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If The World is Flat then how do we raise our children?

September 20th, 2005 · 7 Comments

No discussion of compassionate flatism would be complete without also discussing the need for improved parenting. Helping individuals also adapt to a flat world is not only the job of governments and companies. It is also the job of parents. They too need to know in what world their kids are growing up and what it will take for them to thrive. Put simply, we need a new generation of parents willing to administer tough love: There comes a time when you’ve got to put away the Game Boys, turn off the television set, put away the iPod, and get your kids down to work.


The sense of entitlement….is, quite simply, a growing cancer on American society. And if we don’t start to reverse it, our kids are going to be in for a huge and socially disruptive shock from the flat world.

I repeat: This is not a test. This is a crisis, and as Paul Romer has so perceptively warned, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, 2005

We were at a rest area in the middle of nowhere on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September: a parking lot, a bunch of trees and the standard concrete rest rooms by the side of I-5. I pulled Thomas Friedman’s tome off my lap as we all got out of the van. The kids started running around a picnic bench the way kids who have been cooped up in a car for hours do. They were jubilant, celebrating, laughing, racing. My thoughts were elsewhere, more sober, somber. I was still emerging from the pages, connecting the dots from concepts to my own life, composing a response to my reading. I distributed our snack of granola bars and turned to Ted, who had finished reading The World is Flat a few weeks ago, asking him the question most on my mind:

So, who is going to write the subsequent book to Friedman’s, one that scares parents and also shows them how to raise their kids in a flat world?

Although New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman specifically devotes only 3 pages in his 400+ page book to the issue of parenting (including the quotes above), I think that any parent can only wonder what kind of world their children will find when they go search for their first job. Or apply to college. Raising my children well means preparing them for the world that will be there for them. Of course, no one can predict the future precisely. But if the trends and truths noted by Friedman continue, it will quite possibly only be flatter…more competitive…and more difficult for us as Americans, if we continue to fail to educate the next generation well.

Put simply: The World is Flat makes for excellent back-to-school reading, especially for this homeschooling mom.

I confess that I’ve worried about my children’s athletic achievements. I wrote an entire post about my concerns earlier this year but didn’t publish it. Let’s just say that athletic skills don’t seem to run strong in our family. And I worry about keeping the girls in shape and helping them keep up and compete with their peers. Hours this summer we spent running at the track and swimming in the pool.

But after reading The World is Flat, I felt I had received a whack on the head. As if my skewed perspective had been revealed for what it was. I was a high school athlete, lettering in two sports, and I learned a lot about myself and improved my health through running. I value athletics. But Friedman’s words convinced me – without even mentioning athletics – that my concerns about sports are silly. If we as Americans can’t improve our skills in science and mathematics, we will be left behind. The world is flat and my kids will be competing with others around the planet for their employment. It’s not even enough that my kids become better than most Americans. Will it matter whether my daughters are varsity athletes or whether they can manipulate vectors?

Even glimpsing at the natural disasters that have hit our planet hard, it seems clear that science and technology offer solutions, ways to try to control and cope with what happens to us. How to keep humanity alive. Avian flu, earthquakes, AIDS: all these are challenges we face. Our economic survival as Americans may depend on our science and mathematics skills, but our physical survival as a species certainly will.

Friedman’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know what is happening. Those familiar with current politics and technology may find that the author is a bit redundant. For someone informed on these issues, there may be nothing new in the book (as my husband discovered). Even I found that I knew some of the material already. I yawned here and there, I confess. Friedman’s writing style and particular use of the exclamation point also annoyed me at times. But it is the way Friedman connected the dots and drew a picture of the planet that frightened me as a mom, enough to keep me reading.

Ed Cone linked to Friedman’s New York Times column this past Friday, in which he pointed out that Singapore has a new math program, HeyMath! whose mission is to be the math Google.

[A couple notes on the power of Friedman on Google: on Friday when I Googled “HeyMath!” I found only 3 pages of entries – tonight there are now ten pages, many of them seeming to refer to Friday’s column. Also, now the HeyMath! site to which I sent an email on Friday, now has a bright blue box claiming it is receiving an overwhelming number of enquiries from over 50 countries. Hmmm….]

