Educational play

stephs (4)When I was growing up there were a few “structured” learning events outside of school. A week of nature day camp in the summer, horse riding instructions, followed by a pony we had to take care of, and piano lessons, which I got after I begged for them. My friends had been showing off playing “Heart and Soul” as a duet on the school piano and it looked like so much fun. Then, there was the sporadic trip to a museum or classical music concert. But most of our “free” time was really free time.

Those few children that were born in the generation between baby boomers and millennials often were often known as latch key children. They let themselves in after school, with an unsupervised hour or two before tired parents (or often a single parent) drug themselves in the door from work, followed by a fast food or microwave dinner and then they were on their own again.

Starting  around 1990’s, entrepreneurs realized there was a desire to provide the increasing number of young children a kind of educational play so parents could relax or go shopping without the children and without feeling guilty. So those born after 1985 grew up with more videos, interactive electronic toys, and talking books that were supposed to make them smarter. When my children were young I saw a mushrooming number of child sized indoor playgrounds and gyms that were supposed to make them stronger, or at least tire them out. This structured “play” continued with athletic competition provided for those as young as four years old.

As millennials generation reached school age everyone was supposed to be on a sport team (or two), in addition to after school clubs to improve a child’s competitive edge by learning everything from Scrabble to science experiments to chess. In the summer break from school there were library book clubs, drawing, dancing and acting lessons.

Perhaps parents who pushed their children a too wholeheartedly into the constantly structured activities had an inkling of how competitive it was going to be in the future. There were signs of the times to come – increasing number of quality goods being made oversees which meant less manufacturing jobs, and the United States slipping behind other countries in providing education. Trying to start a career that could actually pay the bills with only a high school degree would become increasingly hard during the 1980’s. Soon it would be impossible.

Even as the length of the millennial’s childhood was expanding beyond that of previous generations. The quality of their childhood was less “childlike.” It was not necessarily safe enough to ride their bikes edge of town, and beyond, as I did the summers during junior high and high school. Besides this aimless bike-riding is not seen as productive as running sprints on a soccer field. Now, there are fewer shopping districts to meander through on the main streets of small towns because malls have taken over. I remember how bored would get on long, languid, summer days. Much of the merchandise in Ben Franklin’s Five and Dime was barely more than 10 cents. But the merchandise didn’t change that often. With nothing new to buy and nothing to watch on TV but reruns, I spent hours curled up on the couch reading books about other times and places, never realizing how much I was really learning.

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How long before they move out?

800px-rcc_2008_day_cThe trend that many talk about is how millennials are remaining with their families longer. According to a recent Pew Report “In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.”[1] When will they grow up, settle down, buy a house, get married and raise a family? How long before they act like real adults?

Actually, the fact that so many people from the baby boomer generation moved out of their parent’s house in their early twenties is really the anomaly. When one looks at past generations, the number of couples between 18 and 34 that lived in their own home peaked in 1960 and then started to decline. You must remember it was only twenty years before the 1960’s that more than 30% of adults between 18 to 34 still lived at home. In the 1940’s, as now, economic uncertainty had a great deal of influence on the unwillingness to strikeout and live on one’s own.

The difference between 2016 and 1940 is that those adults who left their families during the hard years following the depression typically had a spouse by their side. Now, adults tend to move out on their own, or in an arrangement were they are sharing rent with one or more friends, leaving the largest group of this age living at home. Part of the reason is that younger men’s wages, have been moving mainly downward since 1970, if adjusted for inflation. While young women’s wages, which hovered around 60 to 70% of male income at that that time, have not declined in this fashion. All of this points to fact that fewer men can afford to be married, and more women would rather depend on a career. Those who graduate from college are more likely to live on their own, and slightly more women than men are graduating from college now.

It seems as if Millennials are reluctant to get married, but they’ve been watching the baby boomers who are reluctant to stay married. With increasing wealth in the seventies came an increasing divorce rate, and the boomers have the highest divorce rate and second marriages in the history of the United States.[2]  Chances are the all those adult children still at home are living with Dad and Step-Mom, or Mom and Step-Dad, or the single parent who did not manage to remarry.

photo:Jon ‘ShakataGaNai’ Davis,  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

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I did have pony

arravani-stutenThe national standard of living generally rose along with the national GDP during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But not all families amassed more possessions and moved to bigger houses in suburbs as income increased. My own parents remembered the deprivations of the depression, and they wanted to remain living squarely within their means. Also as my dad’s job required him to move every few years, the idea of unpacking a load of unnecessary things into a new house frequently discouraged hording.

