House-bound Learning: Teaching Your Kids Without Actually Teaching

After a few weeks into this stay-at-home situation, it became very apparent that neither myself nor my kid were especially interested in assuming a teacher-student relationship.

I'm not the most diligent parent when it comes to overseeing my kid's homework and learning. And with the coronavirus school stoppage (1) maybe a lot of folks are like this -- just not quite sure what to do with house-bound kids. I thought I'd jot down a few of home-learning ideas that seem to have worked for my family, as well as some ideas that haven't. For the lazy and/or tired (maybe everybody, at this point?), you'll be pleased to hear that most of these don't really involve any teaching at all.

Let's all Chill the F*&% Out

This virus deal is pretty stressful for kids and parents alike. So keeping everyone sane should come above all else. Limiting screentime is important for kids, but it's just as important for parents too right now. It's easy to fall into the trap of reading news and social timelines for hours each day to stay up on the latest developments, but it overwhelms you pretty quick.

Read a book. Watch a movie. Take your mind elsewhere. How you react to this mess is going to be reflected in your kids. Don't guilt-trip your kid or yourself if home learning doesn't go as you hoped. Sh*t is hard. It's ok. Stay cool.

Lead by Example

I'm a big believer that learning how to learn is a pretty wicked life-skill (2). And one way to pass that skill on to kids is to visibly study some stuff on your own. I say "visibly" because, for example, if I study up on some programming on my laptop, my kid isn't going to see that very easily. Some examples of this "visible parent learning" that have worked well for me personally in the past few weeks are:

  • I crocheted a motherf*&%ing scarf. My kid had an interest in weaving yarn on her fingers (finger knitting, I think?), so I took it up a notch and learned some basic crochet from Youtube. While this isn't a hobby I've been dying to try, it's a good way for me to keep my nose out of my phone. And more importantly, it was a decent example of a try-fail-repeat progression that went on for about a week until it finally worked. My kid gets super frustrated when trying hard things, so I think it's important to show that I screw up difficult things too and that the important thing is to grind through some reps patiently until you can get it right.

  • I'm trying to learn Ukulele. The good people at Fender are offering three months of free lessons right now, and so far they're working well for me. After about a week in, I can stumble through a bad rendition of Bad Moon Rising. If you have a guitar or bass nearby, they have lessons for those as well. I chose ukulele because it's cheap (3), and if I don't see it through, no biggie.

Some 'visible learning' efforts that are going less well:

  • Learning Cooking: While I'm enjoying cooking a lot, it's more difficult to get my kid excited about cooking dishes she doesn't know or recognize. Most of our cooking successes to date have been cakes and cookies, and watching Sugar Rush or Nailed It on Netflix.

  • Reading time. I promised to try to read more Japanese books if my kid reads some English books (we're in Japan, so her first language is Japanese). Anyway, we both struggle here.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

After a few weeks into this stay-at-home situation, it became very apparent that neither myself nor my kid were especially interested in assuming a teacher-student relationship. But what came as a big surprise was that the kid was open to flipping those roles, i.e. she was really eager to teach me something. So she has been teaching me some basic ballet (which she's studied for a couple of years) for about 20 minutes a day. I won't go into details here about how I'm doing (no one needs that mental picture) but my échappé-to-arabesque is pretty dope.

It turns out that her love of dance is keeping keeping her quite active even while she's been house-bound. I always thought that ballet was kind of stupid and elitist, but it's certainly coming in handy now. Rearranging the furniture to be less centered on the TV and more in favor of open space dancing was a bad idea my wife had months back, but in these past few weeks it has become less bad.

Bonus tip: If your own kid doesn't dance, you might check out these break-dancing lessons that's currently listed among Udemy's free courses. If you have an Apple TV or Chromecast, running the Udemy app (4) on a living room TV might be good for this. I have not tested it, and probably won’t. I’ve embarrassed myself enough…

Parenting Auto-pilot

I used to feel guilty about sitting my kids in front of the TV. Those days are long gone, but I am still rather selective in what I let them watch. As a side project, I've curated a good collection of about 50 'full-episode' Youtube Channels over on So if you're running low on Netflix shows, this will probably be useful. I recommend consuming in a living-room environment (on Apple TV, Chromecast, etc) rather than handing over a mobile device.

Here are a few of the channels that have been on a lot in my house:

  • Science Max: An excellent science show for kids made in Canada. Can't recommend highly enough.

