Sunday, September 30, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine in Steven and Teri Maxwell's self-help book " Making Great Conversationalists" amuses me every time I read it.  This chapter - for people who hadn't already caught the pattern - explains the skills an advanced conversationalist is supposed to have.   Honestly, I had no idea of what an advanced conversationalist looked like before  I read this book and I am no better informed after reading the book.  The great part about the chapter is that the Maxwells have crammed all sorts of different types of speaking in between various other topics they forgot to address in earlier sections.

The chapter starts off with a very Maxwellian boast that people who teach their kids how to converse like a Maxwell will be better conversationalists than the average American adult.   That boast is walked back slightly in the next sentence, but mainly because the Maxwells needed a chance to slam how bad most Americans are at talking to Maxwells.  I suspect the Maxwells haven't connected the Maxwell Family's obsession with tracting and judging random strangers with the "bad conversational" skills of the people they meet.  There are a lot of people who will happily shoot the breeze with complete strangers; there are relatively few people who will continue a conversation once the Maxwells make it clear that the only reason they are talking to you is to convert you.

I wonder what would happen if people were more vocal about why they are leaving the conversation with the Maxwells.   I'd be tempted to say something like "Entering a conversation with an unstated external motive is something conmen do, not Christians.  I'm disappointed the fact you were afraid to be upfront about your reasons for starting this conversation.  Goodbye."  Of course, I'd have to practice that a few more times before I could say that on the fly, but you get the idea.  And, truthfully, I am much more willing to listen to someone who states upfront that they are trying to teach me about their religion.   Sneaking it into a conversation is creepy and unbecoming of people who are supposed to be a city on a hill and a light shining in the darkness.

The first major topic in the chapter is that conversations require back-and-forth exchange of information.   I agree with that - but very few of the "good" conversations involved mutual back-and-forth earlier in the book.   Really, the good conversations either had an adult male say "Amuse me!" and his family compiled by talking at him or a kid say "Dad, hold forth on your most recent Biblical obsession!" and the father did.   Most of this section is an extended bitching fest about how an adult career woman told one of the Maxwell sons who was traveling for business all about her job, but failed to ask him any questions about his job.    I was genuinely surprised that any of the Maxwell men travel for business until I remembered that Nathan Maxwell does consult some professional computer security specialist organizations and that Christopher Maxwell travels to take wedding photos.   I'm also surprised that neither Maxwell parent realizes how catty this story sounds:

(...) However, sometimes all one can do is to keep asking questions when the other person doesn't ask any questions in return. That was the exact experience of our son as a talk to the lady next to him on his flight. She was delighted to talk about herself, but she had absolutely no interest in him. She didn't ask our son even one question about his life. Our son stepped off that plane having learned many new things. She left without any new knowledge. (pg. 143)

This enraged snippet says far more about the Maxwell Family level of entitlement than it does about the passenger traveling in the next seat over.  An earlier paragraph explains that the woman worked at setting up pharmacies around the US.   I've been involved in turning over retail areas to a new product before and the process is always chaotic, rushed for time, and physically demanding.  If she's also managing staffing as well, that brings in a whole new level of craziness.  The lady had probably been working 14-16 hour days during the entire trip and had no interest in hearing about the random stranger's life in the seat next to her. 

On top of the expectation that an unrelated woman should jump at the chance to educate and entertain a Maxwell man, the Maxwell son is strangely ignorant of a basic conversational truth.  If the other person is answering your questions - especially if they are giving the most basic answer possible - while not asking any questions of you, the person is trying to end the conversation without being rude.   Can you blame her?  She's stuck on a plane for at least 2-3 hours next to Chatty Chester but answering Chatty Chester's questions is safer than worrying he's going to turn into Grumpy George or Enraged Ernst if she ignores him.

Once the Maxwells have worked out that imaginary insult, they move into teaching your kids to lead conversations away from problematic topics.   Again, this is an important skill for people to have - but why are the Maxwells waiting so long for this idea?   In my childhood, I didn't run into potentially "inappropriate" topics until I was in 3-5th grade because my parents were sane.  They kept us away from sex, drugs, inappropriate alcohol use, and scary stuff that would keep me up at night - and didn't worry about the rest.  In CP/QF land, inappropriate topics start as soon as a kid can talk.  My son watches "Sesame Street" at 18 months old - so presumably a 3 year old CP/QF kid needs to be able to steer the conversation away from terrible topics like "Paws Patrol".

