like a rock star, and he’s been looking around for other purchasing decisions he can make.

For example, when he shaved for the first time, I gave him a pink Venus razor.

His brother made fun of him. So he dropped blue Gilette razors into our Amazon cart.

The excitement over making purchasing decisions is a little disconcerting because as far as I’m concerned, the less I can have learning tied to money the better.

On the other hand, I know kids write better when there is something real at stake (like everyone is going to read their paper on the Internet). And they are more likely to benefit emotionally from chores when the family cares (like the cat will starve). So it makes sense to me that my son would make better decisions when there’s real money at stake.

Kids learn best when it’s the real world and not a hypothetical world. Life is not a word problem. It’s the real thing.

18 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I took three years of French in high school. I remember taking it because I was told it was necessary to take a language class for college acceptance. I also remember failing the NYS French Regents exam and really hating the fact I had to take French in the first place. Actually, I had a choice of French, Spanish, and Russian. I chose French because I had been to Quebec fishing a couple of times as a kid and I thought it may actually prove to be practical. As it turned out, I was accepted to the three engineering programs at the colleges to which I applied – Alfred University, Clarkson, RPI My guess is my grades, other Regent and SAT scores, and activities outside of school were enough for college admissions to give me a pass despite my dismal French Regents test score. Now I occasionally come across French when I’m reading a product manual that has instructions in French included. If I were homeschooled, I would have chose German. It’s my ancestry and one of my grandfathers emigrated here from Germany. I think I would have taken my foreign language study more seriously. I found this sentence noteworthy – “I liked the flashcard app Quizlet, but he wants a stack of flashcards he holds in his hand.” He gets to chose his learning technique (hard copy) that works best for him. I think that’s great.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    My youngest son (now 17) eats cereal for breakfast. He’s seldom at my house when I hit the grocery store so I end up just picking one of the four or five cereals I know he really likes. He might like others, who knows. He never complains about these four or five.

    He was at my house all last week and on Tuesday announced that we were out of cereal. So off to the local market we went. And faced with the cereal aisle, I could see his eyes glaze over.

    He wanted me to choose. “You know what I like.”

    Nope. “Dude, only you eat this stuff. Just get one.” But he stood there looking at his shoes.

    Then it hit me that my son was overwhelmed by the giant wall of cereal and was withdrawing. This is so like him. He didn’t do his homework all through the 4th grade because the prospect of organizing it well enough to bring it home, and then not lose anything at home, and then get it all back together and take it to school, overwhelmed him. So he solved that problem by just not finishing homework unless he could do it at school.

    So I said, “Ok, so here’s a peek into adult life. It surprised me when I was first on my own how many essentially meaningless choices I had to make, often from an enormous selection. So here’s a clue. Stop looking at the wall of cereal. Think back over the last four or five kinds of cereal that you ate. Pick one. You like them all, so it doesn’t matter which. Then find it on the shelf. Hint: the Kellogg’s cereals are all in this section, then the General Mills here, then the Post over there.” It took a second to sink in, but then he walked over to the Post area and scanned for a minute before he found what he was looking for: Honeycomb. I could feel his anxiety leave him.

    P.S. I love how you got your son to solve your printing problem. And: why did FedEx rebrand Kinko’s? Everybody still calls it Kinko’s.

    • Anna
      Anna says:

      You’re a good writer.

      Also, I love to make decisions and love to shop. I could be a professional shopper. Once, in late 2000, I walked into a clothing store and an hour later I had set aside a purchase of $1,001. It was a blast. I was traveling abroad for the first time and had been studying art for the previous five years in college so had mostly clothes with paint on them so needed a 100% wardrobe upgrade. On some level, shopping (participating in the market, as I like to call it) for me is participating in the development of (creative) culture. Part of this ethos though is that shopping within ones means contributes to creative culture in the overall. And by creative culture, I mean all that is “right brain” or not necessary for pure function or the style of something, the non-linear aspects, the atmosphere of something, the affect, etc.

      I think these preferences are tied to my type’s strong preference for extroverted intuition as an INTP.

      One thing about shopping that I love is the responsibility it involves.

  3. Blandy
    Blandy says:

    Critical skills a kid needs to learn before they move out/go to college (and that need a lot of practice), list courtesy of my kids who were appalled at the lack of skills in their freshman classmates:

    1) shopping and managing a budget for food and all personal items, including clothes and school supplies
    2) banking (online or in person)
    3) making and getting to one’s own appointments *alone* (dentist, doctor, etc.)
    4) getting a car serviced, what/when/where
    5) getting out of bed in the morning without help (I couldn’t even believe this one)
    6) basic tech stuff not on phone — managing wifi routers, computer software, installing printers, etc.
    7) laundry

  4. mh
    mh says:

    I let my kids buy their own lit and history books. My cart is full. I tell them they have to at least *look* to see if used books, including delivery, are cheaper than prime.

    Choosing it themselves leads to the philosopher-poet finding graphic adaptations of shakespeare. It leads to the history buff buying “Maus” instead of Victor Frankl. I buy it, but they read it. They are much more interested in illustrations and graphics than I would be, and they read the reviews.

