I think it’s a worthwhile thought experiment to ask what is a suitable occupation for a child were there no mandatory schooling, no standardized tests, no college applications, and no career expectations.
Basically… how would you design a modern pathway of human development from childhood to adulthood from first principles without the existing infrastructure of mandatory checkpoints?
Here’s how I’d do it. And have done it, at least to age 5, with my 5yo, and same plan for current 3yo.
1. Primary aim is to develop the capabilities and capacities* to be useful to other people whiile also cultivating deep insight into the human species — potential opportunities & failure modes. This stands to provide the greatest benefit to the individual, the species, and the entire Terran ecology.
*Defining terms: Capability is knowledge and skill, consolidated through guided and unguided practice. Capacity is the reliable execution of an operation under stress (due to fatigue, obstacles, relational dysfunction, etc).
2. Begin to accomplish #1 by first making the child useful within the context of his or her own household.
3. Expand capacity to bear stress via physical exercise. I.e. Train the mind by training the body.
4. Front-load narrow and deep experience by progressively releasing more and more of the responsibilities of household management to the child — including repairs and upgrades of existing infrastructure elements.
5. Gradually expand the child’s influence and experience out of the household into the local community, business, and government.
6. Specialize capabilities into a “trade” — i.e. Some mechanism the child can toggle when needed to convert time into money.
7. Cultivate many capabilities in parallel and discuss ideas at the intersections of domains — i.e. While learning carpentry, also practice piano, and read Moby Dick. Do the thing that is interesting until consolidation and reflection become necessary.. then switch to another thing.
8. Build a service-oriented peer group. The purpose here is to form a normalized view of social interactions as a constructive enterprise. Avoid forming views of peer-group social interactions as being intensely competitive, demeaning, or draining (a la Lord of the Flies). Instead construct visions of social interactions as honorable, compassionate, and deeply fulfilling.
Some additional detail:
Note: Some elements of the below sequence may resemble existing “best practice” suggestions for parents. Bear in mind that, true to the premise of the thought experiment, I have not included them due to their existing prominence. They are merely a natural result of the derivation exercise.
1. (age 0-3) Child’s first dedicated learning tasks are specific procedures for taking care of him/herself. I.e. You (child) dress yourself, take yourself to the bathroom, keep yourself clean, bus your own meal dishes, put yourself to sleep, communicate clearly to make requests (signs –> sounds –> words –> sentences), etc. Child is responsible for following simple rules for self-management (e.g. if under duress, take a deep breath).
2. (age 3-4) Child begins contributing to the smooth operation of the household. E.g. First step for our kids was to learn to make everyone’s breakfast (also serving mom and dad) — pretty simple: eggs and oatmeal. Then they advanced to sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning countertops, etc. Child is responsible for following simple rules to maintain interpersonal harmony (e.g. no demands, only requests; avoid pushing/pulling/hitting in favor of clear verbal communication)
3. (age 4-6) Child begins bearing independent responsibility for particular household tasks, like washing clothes, preparing a portion of dinner meals, etc.
At this point, tasks become sufficiently complex as to require multi-step written instructions. Thus, the child must learn to read. Similarly, they must often interpret and measure out quantities of things. Thus, they must understand what those numerical symbols represent, as well as the operators that often appear between them.
4. (age 2-4) In preparation for item 3, it is sensible to read often to children to begin familiarizing them with the alphabetic symbols and rules for interpreting them. Making sense of written symbols at a practical rate takes multiple years of practice and consolidation. Explicit instruction of the rules for converting symbols to sounds is suggested, but we’ve kept it relatively light.
5. (age 2-5) A gradual evolution of how a child amuses him/herself also occurs during this time. In our case, the child frequently constructs imaginary roles and scenarios and relies heavily on social interaction. Self-amusement is reliant on personal capability — it’s not fun if you’re no good at it — so training is still required in many cases. E.g. Reading simple storybooks, throwing/catching/kicking a ball, tumbling/gymnastics/wrestling, board/card/yard games, etc.
6. (age 2-5) The child’s awareness and understanding of the external world evolves during this time and is strongly impressionable. At this point, whatever is conveyed to the child about how the world works, they will accept as their worldview. I postulate it is likely best at this stage for the child to be immersed in the natural world, as it is the best teacher of how the world works. You cannot escape formation of intuitive models of how the world works if you have a vast array of coherent experiences in the natural world.
Worth noting is that we have met this need primarily through outdoor excursions in the summer months and video during the winter months. The videos consist of Planet Earth-esque views of exotic ecologies, as well as lectures about interesting applications of math, imagery from the hubble telescope, and other fascinating views into the world.