Smoothly changing the topic of a conversation is a good skill to have.  Don't do it like this:

"Hey, Joseph, did you watch that great paramedics show last night?"

" No, I didn't, Daniel. Last night I was working on a web-design project that I am creating for homeschool family that has a home business. I am doing the work for free because I need it to for my portfolio and because I want to help the family's business grow. What do you think are the most important components of websites you go to? What draws you to the site, and what makes you buy what they want to sell?" (pg. 143)

Allow me to summarize this stellar conversation:

"Hey, Joseph, let's bond over a common cultural experience!!"

"I'm gonna bulldoze over you, Daniel!  Hey, answer a few questions for me so I can skip market research, 'k?  How should I make a website that's not geared towards your demographic at all?  Like should there be colors or buttons or something?  Daniel?  Daniel, why are you walking away?  Not cool, Daniel!"

Really, the only thing that I could think of that would top that is if Daniel started describing everything he appreciates in a porn website without specifying that he's describing a porn site.....

The rest of the topic discusses how kids should work at steering the conversation to topics that they are knowledgeable about.   And - again - the Maxwells are far more heavy-handed about that idea than anyone needs to be.  People prefer talking about subjects that they feel comfortable with.  Heavens knows I feel much more confident discussing educational methods in secondary schools than I do discussing the differences in techniques in an artist's collection of works.   Being able to manage the discomfort that comes with being inexperienced in an area is equally important as turning every conversation to a topic that a person can shine in.

As annoying as having every conversation steered towards a Maxwellian topic of excellence, the next section manages to make conversations worse.   The Maxwells glorify people who jam references to God into every conversation.  Like many people who reference God incessantly, the examples the Maxwells find manage to be trite or insulting rather than edifying.   The Maxwells have a mutual friend who didn't recognize Steven Maxwell's voice on the phone, but did once he left a voice message.   When discussing this quirk a day later, the lady goes into a whole spiel about how missing Steven's voice made her wonder how often she missed God's voice in her life.    The Maxwells find that digression profoundly edifying; I am merely grateful that my friends would laugh about that and move on.    A different family has taught their children to redirect all compliments back to God.  If you said to the kid, "Jackie, you play the violin so well!", Jackie would reply, "Thank you.  I am so glad God has given me this talent!"   That quirk stuck with me because it's the same method that women and children in the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints were expected to use to reflect compliments back to their husband or father as the headship of their home.

After that, we get a mild break so the Maxwells can discuss how important storytelling is as a conversational skill.  I love a good story - and the Maxwells use up a page and a half re-telling John's story of being instructed by the California Highway Patrol to drive 300 feet behind a cruiser to form one part of a slow-moving traffic wedge in the middle of the night.   The story caught my attention - but what I remember most is that the Maxwells have no idea what caused the need for a traffic wedge in the middle of the night.   Oh, they have lots of reasonable ideas - presidential motorcade? high-speed chase? - but John didn't turn on the TV and no one thought of using the internet to see if any news site reported on an issue in that area. 

If you guessed that the next topic is the importance of inserting religious references into stories, you win! 

The remaining four pages in the chapters are reviews of previously covered topics, so I'm not going to drag you through them again.

Chapter Ten is about how to teach kids to deal with common issues in conversations - or at least that's what the title implies.  My husband and I agree that the real outcome of following this chapter is to drive every human who talks to you far, far away....

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists - Chapter Eight

Traditionally, people tend to learn items best in groups of three.  I think the Maxwells heard that precept somewhere and decided that they should divide the process of teaching kids how to hold conversations into three parts.  The problem occurs when there isn't enough material to create three distinct groups.  In Steven and Teri Maxwell's self-help book "Making Great Conversationalists", the chapter on training kids at the intermediate level is scant.