Typically each time before we moved, I would wrap my fragile knickknacks in swathes of newspaper and place them in my dresser drawers. Either I wasn’t very good at this, or the movers were rough on dressers. Each time I would unwrap my collection of china horses in the new house there would be another one with broken legs. It was no easier repair china horses than real ones that suffered this injury. So into the trash they went. Eventually I took up collecting different printed napkins, cheaper and a lot more resilient to clumsy movers.

Half of the time the new house we moved into was larger than the last one, and half the time it was smaller. So my number of toys, items in my collections, and outfits in my wardrobe never grew very big. However, there were a few things that my parents splurged on. We ate well. In fact I never understood the lure of the inexpensive, high starch/fat comfort foods. My mom kept the refrigerator stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables (I wouldn’t touch canned fruit cocktail). Also, we would eat out at least once a week, as fresh fruits and vegetables require a lot of prep time.

However, the major splurge I remember is when my parents bought us a pony. I suppose, that didn’t seem so extravagant to my mom who grew up on a farm in a time prior to tractors, when horses were a necessity. But it was something that none of my friends owned, not even the ones with their own individual bedroom, hi-fi stereo, and color TV.

Initially we kept it at a stable within walking distance so we could enjoy riding more often. There was the thrill of being on top of an animal moving in a rolling canter. But after each time, the pony had to be curried, very carefully so I didn’t spook it. The saddle, blanket and bridle had to be stored. A pony took time, effort, and responsibility. But was not like playing competitive sports. There was no winning, no improving my stats, and no other players yelling at me when I failed.  One of us had to go feed the pony hay and oats, every evening. I was the one who didn’t know the difference between hay and straw when my rotation came. The horse just snorted at me when I returned, and I had to ask why he didn’t eat his food.

Perhaps the pony wasn’t a splurge after all.

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Cold War and the Common Enemy

fallout shelterOne of the particular memories I had as a child was when my parents asked me to select a doll, one that I didn’t mind missing for a while. They were going to pack it in box for the basement. At the time we lived in an older two-story house. Our basement did not have paneled walls or a linoleum floor. In fact I am not even sure it had a concrete floor as it was not the kind of place where I and my siblings ever went to play. I remember going down there once with my mom and seeing the lone bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

I watched as they packed cans of food and bottles in card board boxes, placing blankets on top along with a few items of clothing and the toy each own of us were willing to spare. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized these were “survival” items, packed in preparation for possible nuclear missile strike. Photos from a U-2 spy plane that flew over Cuba had shown evidence of mid-range offensive missiles being transported, and the Cuban missile crisis had begun.

Now, it is laughable to even contemplate engaging in nuclear war and expecting to win. However, at that time the elementary school sported black and yellow signs with three triangles within a circle, indicating a fallout shelter. I was not afraid of atomic bombs. My parents had grown to adulthood during World War 2 when it was considered almost unpatriotic to create fear concerning the United States and war. As a child I don’t recall hearing much discussion of the cold war and nuclear proliferation.

Shortly after that time we entered the spy craze on phase on TV. Shows were a kind of fantasy that portrayed suave, quick witted agents successful battling a diabolically evil organization that never could be completely defeated. I decided a few hours a week of watching fictional spies on TV was not enough excitement, and started checking out books on spies from the local library. Then, I got one that told true stories, the grim, deceitful trading of information for money, unsavory and unreliable sources, and a hefty dose of blackmail. There seemed to be no clear cut heroes.

The “Cold War” seem to fulfill our desire for a common enemies to vilify. But the first world and second world countries did not suffer as much as the third world, underdeveloped ones did. We poured advisers, weapons and often young soldiers into these hot spots were war was anything but cold and civil. In this way the increasing government money poured into military technology kept our economy growing, while contributing the the civil wars that crippled many of the thirst world nations. Of course some of these places became the hot spots that still threaten us today. “Cold War” was a misnomer, even though we were never foolish enough to use the highly destructive nuclear weapons at that time.

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Musical Memory

The_Music_MachineThey were the cream of the crop students in this high school history class, listening attentively to a teacher who had come back from retirement just to teach such a group. Strolling back and forth in front of a map bedeck white board he inquired loudly. “Does anyone know what happened in the United States between 1963 and ‘68? There were a number of good answers that could have been given for the turbulent times that were so influential in the coming of age for many baby boomers, but the millennial age students just sat there frozen.

