| 1090 words

I've already written before how I spend lots of time with children. Either through volunteer based efforts or just with my own younger relatives, I always enjoy getting to engage in play unadulterated by the stresses of adult life. I also really enjoy teaching, and I (sometimes surrepetitiously) try to get them to learn stuff. Especially recently, this has been more on my mind.

There's always kind of a low key question always in the back of my mind, wondering how I can do the best I can. It's the drive that makes me always want to adventure and learn, to live my life to the fullest, but that's not always how it's expressed. When I'm around kids it really makes me cognizant of the impact I'm having, or could potentially be having on their lives.

I find that it's kind of a rare thing for young children to really respect someone. Sure, they might respect their parents and elders with the standard respect that they're required to give. And kids will often happily reciprocate any attention they're given too. But, to be in the position where they seriously listen to you and consider what you say is very special. Sometimes, they'll listen to me in a way they wouldn't even to their parents.

Having that influence can be a big responsibility. Of course you want to emphasize good stuff and avoid bad stuff, but what does that even mean. Eat your vegetables, stay in school, brush your teeth. Classic stuff like that, sure. It raises the question, what are the best things you can do, the smartest nudges you can give, to have the most beneficial impact.

There are a few standard tricks I like to employ. The key for me is to do stuff that I would have found cool at their age; given I was a bit of a nerd I'm not entirely sure if this is a good marker but it seems to work so far. There are websites which teach and gameify math, like brilliant.org, which I find pretty cool, so I occasionally show it to younger kids. There are also fun DIY kits for science or art or engineering which also seem to be well received.

Really, the truth is that younger kids are pretty easy. The thrill of getting a gift plus a grown-up's attentio (and guidance) is enough to keep their focus. The concepts they're tackling are simple enough that a small kit or mini lesson is all the exposure they need to learn something new. It's easier to disguise learning as play to get unususpecting kids to try something new.

The older they are the more challenging they get. By middle or high school they get high quality instruction in these types of activities from their school. They know enough about math/science/history that a short fun gameified lesson isn't enough to actually impart anything meaningfully new. They also have much more sophisticated ways to distracting themselves, including social media and cellphones, which you have to compete with for their attention even if they already like you.

So in these scenarios what is the best thing to do? Assuming they are willing to listen and give you their attention, how should I use it? One big underrated idea I didn't appreciate until recently was just being able to provide some emotional stability. Maybe it's just the rose tinted glasses of my childhood, but I forgot how fraught family relationships can sometimes be. Of course I never want to get in the way, but I've realized that providing words of encouragement and moral support can sometimes be incredibly valuable.

Beyond that, there's still a lot to think about. Parents sometimes spend a lot of time and money to send their kids to camps or workshops, to prepare them either academically or with valuable skills. I don't mean to brag, but I'm one of the best people I know at organizing unique and interesting activities. Surely that's a role I could fill, right? When I propose these ideas to parents they are interested, but they often don't imagine anything beyond some extra math tutoring to raise their grades. There's so many more interesting possibilities.

The equivalent of a premade engineering science kit for an older teenager might be a more dangerous experiment involving real chemicals or tools, with a lot of supervision and instruction required. I understand that's part of why it's harder and more expensive to keep teenagers engaged in these kids of activities, but that's something I am entirely able to provide! I could plan the entire thing out, provide instruction, bring materials, run it within the constraints of their schedule and space, and most important individually tailor it to make sure everybody has fun! It really isn't all to different than the things I plan for myself to fill my own time.

One of the biggest and most unexpected obstacles to this is figuring out exactly what we want to do! Even when I have explicit encouragement to put something together, so many of the kids I know are so indecisive that it's hard to pick just one thing to put together. I'm guilty of that too; someone once said to me "what are your favorite things to teach? let's just do that", and I came up completely blank.

Anyways, the onus is really on me. As much as I like to tell myself that I'm equally good at everything, and I could teach them anything they wanted, I should be the one to determine what topics they're ready for and what would interest them most. If I put a good amount of effort into figuring out what would be the coolest thing to teach someone, and then devoted enough time into making a plan, I'm confident that I could put together something amazing and memorable.

I'm in such a perfect position to do this. So many kids already have great relationships with me. I have time, passion, and money to spend. I love teaching and have lots of experience doing it. Nobody I know does more unique activities or creates more fun plans and games than me. I just have to remind myself I'm worthy of this great responsibility, and challenge myself to make something exception.