Friday, January 01, 2010

Learning to fish

The SitePoint forums are a microcosm of a long-running and disheartening real-life trend towards instant gratification. In the interests of saving the reader a tedious mouse-click, SitePoint sells books about web design, boasts about how popular it is, and also offers a message forum.

The scenario I refer to involves people asking incredibly basic questions without having shown any suggestion of initiative or effort and, instead of being referred to or being told to RTFM, they are given the answer or the code they want by some “helpful” resident expert in pursuit of a “Mentor” badge of honour. This is the beat to which this forum moves.

Alternatively, trying to guide anybody into working it out for themselves (a much more worthwhile exercise IMLTHO) is rather like pushing water uphill. It’s an exercise in futility on two fronts. Firstly, gently guiding the learning process takes time and is almost always interrupted by somebody giving them the code, and secondly the culture there has produced impatience and laziness because of this. Seekers become petulant when not spoon-fed.

For a masochistic hobby, I try to see how close I can bring people to their own solution before somebody else swoops in and renders my efforts in vain. As a form of punishment it is highly effective: hopes are built and then dashed against rocks; the exact moment of demise can never be known, I only know that it is coming.

For some reason, I refuse to give up this almost unwinnable game. It’s a concession that I refuse to make, in a manner not entirely unlike Jean-Luc Picard in First Contact shouting “The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!” But perhaps not in such dramatic fashion. It’s not easy getting that worked up over an internet forum.

But it is both interesting and important as a new parent, and it just dawned on me that this might be the reason for why I persist. Cultivating perseverance in the face of failure and rejection is probably a good quality for a parent to have, especially with regards to the education of their children. I want mine to have the skills to blaze their own path in life: to learn from mistakes, to overcome difficulties rather than give up, to be themselves and make their own choices rather than be controlled.

I am at odds with the prevailing notion of letting children be children. Or at the very least I don’t agree with the degree to which it is commonly practiced. It seems unfair and damaging in the long run to insulate them from reality for as long as possible and then, when they turn 18, call them an adult and expect them to deal with everything. At what point along the way did they acquire the skills to do this?

In theory at least, the answer seems pretty simple: gradually introduce new responsibilities as needed (or earlier if they can handle it), and remove safety blankets at the same time. Or, in other words, the second they’re big and strong enough to push a lawnmower, put them to work in the yard. As soon as they’re tall enough to reach the sink, make them do the dishes. If they’ve any energy left after their chores, then they can play on their Wii, but not a moment before.

In practice I know it will be an entirely different matter. It won’t be easy to not give in to petulant demands in return for a bit of peace and quiet, whereas it will be easy to give up in the face of being berated with tearful tantrums and “But I don’t wanna!” I will have bad days at work, and I will come home tired and annoyed and won’t want to deal with any of it. In fact if I achieve half of what I set out to, I’ll be fairly happy so long as they have some basic survival skills and can tell right from wrong. There’s nothing wrong in aiming high.

But all the same, this is important because once they turn 18 they’re out, because on my wage we can probably only afford a 3‑bedroom house and I will want to reclaim my office as soon as possible. So they’ll need to be able to cook and clean or know how to unblock a drain, and I’ll make sure they can. It’s the least I can do.