The chapter launches with a conversation between the entire Maxwell Family and a nine-year-old who clambers into their bus for a tour.  The author of this section swears the entire family remembers this kid - but fails to attribute the conversation to any individual family member.  The nine-year-old asks some sensible questions about the bus and the Maxwells answer the unison?  In another jarring moment, one of the Maxwells states that the odometer had been replaced before they purchased the bus so they are assuming there was one million miles on the 1995 bus before they purchased it and have added 60,000 miles since then.   I guess that's possible - but from my informal internet searching 500,000 miles is what most transit buses put on when used for 12 years in a dense metropolitan area.  It's not that I doubt that the Maxwells found a bus that had one million miles on it; I'm questioning the sanity of buying a million-mile bus unless they know an experienced mechanic who gave the body a through inspection prior to buying it.  The nine-year-old shares my skepticism apparently because he points out that their family uses a school bus to get around and it's only got 200,000 miles on it.  In spite of that, the Maxwells declare that the kid is in the intermediate stage of conversation because he's better at talking about what they want to talk about than most adults!  (Ok, the last bit is my spin  - but they don't explain why he's an intermediate stage conversationalist.)

The next topic glossed over is the importance of teaching kids Bible verses so they can use those verses in conversations later on.  The topic takes up a page and a half - but I've summarized both the main topic and all pertinent details in ....*counts quietly to self* .... 23 words.  The rest of the space is taken up with single verses from Proverbs or Psalms that involve conversation.

After that topic is duly crossed, the Maxwells discuss how important enthusiasm is in a conversation.  Apparently, a good conversationalist should be like their neighbor's dog who goes into a riot of excitement whenever anyone comes by.  And like the dog, the child shouldn't differentiate enthusiasm levels based on the age of the person they are talking to or the subject at hand.   Personally, I find indiscriminate enthusiasm disconcerting.   I know that a lot of topics that I like talking about are esoteric, geeky or appeal to a niche market; I don't expect strangers to begin to fawn when I say that I've been subbing at local high schools recently.   Plus, acting highly enthusiastic about a subject that a kid either knows very little about or dislikes is setting up an untenable situation.  Eventually, their relative ignorance of a subject or dislike is going to come through - and I'm going to be far more annoyed or upset when I realize they were play-acting.  As always, the Maxwells included some fake dialogue to show the difference between a teenage boy who is trying to get out of a conversation with an adult man at their church and the same kid describing his vacation in great detail to the older guy.  My confusion is pretty simple:  If the teenager is close to the older guy to start with, the kid is being rude by not explaining why he doesn't want to talk right now.  If the two aren't close, why is the older guy asking a bunch of questions to a teenager about his vacation?  That's a weird place to start a relationship.

I kid you not: the following section is titled "Are questions important in a conversation?" 


I just saved the Maxwells a few cents of printing costs taken up over a page of ramblings.

The last three pages of the chapter are a review of alternating between asking questions and giving answers in a conversation and how to practice conversations.   This sounds familiar because both ideas have been covered extensively previously in the book - and there are no new additions in this section.

Finally, we reach an abbreviated list of questions that parents can teach their kids to ask other kids followed by a list the kids can ask adults.  I'm going to start with the kid-to-kid questions and chunk them as I see fit:
Tell me about your family.

Where do you live?

Tell me about your house.(pg. 138)

When I was in grade school, we discussed the question words - who, what, where, when, why and how.  Notice the absence of "tell me" from the question words because "tell me" is a command rather than a request or a question.   Let's not train children to be tiny drill sergeants demanding information from their peers. 

I know the Maxwells travels quite a bit for conferences - but the question "where do you live?" doesn't scale well to local areas.   It's not like the kids are going to be meeting people who live terribly far away.

I can't imagine launching into a description of my home to a new person I've met as an adult.  I think I might have described our house as "the green one between the two yellow ones on the left side of the street" when giving directions.  Outside of that, I really don't remember talking about my house as a kid.    As a question goes, it feels like a form of bragging.

What are your interests?

What do you do when you have free time?

What activities are you involved in?

What is your favorite thing to talk about?

How do you most enjoy spending your time?

Why do you enjoy that? (pg. 138)

This section is the same question phrased slightly differently over and over and over.  The larger issue I see is that the Maxwell kids are likely to get answers that are forbidden to their family.   "I like to watch Paws Patrol on TV.  What do you like to watch?"   "I play soccer as a midfielder.  Do you play sports?"  "I read books.  What's your favorite book?"

 Oh, heavens.  I just realized that the Maxwells would probably pipe up that their favorite book is the Bible - or the books that their sister writes and you can buy one at their website!

