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|September 13, 2012
In The VillageInterviewing Children
by Orson Scott Card
I was on my mission when I first read about the idea of a father interviewing his children.
At the time I had no children, of course, and so at first the idea had a certain plausibility. Busy father, lonely children, why not make an appointment and turn it into a meeting and talk about what’s on your mind!
It sounded like a good idea until I imagined having such an interview with my own father. I could not remember an age at which such an encounter would not have been awkward and empty.
What would be the agenda? Would he ask questions? Would I be judged? Or would I merely be reporting? Would he want to hear my deepest thoughts, questions, speculations? How could I waste his time with such things?
After all, the very fact that we had to schedule an interview suggested that his time was extremely valuable and I would be wasting it by meandering on about my strange childish thoughts.
I could only imagine my father asking, “Well, how are things going?” To which I would respond, “Fine.” “Any problems?” “Nothing I can’t handle.” And then we would both walk away, knowing perfectly well that we had said nothing, accomplished nothing, learned nothing.
We would not even know what we had been trying to accomplish.
Maybe the author of the book that suggested these interviews had greater conversational skills than my father and I had. But I doubted it then and doubt it now.
Because actually, my father and I talked all the time.
I remember standing beside him as he operated power equipment, cutting notches in the plywood base of what was going to be a top-down, houseplan-style dollhouse for my younger sister.
He explained what he was doing — the careful measurement of everything, so that all the parts would fit perfectly when he put it all together. One mistake in measurement and the whole base would be ruined. But he made no mistake.
Later I even helped him put the wall units in place, with their doors and windows already cut out. I held them while the glue dried, and I made sure my hand never moved or trembled, because I wasn’t going to let it be my fault it wasn’t perfect.
We stood in his darkroom as he demonstrated the way the image from the negative needed to be lined up and framed on the paper exactly the way we wanted the final print to be. Then he put the paper in place, exposed it for the exact amount of time, and began the chemical baths.
“How do you know how long to expose it?” I asked.
“By making lots and lots of mistakes,” he said. But I noticed what I was doing and so I learned.
I helped him grade student papers, and because he was a professor of education, he taught me about teaching. About what made a test good, and why most tests measured less than nothing.
He taught me how to take a test. “Look at these answer sheets,” he said. “Notice where the student has erased an answer. Find every one of them — is there ever a time when a student changed from a wrong answer to a right one?”
No, Dad. Not one.
“Your first answer is almost always the right one — and if it isn’t, it’s because you don’t know the answer, so your next guess isn’t likely to be any better. Most of the time when students change an answer it’s because they’ve forgotten the whole context.
“They’re second-guessing themselves. They suspect there’s a trick or a trap — and there isn’t, not if the teacher is any good. A good teacher doesn’t make a test tricky — a good teacher makes a test clear, so that if you know the material you’ll get the answers right, every time.”
“Answer every question on a multiple choice or true-and-false test. Don’t leave any blank. Even if they take off a quarter-point for wrong answers. Even if you have no idea what the question even means. Because the odds are with you. You have a fifty-fifty chance of being right on true-and-false and a one-in-four chance on multiple choice. But if you leave it blank, you have zero chance.”
Because of what I learned from my dad as I helped him grade papers, I later took the ACT and got a score on the math portion that put me in the 99.3rd percentile. Even though I never got past geometry — had no idea of trig or algebra II or calculus, had no idea what the symbols even meant. Because I answered every question.
Thanks for my scholarship, Dad.
Dad and I talked about anything and everything while I watched him paint signs, forming the letters perfectly, freehand, on the finished sign. I saw how the brush flowed exactly where he wanted it, shaping the edge of the letter. How there was always just the right amount of paint on the brush, how the letters were all in perfect proportion.
Later, as an editor, I would learn about typography — kerning, leading, serifs, risers and descenders, letter widths, how the letters are shaped to draw the eye along the line. But all that knowledge was there in my dad’s fingers. He knew it with his hands, and not just his head.
I talked about anything with him. All those strange thoughts I could never have brought up in a formal interview, fearful of wasting his time — how could I be wasting his time by talking to him when he never stopped working? His hands did the work while his ears listened to me and his mouth answered me.
He understood what I was saying, what I was asking — questions about the gospel, about philosophy, about history. He always understood what the underlying issue was and brought it to the fore. If I would be a Plato, he was my Socrates.
We talked about people, too. Difficult people, frightening people, demanding people; the weak and the strong, the good and the evil. He helped me become a more patient judge of others — and a more perceptive judge of my own motives and desires.
We never had an interview. But we had hundreds of conversations.
As my wife and I talked about this, she reported something very similar. She would come home from seminary with whatever wacko idée-du-jour the professional seminary teacher had picked up in a religion class at BYU and was now passing on to his high school students.
Her father never said, “That’s wrong.” Instead, history professor that he was, he would say, “I wonder where he got that.” Then he would drop everything and take his daughter to the sources and find what the actual documents said.