  • Mister Maker: Fun craft projects.

  • Classic Mr. Bean: Always good for a laugh.

  • Sesame Street: This link is a good playlist of full episodes that you should save.

  • Balloon Animals: Turns out making balloon animals isn't really that hard if you have decent balloons and a small pump.

Note: To play these videos, you'll probably want to just subscribe to the channels using your own Youtube account, and then watch using a Youtube app on whatever smart TV you have, if you got one. If not, maybe a PC is ok. Be sure to turn off Youtube autoplay in the settings, because it sucks.

A final note

Anyway, that's more or less all I got. These are pretty crazy times we're going through, so try to be easy on your kids and on yourself.

Stay cool. Stay safe. Stay the f*&k home.

  1. Here in Japan we've been out for over a few weeks now. I can't even remember how long it has been... 

  2. For better or worse, I hooked my horse to that wagon permanently when I choose English Lit as my university major.  

  3. I checked Wirecutter for their recommendation of the best ukulele for beginners, which was a Donner DUC1, and then bought it from a dude selling one, in the interests of supporting the circular economy.  

  4. I'm not a big fan of Udemy, but this seems ok. 

Finding a Better Place for Music

My kids deserve a good soundtrack to their childhood. I don't want it coming from a phone.

I forgot all about music. For 15 years maybe, in fact. It was that blurry time between my mid-twenties till I hit forty -- that time where real life tends to impose itself. But before all that music was a cornerstone for me. While I never played an instrument, I was an avid listener in my teens. My taste wasn't exotic or gourmet -- just standard 90s alt-rock heavy on Nirvana, Pearl Jam and all.

But that's not what's interesting.

Remembering back, what's most remarkable is how intertwined music is with. . . well. . . remembering. I have these really strong musical "memory markers." I mean really vivid, close-my-eyes-and-I'm-right-back-there memories.

I remember as a kid driving from town after buying my first cassette tape, cruising up Kenmount Road at night, street lamps lighting the pavement orange as me and my family headed back home. The tape was Glass Tiger's Thin Red Line (No judgement please, this choice was purely the result of Canada's laws to promote a certain percent of Canadian content). But the title track I thought, as we drove up the road, was just the perfect driving tune. The actual cassette was a bizarre transparent pink plastic, which was just super cool.

But my point is, we all have this. If you think back to a song or album you loved (or hated) as a kid, you probably have a really strong memory of some people or places to go with it. Maybe it's a mix tape from a girlfriend. Or maybe it's some shitty album your family had around. My own parents didn't have a lot of music around -- my dad had a Loverboy tape (thanks again, Canadian content laws) which I remember was a hard white plastic cassette with a chip missing on the corner.

Anyway, as a relatively new parent myself I wondered about music and my own kids. In the age of Spotify on-demand singles when we've ditched physical media and full album plays, what will be their cassette tape memory?

So naturally as a concerned parent in the 2019, I had to buy my family a record player.

I'm no vinyl hipster, but I mean if I can remember dinky plastic tapes, imagine what musty giant records will do, right? I took on this task with the same intent you might take to decorating your kid's room. This is the likely sonic environment for my kids' early years. These will be their memory markers until they start branching out to explore their own.

I didn’t own any records, so I’ve had to buy a small collection. This is where living in Tokyo comes in handy, as used record stores are not hard to find. A typical purchase is about 500 yen (or $5), and I tend to favor female artists as my kids are both girls. Current favorites are the Sound of Music Soundtrack, Heart's Little Queen (my older kid loves Barracuda), and ABBA's Greatest Hits. One unforeseen benefit of all this occurred to me this afternoon when the in-laws swung by for lunch, and suddenly there was this musical bridge between grandkids and grandparents.

Turns out a record player (or I guess any fixed sound system) in the living room also really improves your chances of being able to turn off the TV. Some of our family’s nicest moments this year have been cooking and eating with the TV off and some record playing. In the past, the TV was hardly ever off, so this alone makes the record player purchase a good one.

I'm still not sure how this will work. I still use Spotify myself - it’s wonderful on my commute - and I’m sure my kids will push harder for small screens as they grow. For kids who make music, iPhone and iPads will be awesome tools for output. But I'm glad that I can point to the record player in the corner as our family's place for music consumption instead of a smartphone or tablet.

It’s one area among many where the invasive small screens have been kept at bay.

For now, anyway.

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