Where is your favorite place to go as a family? (pg. 138)

That's a good question.    The Maxwells skip the obvious follow-up question of "where's your favorite place to go?" since not everyone in a family goes to the same place.

Do you play an instrument? If so what is it? How long have you played it? Why did you choose that instrument? Why do you like playing it? Do you ever play for other people? Where?(pg. 138)

Oh, the Maxwells approve of people playing instruments.  That's allowed.  I think they allow people to sing as well.   I'm curious how the Maxwell kids would respond to the common complaint that a kid badly wants to give up (pick an instrument), but their parents won't let them.  Oh, wait.  Bible verse about disobedience and witchcraft. 

Do you have or have you had any pets?

What kind? What do you like about them/it?

Did you train your pet to do anything?

If you could have any pet, what would it be and why? (pg. 138)

Whoo-hoo!  The Maxwells had a section of age-appropriate and not weird questions!  YAY!

Where do you go to school?

What do you like best in school? Why?

What do you like least in school? Why?

What are you studying in school that you enjoy? Why?

What have you learned recently that you could share with me?(pgs. 138 and 139)

Again, the two questions about things the person likes at school are the same question.  I'd pay to be the fly on the wall when a bored homeschooled teen responds that the thing they like least about school is being homeschooled. 

Let's not turn what little peer-to-peer time CP/QF kids have into enforced tutoring times, ok?  It's a bit nightmarish from my perspective as a teacher to expect kids to update other kids in different school systems about random topics.   There's a lot of way that could go wrong - and not many ways it could go right.

Corollary: At what age do the Maxwells learn about human anatomy and reproduction?  Does it match all the kids they might meet in CP/QF land?

Next up are the questions for kid-adult conversations:

What is your name?

How many children do you have?

Do you have any grandchildren?

What are their names and ages?(pg. 139)

There's an odd missing question in this list.  Do the Maxwells really want their kids to ask unmarried  adults if they have children?  This oversight is quite odd considering their daughter Sarah is single in her late thirties.  Presumably she's had the awkward situation where a well-meaning kid assumes she's married with kids of her own at some point.

More broadly, it's not a great idea to send kids off to ask adults if they have kids or grandkids.  That's a rather rude question to blurt out at people - and potentially hurtful to people who badly want a spouse, children or grandchildren but do not have any.

Where do you live?

What do you do for a living?

Where do you go to church?

What do you like to do? (pg. 139)

I think we can agree that kids shouldn't be telling adults they don't know well where the kids live, amiright?  That was agreed to be good practice when I was a kid in the 1980's and I've seen no sign that's changed.  With that assumption, don't set kids up for a situation where an adult shares their address and then asks for the kid's address. 

I don't want to know how the Maxwell kids respond when someone tells them they belong to the Catholic Church...or the local synagogue.....or the local mosque. Oh, wait.  Bible verses.  *rolls eyes*

What is your salvation story?

Do you homeschool your children? (pg. 139)

Yes!  Yes!  Open the door to hearing random strangers' salvation stories.  Remember, the greater the sinner, the greater the glory of God when they are saved!  Be sure to share the utter depravity of your life before Jesus to the Maxwells; don't hold back!

The next chapter begins the most unintentionally hilarious sections of the book. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists - Chapter Seven

After two weeks of working outside of the house again (YAY! YAY! YAY!), I can confirm a sneaking suspicion of mine surrounding Steven and Teri Maxwell's book "Making Great Conversationalists".  The Maxwells have created a problem by severely restricting homeschooled children's chances to talk to other people - and are now profiting by selling a book on how to correct the problem they created.  That feels something the horrifyingly dysfunctional Bluth family would pull off - or the craven capitalist Montgomery Burns on the Simpson - rather than something a nominally Christian family would do.   I've been working with kids from age 8-19 from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, ability levels and English fluency - but all of the kids were capable of starting a conversation without needing extensive teaching.

That's one of the benefits of traditional schooling methods.  Most societies encourage kids and teens to interact and form relational bonds with other kids and teens.  These bonds benefit communities because most teenagers will eventually marry other teenagers and form economic entreprises with other teens.  Peer-to-peer bonds provide a form of insurance against bad events in the future.  For example, women in the Hidsa people formed sororal bonds with girls of a similar age.  If a woman was ill or recovering from childbirth when her garden was supposed to be planted, her sororal sisters would plant the garden for her - just as she would do for them. 