Finally one child took a stab at describing that time, “Simon and Garfunkel wrote a lot of good music?” she responded questioning.

“Yes, that’s true,” he could not help but smile, “Though not exactly what I was looking for.”

But it didn’t matter that this teacher had previously shared his own experience with the Civil Rights movement and as a Vietnam veteran. The class took this begrudging acknowledgement as a prompt to ask if he was referring to the music of Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix or a number of groups who rose to fame in the sixties. It seemed as if these students knew the music the previous generations well, but not their politics and history.

When I was growing up I had very little interest in the popular music of my parents’ time. Most of it seemed very bland and mostly based on Broadway musicals. Coming of age during a depression, they certainly didn’t have money for indulging in phonograph recordings of the latest music. However, I knew a bit of their history particularly that surrounding the United States presidents and World War 2. In fact when in high school I could rattle off the countries, heads of state and even generals who figured so prominently in this war.

Why did these apparently knowledgeable students know more about popular culture than politics that occurred during the parent’ time? World War 2 was considered an honorable war, fought against villainous leaders. It had been glamorized in countless movies and books, and has not suffer from the same denouncement as the conflict in Vietnam. The baby boomer’s ambivalence and even resistance to supporting a country’s war efforts made political events not clear cut. But their music, a unique combination of folk and jazz that led to the birth of rock and roll, that seemed to be something to brag about.

Each generation tends to identify the previous one by what they valued. So the jury is still out on the millennial generation. We will have to wait and see what their children remember their parents proudly telling them to identify their place in history.

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Different in the same way

600px-Tie-dyeIn 1966 my parents decided it was time to take a grand tour of the country. For three weeks we traveled west of the Mississippi, camping most of the way, hopping from national park to national park (Thank you Teddy Roosevelt, the parks were and still are an excellent idea.).  Halfway through the trip we ended up in San Francisco. Dad wanted to see Golden Gate Bridge, Mom wanted to see Fisherman’s Wharf, and I wanted to ride the cable cars up and down the thrillingly steep streets. My older brother, who had just started to high school, wanted to visit Haight-Ashbury.

So one evening our family, parents with four children nicely dressed for our visit to the big city, walked through this quiet bohemian neighborhood with rows of old apartments crammed against the sidewalk. We stopped in a small store filled with a strange assortment of items; the walls were papered in posters with brilliantly colored surreal patterns. It was the type of establishment that would later be called a head shop. There my older brother got his prized underground newspaper. I found the posters an interesting style, and learned what “psychedelic” meant, but I am sure we weren’t the typical clientele in this birthplace of the hippie movement.

What if we had taken the grand tour of the country a year later, in 1967? We would have arrived at San Francisco when over 100,000 teenagers and college students were descending on this same neighborhood to celebrate a counterculture of yet to be illegal drugs and free love. I am sure my parents would have vetoed my brother’s request, but as we were a year early, I had the privilege of sight-seeing in Haight-Ashbury before it became overwhelmingly famous as a hippie haven, not realizing that my brother knew things ahead of his peers. (Although my brother was aware of the hippie movement, he was never drawn into it.)

Now that I reflect on my past, it is amazing that a crowd as large as the baby boomers conformed as much to each other as they did. Perhaps it was the sheer numbers of people born from 1946 to 1964 that caused business to cater to them. Fashions aimed at girls my age – short, brightly flowered A-lined shifts, embroidered caftans, bell bottom jeans – were obviously divergent from what our mothers wore, but the same as all the other girls. The guys my age hummed the same tunes. Almost all knew the words to the latest song by Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. I wasn’t completely comfortable with that kind of conformity. Hearing the Billboard top forty played over and over again on the radio was a bit boring. When I moved into a new high school, I came dressed in one of my fashionable turn-of-the decade seventies outfits. I was an outsider, only having  a few friends that hung out on the fringe. One friend pointed  out to me that it was the same outfit that a popular girl had worn. I never wore it again.

As I look back on growing up as a baby boomer, I now see that my generation’s break with the values of the prior generation, distrust of government, and rejection of consumerism were often orchestrated events. Many of my peers thought that rebelling against parents was a universal trait. We wanted to be different from the older generation, but weren’t willing to travel that path alone, or even in small groups. The sit-ins, marches and the rock music festivals were a way to be with others with similar tastes, to be surrounded by a large company of peers. We wanted to be different in the same way.