    Choosing it themselves sometimes means we have more than one copy of a book. But I agree overall, giving hildren the power over their educational choices increases their commitment to learning.

  5. Lettie
    Lettie says:

    I think teacher is crucial not for teaching but for a conversational partner. There are so many online resources. Get him
    A language partner. Why not French? It’s so beautiful and you could share it! I do not let my kids buy anything unless it’s with their own money or something like food. Scary how consumerist the culture is. Maybe unavoidable.

  6. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Yes!! A thousand times yes. When I was fifteen my parents made me figure out where I would take drivers Ed and training. I thought they were so mean for making me doing the research and phone calls. (No internet then!) Now I realize they were just being good parents.

  7. Erin
    Erin says:

    Phoebe (5yo) loves it when she has a bit of money because that means she gets to shop. She always chooses Amazon over a brick & mortar store. Better selection. I’ll type in a search for her and set a cap on price, depending on how much money she has (so that she during get too frustrated at things well beyond her budget). She navigates everything else on her own.

    Her favorite thing is watching videos that accompany products. We just discovered that reviews can also include videos. This way I got to hear a preview of the annoying song her Elsa doll will play before she bought it. The mom who wrote that review still gave the doll 5stars. “The song gets on my nerves, but my daughter loves it. And this is the best made Elsa doll I’ve seen.”

    Phoebe dropped all her money on it.

    I didn’t veto the purchase, even though I hate toys that make noise like this. I’ll just ask her to shut the door to her room when she plays the song.

    There are lots of wars to compromise when you raise a kid who is self aware enough to know what they want and how to exert their autonomy.

  8. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    On razors, have you heard of the ‘pink tax’? Apparently the equivalent products for women are more pricey than the same thing for men. True for razors where I live so maybe going blue is well worth it.

  9. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    is he making these purchasing choices with your money though? Sounds like it. Not sure that makes him a good consumer.

  10. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    I usually purchase what a trusted friend would choose because if it was just me, I wouldn’t buy anything at all.

  11. Maya S
    Maya S says:

    This reminds me of a scene in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” in which Angelica Huston plays the high-achieving single mother of three precocious children.

    One day she’s talking on the phone, and the oldest one — a budding Wall Street guy with his own office, about 11 years old – comes in and tells her: “I need $200.” Still on the phone, Angelica cups her hand over the receiver, hands him her purse and says: “Write yourself a check.”

    Great mom. Seriously.

    The rest of the film depicts their struggles as adults and what eventually heals them.

    On point.

  12. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Somehow I expected people to go “oh noes! you’re making them into crazy irresponsible consumers!”

    When my parents would ask me for opinions on decisions for the family I felt very proud and respected and it helped me hurry the pace of getting to a point of good critical thinking.

    At a certain point, when I had to buy razors at the store (even with my parents money) I felt overwhelmed and “how do I even do this!?” because my mom was in charge of that while we were kids. When I was growing into an adolescent and I had to choose things based on the pros and cons then I had to pay more attention and own my choices.

    I’d say this is an excellent route to learning.

    • Rayne of Terror
      Rayne of Terror says:

      I send my 11 year old into our small rural grocery store alone while I wait in the car. I give him a $20 and a couple items I need. I tell him how I would choose but I don’t give him a brand name. I tell him to look for a sale tag and how to evaluate if it’s a worthwhile sale. He is so full of pride after he successfully shops for a few things. He always reports back to me his thought process on making his decision. Hopefully by the time he’s out on his own grocery shopping won’t be an overwhelming chore for him.

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    A flashcard study tip included in an article in Inc. titled ‘7 Pro Study Tips That Will Make You Feel Like a Genius’ with the tagline – These research-backed tips can help you learn more, faster, and with less effort can be found at http://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/how-to-study-according-to-cognitive-science.html . It’s tip #7 – Don’t flip that flashcard too quickly. It states – “Studying terms or vocabulary? Don’t immediately flip that flashcard when you don’t know an answer. “Try to remember it as hard as you can. Try to remember things related to it,” suggests Garcia. Research shows that “even attempting to retrieve something, when you fail to retrieve it, after you look at the answer, you’re going to remember it better.” The other study tips are also very good.

  14. Kathy Donchak
    Kathy Donchak says:

    I love that he devised his own learning system. I use a card system to guide storytelling/writing in our nature school days. The creative folks at Waldorfish came up with the idea and I use them to get the kids to make their own. Coming up with their own ideas for storytelling has made for some interesting story lines whether they are spoken or written, and I never hear I don’t know what to write!

  15. Jacqueline
    Jacqueline says:

    Great article and comments except I have to strongly disagree with your concept of a Montessori classroom. Having had three kids in Montessori that has not been my experience at all. The title Montessori is not trademark however so anyone can open a school and slap that on the door but may not be following the true Montessori method. My knowledge on the subject (many years as parents, read many books on the subject and sub in the classroom) is kids are given lessons in subject areas as the are able or show interest then on their own they choose what material to work on when they want to and for however long they wish. There is nothing forced about their day except that they must attend occasional lessons (one or less each day) which take 5-15 min. If that was not what you saw you may not have been at a certified Montessori school

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