Now my wife does the same thing when her seminary students ask questions — she takes them to the original sources, scriptural or historical, and shows where the strange pseudo-doctrines they’ve heard about came from, and why they’re either wrong or simply not supported by the actual sources.
It made her as rigorous in her way about the gospel, about history, about philosophy, as I had become in mine. Different angles of attack — mine logical, hers source-based — but both of us have spent our lives examining everything as our fathers taught us to.
Her father actually did try the interview thing once, when it was first all the rage in Utah priesthood quorums. Each in turn, he sat his children down and went through the utterly empty ritual. “How are things going?” “Fine.” “Any problems?” “None that I can’t handle.” “Well, I’m glad we had this little talk.”
After a couple of tries, they completely abandoned the process. Instead, they had wonderful conversations at dinner about subjects that had come up in school or church or on television or in books or in conversations with friends. It was a family life filled with ideas and lively conversation.
Because when you actually have a relationship with your father, when he actually regards his children as his highest priority and he talks to you and listens to you all the time, he never has to make an appointment with you and hold an interview.
If you fear that your children are growing up as strangers to you, I have an idea. Instead of scheduling interviews, as if your children were employees or business contacts, as if you were their manager, try rearranging your life so that you’re actually home and available, actually working on something beside them.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Most of my children’s lives, I worked at home. When I was actually writing, my office was off limits (not that this stopped them from interrupting me all that often); but most of the time I wasn’t writing.
And I included them, if they wanted to be included. When I wrote a computer-game review column, I hired my son to pre-play the games for me, so that he went through the learning curve. Then we sat down and he demonstrated the game for me. Very quickly, he learned to evaluate the games the way I did, so that instead of just showing me the game, he provided me with a complete review and analysis. I rarely needed to add anything to his ideas and observations.
Later, when he was in college, I took him with me to meet with people in a game company that wanted to adapt a book of mine into a computer game. My son talked to them about games with all the insight and analysis he had acquired when he preplayed games for me. After my deal with them was concluded, they called me up and asked if I’d mind if they offered my son a job. I didn’t mind. He’s still working there.
When I taught an evening class at Appalachian State one semester, it was a two-hour drive each way. I brought my older daughter along. I think she was ten or eleven. We talked almost continuously the whole way there. She slept the whole way back. She sat through my writing class and absorbed everything — she even took part and astonished everyone with her insights; I couldn’t help but think of young Jesus in the temple.
Like my dad, like my wife’s dad, I looked for ways to include my children in my life — if they wanted to be included. I shared my work with them, if they wanted it; I watched them do their work, and commented on it, if they wanted me to. Above all, there were countless opportunities for them to talk to me — if they wanted to.
Was I always wise? Did I always say the right thing? Absolutely not. I said dumb things that annoyed them. I spoke when I should have listened. Kids come without a user’s manual, and things that work with one kid fall flat with the next. That’s life.
What matters is that I tried to be there so that if they wanted to talk to their father, they could.
I never, never scheduled an interview.
When I worked at the job that took me to Greensboro during the recession of the early 1980s, I put in those intense hours at the office that so many men think are required of them.
I worked late, getting home after the kids were in bed, and then did my own writing late into the night so that my freelance career could continue. That meant I usually didn’t get up until they were already off to school. There were lots of Saturdays at the office. I saw them on Sunday.
After nine months of being an absentee father, I quit the job and went back to the scary life of a freelancer, because I thought it was more important for my kids to have a father than for me to serve the needs of an absurdly demanding job. My wife agreed with me that it was better to have the ups-and-downs, the unpredictability of the freelance life, than to have me miss my children’s growing-up years.
You have to do what it takes to provide for your family, and if what it takes is working long hours, then you do it. But I had a choice. And you know, most of us have choices. If a job takes you away from home too much, then get another job. If the only way to get a promotion is to work ridiculous hours and miss your children’s lives, then forget the promotion and be there for the kids.
If you ask most adults what they valued, or would have valued, more in their childhood — owning cooler stuff or having time at home with Dad — guess what they usually say.
If you think you need an interview to get to know your kids, you’re too damned busy with things that don’t matter half so much.
(And don’t write to me to complain about the word “damned.” I used it in its full theological sense.)
You have to know what “enough income” is. It often means adjusting your expenditures, not earning more money. Living in a cramped and crowded home that has a father in it makes kids far happier than having a separate bedroom for everybody, but no room that contains a dad.
Figure out enough, and once you have it, get home to be part of your children’s lives.
My dad was scrambling to earn enough money most of his working life. He worked second and sometimes third jobs. And yet he always had time enough to include me in what he was doing, if I wanted to be included.
That goes for church assignments, too. If you aren’t bishop or stake president, somebody else will do the job. It will get done. But if you aren’t home being dad, who else is going to do the job?
No matter how hard your wife works, she’s Mom, and Mom isn’t Dad, just as Dad can’t be Mom. Sunlight can’t be rain. Wind can’t be water.
Interviews aren’t conversations. Conversations are what your children hunger for. Give them a feast.
|Copyright © 2024 by Orson Scott Card
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