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When we were young

04242012semana_de_la_cultura086As the facilitator circled the table asking the typical questions, such as “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” I felt like I was being a bit oppositional. If I admitted to being born in Indiana, anyone who had even visited the state would ask me about it, and as my parents moved to another state when I was six weeks old and never returned, I was basically clueless about life in Indiana. So I answered “I’m from nowhere,” and explained my dilemma.

Unfazed he asked, “Where did you grow up?”

“Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, three different times… Mississippi. We moved every few years.”

“Okay, where did you graduate from high school?” He was being cautious, as some of the attendees were older than me and never found a need to go beyond high school to find a decent job.

“I didn’t.” I replied, “But I have a Master’s degree.” That was a bit of story to explain, too. My family moved to Mississippi at the end of my junior year during the factious days of public school integration. The Deep South high schools were far behind the ones I had attended in Illinois and Ohio. So, on the recommendation of a local professor, I applied for college, and got accepted, even receiving a small scholarship. They did not see me as any different than students coming from unaccredited private high schools.

“And what do you do?”

My identity is supposed to be all about work. But I’ve changed careers multiple times. Currently, I work in a field born about the same time as I was and still have to explain what an instructional designer does to ninety-nine percent of the people I meet.

As he questioned the younger people in the room, I realized that my path of growing up – living multiple places, changing careers, working in a new field and returning to college for more education – was the path more likely to be taken by millennials than baby boomers.  I did lack the opportunity to teeth on technology growing up. The first computer I glimpsed at age six contained banks of reel-to-reel tapes with blinking lights and filled a bedroom sized area. But I didn’t get my hands on a computer until high school. It was the only one in the entire high school, and it had its own closet, a much tinier room than that filled by the first computer I saw. One had to create programs in Basic on punch cards and wait until the teacher tested them to see if they actually worked on the computer.

However, my generation was marked by events as impactful as growing up with computers and the internet as part of daily life. These included the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, which resulted in a distrust of authority and an attempt to make a complete break with life style of the older generation by many. This may seem ironic to those who now see baby boomers as conventional and bound to their jobs as proof of self-worth. Sometimes I suspect the grumbling about this young “Millennial” generation is just a projection of our own thoughts. We expect the following generation to make a break with the previous one, because that’s exactly what we did. Why should they be any different than us, when we were young?

photo By Angélica Martínez – Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Mexico City, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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Why leaders aren’t more self-aware

Eye-1[1] Perhaps the last century’s swing towards the outgoing, outspoken, in charge leader, who always exuded confidence  has created the increasing need for cultivating self-aware leaders. Research by the Hay Group, comparing individuals’ concept of themselves against that held by peers and self-perceived abilities against actual abilities, has indicated that self-awareness is dismally low (under 20%) among managers. Knowing your own abilities, shortcomings, and impact on others is assumed to be essential that is sadly lacking.[2]

An increase in self-awareness can be related to a decrease other “desirable” traits such as self-acceptance and self-esteem. Recent research conducted on university campuses has come up with some intriguing results when self-awareness is increased in students. When students became aware of themselves while filling out a self-esteem survey, their assessment of themselves started a noticeable drift downwards.[3] There was also a significant negative relationship between self-awareness and self-acceptance.While at the college level there appeared to be no significant difference in self-awareness among extroverts and introverts (the percentage of introverts in college is significantly higher than general population), the more self-aware introverts showed lower self-acceptance.[4]

We expect leaders to like themselves and are reluctant to follow someone who admits to weaknesses and expresses doubts. However, if people are actually honest they would have to admit that they are not thrilled by the results when they examine their own internal emotions, motivations and how their actions affect other people. Therefore some willingly avoid looking too much into these things.This partial blindness does actually seem to provide a benefit to those seeking leadership positions. Research has shown that individuals who are self-deceptive when it comes to assessing themselves are also better at convincing others to trust in an unrealistically optimistic outcome.[5]

So will the quest to improve self-awareness result turning leaders in those who appear less like leaders?