We as a family are using the math program used by many of the schools in Singapore, Singapore Math made famous by the nation’s consecutive first place rankings on international mathematics exams. When looking at the results of the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMMS) scores, one has to wonder why the US is at the bottom of the pile, especially in results in math and science in the later years of our educational system. My friend Katherine moved to France this summer and has described in her blog how intense the schooling is there: classes are six days a week for older kids, coming home at 6 pm with homework still to do. Yet when I look at the last year France participated in the TIMMS, I am not surprised -after reading my friend’s blog – to discover how well that nation did in math and science.

Ed Cone asked What if we just had the best teachers in the world for our kids?. True. I don’t think that a Web-based math program will be our savior. There’s no substitute for great teachers. However, where do we find these good teachers? If the current generation isn’t excelling at math, how can it teach the next? IBM’s news Friday of its plan to train employees to be teachers is an interesting addition to this discussion [via Bruce Umbaugh]

Dan Gillmor critiqued Friedman’s praise of Singapore by pointing out its suppressive government. True. In the book, Friedman emphasized America’s ability to dream. Creativity is key. In an educational sense, I don’t want my kids to be able to ace tests but be unable to think for themselves. Who wants automatons? Freedom is an essential component of our success and survival.

What intrigued me most was that Friedman ended the book with a call for imagination and dreams.

But how does one go about nurturing a more hopeful, life-affirming and tolerant imagination in others? Everyone has to ask himself or herself this question…..

But these are spiritual questions. At least I believe that “hopeful” and “life-affirming” and “tolerant” are all spiritual beliefs. They are the ways we see each other, the way we view life, and the ways we care for each other as humans. “Nurturing” to my mind is a feminine and spiritual word as well, a word used to convey care and community.

At the end of the book the author wrestled with the fact that tools can be used for many purposes. How can we encourage people to use them for good? Even if we develop science and technology, these innovations can become the destruction of our species and the planet. And in a flat world, more people have the potential to use the tools for harm.

Back to the question I started this post. How then do we raise our children in a flat world? What is our responsibility as parents? I do wish someone would write this book. Not me, as I am obviously only starting this stage of life. My kids are far from finished. I want this book written so I can use it! Yet I do have some ideas what I would like to find in it.

The ideal sequel to Friedman’s book, in my mind, would have three components. First, it would convince parents of the need to take parenting and educating seriously. We are in a fight for our lives, not only our comfortable American middle-class life, but our survival as people. Where are our priorities as parents? Why do we put so much energy into athletics and amusements? When will we wake up and realize the work (and fun!) that awaits us? And how can we help others, outside our own families?

Second, it would have practical suggestions on how to teach children math and science. Perhaps not specifics. But perhaps lists of resources. Best practices and best materials. How to start science clubs, perhaps for example. And most of all, a new perspective for parents. Ways to explore the world, while eating dinner or sitting on the porch or driving on the freeway. How to teach our kids a sense of wonder and curiosity. Where can we look when we need help explaining principles or encouraging our children’s exploration?

Third, this imagined sequel to Friedman’s book would restore our dreams. What do we adults dream? I fear our American dreams are those of material comfort, glamor and excess – at least that is what marketing and advertisements try to use. What do kids dream? What do they imagine? I fear that one of the reasons our test scores drop in adolescence, is that the dreams become fantasies of becoming rock stars, celebrities and professional athletes. We idolize the ones appearing on the screens rather than idolizing the ones creating the screens.

Yet all of us as humans have hunger. No matter whether we are in Singapore or France or America, we long for some of the same dreams. How can we capture that essence of spirit, what makes us who we are, and use it to fuel our families, our country, our world, with hope, passion and desire to be more than what we are? How can we encourage each other to create – and to obtain the tools we need to create?

I confess I read 400 pages of The World is Flat because I glimpsed two pages over Ted’s shoulder, two pages of ideas that made me hungry. Friedman described a program in India where Hewlett-Packard first loaned then rented out solar panels, cameras and printers to women in villages. “What it has done to change the confidence of the women is absolutely amazing,” H-P VP Maureen Conway is quoted as saying. It is these glimpses of what technology can do that inspire me and I think will inspire many others to pursue what we need in a flat world.