AGE 5-6 CHECKPOINT: The child now bears sufficient skill to operate their daily household tasks almost entirely unaided: self-grooming, meal preparation & cleanup, interpersonal relationships with siblings and adults, self-amusement, sleep schedule, etc. The only exceptions are those physical skills which have not been adapted to smaller hands and shorter legs and which have no requisite tooling (like stools). The child also has a working intuition for how the world works, which can serve to “fill in the blanks” when presented with new situations in future. The child may thus now begin to design select parts of their living environment and schedule.
5. (age 5-6) The child is reading sufficiently well to interpret multi-step instructions. Writing now becomes the primary focus — and elegant, fluid handwriting requires practice too. Writing proves very useful for producing letters of gratitude for various adults who have made their mark on the child’s life. Also enjoyable is penpal correspondence between cousins or friends in different locales. Touch typing is also a worthy skill to practice, given the predominance of digital communication channels. Freyda has recently (as of this month) begun her first excursion into web publishing at http://freydei.com/.
6. (age 5-6) The child now begins to envision particular accomplishments in specific domain areas of interest, guided by a mentoring adult with experience or transferable knowledge in the particular domain areas. The child and the mentor discuss skill checkpoints and accomplishments into those particular domain areas. Near-term goals are agreed-upon, and the child and mentor schedule particular operations to achieve those checkpoints. E.g. Freyda has determined she would like to construct a modern health diagnostic kit, including wearables and smart appliances which log data for later time series analysis.
As my oldest child is 5yo, this is now where my experience gives way to speculation. That said, this is also the tipping point into the actually meaningful part of the thought experiment — the age a child would typically enter Kindergarten. I’ll shift into broader age ranges to navigate these more speculative waters.
7. (age 6-7) The child achieves first real accomplishments. I.e. Demonstrated competency beyond mere routine household operations. Done properly, the child would have experienced a narrow and deep learning operation and will have generated an artifact which serves their purposes and makes their future action more effective. In Frey’s case, she will be able to assess her own health markers and be running nutrition and exercise experiments in the background while she sails on to her next port of call.
8. (age 6-9) The child will be gradually introduced to roles in the larger human society, starting with local community, local government, and local business.
9. (age 7-9) The child will at this point be capable of reading, contemplating, and discussing the particularly important questions about life, under careful mentorship. The child will be afforded the best works of fiction and nonfiction. I.e. The miracles of literature.
10. (age 8-10) The child primarily focuses on developing skills which enable development of reputation and standing within the community and the development of a group of peers with similar objectives and outlook. When the child is not serving in the household, he/she is serving in the community. From here, naturally, the child can begin to observe the human needs in the community and, under guidance, attempt to devise solutions to address those needs. This will be a natural extension of activities from earlier ages.
11. (age 7-10) Meanwhile, capability growth has simply become a habituated activity. I.e. When not serving the household or community, the child is developing knowledge and skill to improve his or her service capabilities. Again, a mentor guides the child, according to prior experience, predilections, aptitudes, and interests.
12. (age 10-12) At this point, the child is ready for apprenticeship in a skilled trade, e.g. Carpentry. Ongoing study and service within a peer group carry on in parallel.
13. (age 13-15) Journeyman-level capability in a skilled trade. The primary merits of the skilled trade is the front-loading of experience in applying mental models to achieve desired outcomes. Thus, the actual trade in question need not be particularly selective. Though it is best if it is not a loosely-governed wild west type environment. The child must learn rules and apply them insightfully in order to please a set of constraints. Also, the child is learning how to operate as a valued member of society.
14. (age 16) The child is ready for multiple possible routes of ongoing cultivation: Mastery of a trade, Mediated study of a knowledge domain under a mentor (kind of like graduate studies), or Development of a business, product, or technological innovation to contribute to the marketplace (also under mentorship).
The thought experiment has only begun, but I must resume later.
Many more things deserve to be included in the above, e.g…
1. I have found the development of physical fitness at a young age to be extremely useful under many circumstances. Basically, conditioning the mind and body to successfully endure extended periods of stress (eustress) makes every other thing easier to do, effectively increasing the child’s capacity for capability growth.
2. Sleep schedules have been solidified into habit and the kids are nearly always well-rested. Again, this makes everything easier because the child is nearly always able to self-manage. Fatigue leads to higher frequency of destructive behavior which, if allowed to become routine, will unavoidably cap the child’s capabilities. If the child simply never develops destructive habits, that’s one less obstacle to overcome.
3. Additional languages are best acquired under immersion conditions. However, this may be said for most skills/disciplines — performing & visual arts, sport, scientific research, etc. Contrived learning environments have a much narrower area of validity than would be presumed given their prevalence.
4. I’ve mentioned only briefly and sparsely the role of peers. Development of peer relationships is, however, a very significant design component, which I will re-visit later.