[1] Rudd, Anthony. Self, Value, and Narrative: A Kierkegaardian Approach, OUP Oxford, Oct 25, 2012
[2] Baldoni, John. Few Executives are Self-aware, But Women Have the Edge. May 09, 2016
[3] John Ickes, William. Wicklund, Robert A. and Ferris C. Brian. Self awareness leads to lower self esteem. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Volume 9, Issue 3, May 1973, Pages 202–219
[4] Vingoe, Frank J Rogers’ self theory and Eysenck’s extraversion and neuroticism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 32(5, Pt.1), Oct 1968, 618-620.
[5] Nauert, Rick. Overconfident People Likely to be Overrated.


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The price of self-awareness

Investing_money (1)Much of what I’ve perused recently on self-awareness tout the benefit of meditation in increasing self-awareness. This has led to a boom in meditation instructors providing both classes and retreats for mastering the techniques. Search for meditation on the internet and you will find hundreds, perhaps thousands of instructors willing to teach this skill for a fee. Many practitioners insist that you cannot learn to meditate properly without this kind of guidance and support, warning that students will not learn to overcome initial pitfalls and move on to a higher level of awareness.

I wondered how hard could it be to sit erect and still, eyes closed, palms up, chanting the same word over and controlling your breath, listening to your heartbeat, and continually emptying your mind? Now, I think about it, this could be a difficult feat to persist in an activity that is so boring. Indeed, one of the mistakes that some mediation teachers mentioned was people falling asleep during meditation (But  isn’t it supposed to be relaxing?). Another one was that people simply didn’t see what they were accomplishing through mediation and would give up. They needed encouragement to work hard if they wanted to improve at it. People do not just pay for an instructor, they pay for a coach to bolster their confidence, to keep selling them the product they have bought, to convince them they are accomplishing something when they do not see the advertised results (e.g. relief of stress, better concentration).

Claims are made that meditation relieves stress, improves ability to concentrate and generally increases sense of happiness and well-being. But, then people would not pay fees varying from a few hundred to over a thousand 1000.00 U.S. dollars to learn a skill that made no claims. The newest claims that attract CEOs and business owners is that meditation increases awareness and ability to concentrate, improving their business acumen and making it possible to grow their business in stress ridden economy.

This has left me wondering if meditation, which was originally a tenet of Buddhism, has become the newest “investment.” People invest in it making others wealthy and expecting that it improves their own ability to make money.

Photo –Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

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Learning not to be self-aware

dec steph 199Recently I was reading research about grammar police, the kind of people who notice every little misspelling in your writing and assume that you are ignorant based on these errors. Evidently they are disagreeable – certifiably disagreeable. One of the factors in the Five Factor Personality Analysis (often called the Big Five) is Agreeableness. In a research projects, subjects read e-mails both with and without spelling and grammar errors, and then estimated how well they would like the person. Those that downgraded their estimation of the person the most showed a correspondingly low score on Agreeableness on the Big Five. No big deal, you probably expected that to be true.

One of the other factors of the Big Five is Extraversion. Introverts who indicated that good grammar was important to them, were more sensitive to these errors and downgraded the likability of the author of the e-mail much more severely than did introverts who didn’t care about grammar. Overall introverts where not as generous with their estimation of this unknown person as the extroverts. However, there was a definite correlation between how much (or how little) they cared about grammar and how much they expected to like the e-mail correspondent.

Results for extroverts were a little perplexing, “Surprisingly, extraverts who reported grammar as more important were less sensitive to typos than extroverts who felt good grammar was less important.”[1] Some extroverts said grammar was more important, but behaved as it was not.  Why were they not noticing the typos? Did they over-estimate their ability at spelling and grammar? Or was this lack of self-awareness intentional?

This research may have provided a serendipitous insight into self-awareness and why it is rising on the list of desired traits of business leaders. Past researchers have found that the managers and executives are predominantly extroverts. Self-aware people are introspective and think about their own values and motives compared to their actions. But as hard as they try they soon come to realize that they are not capable of behaving consistently according to their own values. There are different ways to respond to this realization: change values to match actions, give up being self-aware because “Nobody is perfect” or intently focus on every error and spiral into depression.

Extroverts tend to avoid this last option. Evidently, simply avoiding reflecting on the effects of their actions is their preferred way of dealing with internal conflict. However, this lower self-awareness has some negative side effects when leaders fail to accurately estimate their own skill or understand their own motivation. We have yet to see whether self-awareness can be taught, or if it is as difficult as teaching extroverted people not to behave like extroverts.

Photo by Dave Cachero
[1] Boland JE, Queen R (2016) If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0149885. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149885


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