How can we change lives? I think this is the essential question. But first, before answering that question, we have to change our own lives.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa Williams // Sep 20, 2005 at 6:26 am

    I’ve already started reading my kids books about professions that *must* be done in person — family doc, veterinarian, plumber. Be close to the service, be very good at it (that is, work very hard), own your own business.

    I think one of the things that holds US parents back is the whole idea of “giftedeness.” US parents are very quick to say, well, Kid #1 is good at math while Kid #2 is good at languages, and excuse poor performance in the other areas. (This attitude by my own parents tended to get me to give up on difficult subjects earlier because “I just wasn’t good at them.” But the reason I wasn’t good at them is because I didn’t commit to them and didn’t spend as much time on them. There’s a downside to praising excellence in one particular area — it warps the reward system).

    The lightbulb went on over my head after reading about a study that tried to look into how the children of many immigrant families from Asia are often high performing for all the kids in all areas. One of the key takeaways is that the parents presumed that all the kids could get an A in every subject — by working hard, and they expected them to work hard enough to do it. It’s not about talent; kids without specific learning disabilities should be able to master every subject that’s taught in your average* US public school.

    *BTW, I don’t mean elite HS, but an average US public high school curriculum.

  • 2 Lisa Williams // Sep 20, 2005 at 6:41 am

    BTW, I also think that encouraging kids to take doing well in their education as a whole is a good lesson for life. At a job, or in a relationship, you can’t just pick the parts you want to do well and not bother with the rest. If you make cars, you can’t put the wheels on and not bother with those pesky windshields.

    Whether you’ll succeed depends on committing to doing the whole job at the highest quality you can. The fact that that will require persistence — keep trying when you fail, keep doing even when you don’t like something in service of a larger goal — is something specifically to organize spiritual and “character” stuff around.

    What gets us through when we have to do things that aren’t fun? When bad or unfair things happen? If we only do what’s fun and easy, we can guarantee a thin, failed life.

    That said, you have to know when to give up on something that’s stupid, too. There’s a difference between perseverance and banging your head on a brick wall. Telling the difference is wisdom, accepting it is humility.

    This, for instance, is stories about why disasters caused by pride are useful. Look at the difference between polar explorers Scott and Amundsen: Scott wouldn’t listen to advice, when he made a mistake, instead of correcting it, he pushed on harder. His party all died. Amundsen turned back several times to camp, used only things that had been tried before, were boring but safe. His persistence and modesty meant that he got to the pole and his team survived.

    Shackleton and The Endurance is also a great story about both catastrophic mistakes and recovering from them — by never giving up.

    What made the successful explorers tick? A) the ones that survived did a lot of homework and B) when things got hard, they didn’t do selfish, stupid things, and C) they admitted their mistakes and learned from them.

    Useful, too, because the world our kids are going into is going to be very different than the one I entered into when I graduated college. There won’t be a premade template they can follow. Only their skills and their wits will save them.

  • 3 Ed // Sep 20, 2005 at 8:54 am

    I say don’t give up on athletics. I know stereotypes are bad but I fall into the geek category. I pretty much coasted my way to an A in my science and math classes in high school and college. I wish now my parents would have encouraged me more when I was young to get into organized athletic programs. Eventually, late in college, I started participating in intramurals.

    Participating in a team sport teaches you a lot about interacting with other humans that you canÒ€ℒt learn by sitting in a classroom or by reading from a book. A big thing that we are working on with Jared in his t-ball and soccer games is that he has to let others have a turn with the ball and he needs to be ready when it his turn to help out.

    When our children go out into the world and get a job, I think their successes will depend just as much on how they interact with other people as it will on how many math problems they can solve. I think people skills become even more important as we interact more and more with people of other cultures.

    If you have a naturally athletic child, then encourage them to hit the books. If you have a geek on your hands, get her to go out and play kickball with the neighbor kids.

  • 4 Beth // Sep 20, 2005 at 3:02 pm

    I agree with Ed; athletics (even minimal participation) is a good way to help keep kids well-rounded. I’ve known way too many geeks who did nothing but study and end up very unsocial and with no physical comfort in their own bodies. It’s all about balance.

    Also, it’s not all about math and science either. Check out a couple of books I just read; I think it may help you figure out the flat world, even if in just a small way:

    1) A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age by Daniel Pink. In today’s world where all the jobs that can be “automated” in any way, whether by computer program or by cheap labor, the “creative class” is where it’s at in the USA. Excellent read, not once boring, and lots of very good, concrete advice.

    2) The Geography of Thought : How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard Nisbett. This book really takes a look at our different thought processes and perspectives on the world, based in our fundamentally different ways of thinking. Really an eye-opener for me.

  • 5 Julie // Sep 21, 2005 at 7:35 am

    Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful comments! I will write a longer response later today…

  • 6 Julie // Sep 22, 2005 at 4:47 am

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I knew this post couldn’t cover every aspect and that there would be many good issues raised.

    For example, part of Friedman’s book discusses culture of other nations and also immigrants in the US – noticing that many of the achievers in this country (using standards as tests, awards) are recent immigrants. I believe he even uses the word “hunger”. Unfortunately I had to take the book back to the library, so I have to rely on memory.

    I agree with you that Americans often emphasize giftedness while Asians may believe anyone can achieve if he or she works enough. Ted and I have had many discussions about these perspectives, and I’ve learned a lot from his family. This topic has been on my list of potential blog posts…
    I also agree with you that persistence is a valuable skill, and also a value that we may have lost in recent generations. The qualities of successful explorers are ones that can also be learned through exploring science, math and education in general, as you point out. What a time to be a parent, eh? πŸ™‚

    Ed and Beth,

    It’s difficult for me to describe my perspective on athletics in a public blog post. By no means would I stop encouraging my kids or helping them particpate in sports. I’ve just realized I probably don’t need to put as much effort into worrying about them as I do (it is probably my #1 issue as a mom, one that has brought me to tears for a number of reasons.)

    I’m also concerned about the amount of time and energy athletics can require. Already Ted and I are making decisions about what we can and can’t do for the kids, based on the intense time commitments that begin at an early age. We want to be a family that can still enjoy dinners together. Yet I feel we are swimming uphill in this, going against an athletics-centered culture. I certainly believe in athletics and exercise but keeping it within the proper priority and perspective.

    I agree that we will need to be able to interact with other people around the world. Good point. “People-skills” will become more valuable. Athletics is one way to acquire those skills. There are other ways too, such as Scouts, 4-H, volunteering, and science clubs. πŸ™‚ Science is collaborative at its core.

    Thanks for the book suggestions. I have reserved them both at the library. I read Pink’s piece in Wired earlier this year from his book and then after your comment I went and read more of his articles. My one concern is that his ideas are based on an affluent culture. I don’t know whether it is wise for my kids to assume America’s affluence will last throughout their work lives. But I do agree that his creative emphasis is refreshing and valuable, and will always have value for us as humans. It reminds me of some posts I’ve read on Creating Passionate Users…:-) I also don’t think it is either/or between Pink and Friedman. Science and mathematics can be both left and right brained. When I taught high school science, I incorporated a lot of creativity too.

    The Geography of Thought sounds intriguing… I like to think I’ve learned a little about the difference between Asians and Westerners in the 15 years I’ve been a part of Ted’s family. πŸ™‚

  • 7 Katherine // Sep 27, 2005 at 1:33 am

    Hi Julie, just a little clarification on the French schooling: kids up to 5th grade have the day off on Wednesday, but have school Saturday morning, while 6th grade and up have half day Wednesday but get Saturday off. So it’s still 4.5 days a week for each. Also, both levels get out at 5pm, 4 days a week. It was the milkshakes, not the children, that were in our hands at 6pm! πŸ˜‰ And the 2-hour lunches and long vacations help to make up the time. We get two weeks every time there’s a vacation (every two months). Still, the homework does take a lot of time in the evenings. And most of Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning. Oof! So we are looking forward to the two-week vacation at the end of October.

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