A side-benefit of being expected to spend time among unrelated peers is learning how to talk to other people.   Dumping a bunch of toddlers together means that the toddlers will eventually use words to work out who gets what toy or what game they want to play.  From there, it's just a natural progression of adding new topics while teaching societal expectations.  The first part of Chapter Seven is about teaching "beginning" conversationalists about basic US norms for non-verbal cues during conversations.   Kids are expected to look the person who is speaking in the eye and smile.  I have no problem with those conventions per se - but they are not universal.   I've worked with international students from diverse areas where the convention of looking directly at an authority figure and smiling while they talk is viewed as being disrespectful and rude.   Since the Maxwells are supposed to train their kids to convert people to Christianity all over the world, they probably should introduce the concept of cultural norms early on....

The Maxwells move on to the idea that kids should speak slowly and clearly.  I agree - but again, this is an issue that the Maxwells' obsession with extreme sheltering created.   In a traditional school setting, kids pick up pacing and volume control naturally over time.  When kids speak too fast, their friends can't understand the words and the kid slows down.   Yup, kids occasionally need tweaks, but parents aren't doing all the work of teaching kids to speak more slowly and calmly.  At the end of this section, Teri Maxwell includes an intriguing quote from her mother:
Recently, I (Teri) was talking to my mom and sharing the section with her. Immediately she said, " Please tell your readers to let their children answer when someone is interested in the in their children to ask them a question. So often when I try to talk to a child, his parents will answer for him rather than letting him speak for himself." (pg. 115)

I...have never had that experience.  My general experience with talking with small children is one of two outcomes.   Outcome one is that I ask the kid a question and the kid responds.  Outcome two is that the kid has no response when I ask them the question and after a long-ish pause the parent answers the question.   I've not known many parents who jump in to answer a question before their kid has had a chance to answer. 

There is a tad more ironic possibility.  Steven Maxwell has stated frequently in this book that he dislikes it when his kids act like knowledgeable experts in areas where the other person knows more than the kid does.  Maxwell has created many dialogues in this book that imply that the main purpose of children's conversation is to keep the conversation on topics of interest to their father and listen rapturously as the father holds forth on his personal favorite topics.   Finally, Maxwell seems to live in dread fear of being embarrassed by his kids talking like a normal kid.   With that background, I wonder how often Steven Maxwell answers questions for his kids when asked by his mother-in-law.  Maxwell doesn't strike me as a person who handles a request to change his habit gracefully - so maybe his mother-in-law took a different method of passing on a request.

The worst advice comes in a section about dealing with shyness.   The Maxwells seem to take shyness as a person insult instead of a passing stage that many kids go through - and also age out of.  The first bit from that section is odd, but most likely harmless advice:

This is also an important time to teach your children to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They aren't the ones responsible for coming up with an answer to a question. The Lord will do that for them. (pg. 115)

Mmmm-kay.  That's strange advice.  First, what does it mean when an observant, saved kid has one of those moments when their mind blanks out during an attack of social anxiety?  As a kid, I would have been terrified that the Holy Spirit was mad at me or was somewhere else.   Second, how the hell do all of us unsaved folks manage to talk?  I'm religious - but I'm not saved under the Maxwell/Botkin/CP/QF theory of salvation.  In spite of that, I'm delightfully chatty!  I have a point of personal pride that I can talk to any willing person about a topic of interest to them for as long as they want to talk - but how can I have that skill if I'm unsaved?   Finally, why would the Lord have two or more saved people talk to each other anyways?  That would literally be the Lord holding both sides of the conversation....

The next bit of advice is a quick refresher on how to be a helicopter parent in case any of the readers have forgotten:

You could talk to the adult beforehand, explaining how you are working with your child and what you are trying to teach him. Give me adult two or three questions to ask your child that you will have had your child practice giving answers for. That way your child will have extra confidence because when the question is asked, he will know the answer. (pg.116)

Or....and I'm just spit-balling here....the parent could practice the 3-4 most common topics that adults ask kids they know.   If the nervous kid knows how to answer "How is school going?", "How is (choose an after-school activity) going?",  "Do you have pets?" and a stock response for "Wow! I like your item of clothing!", the kid should be golden for over 90% of conversation starters from adults.  If this is a kid in the real world, adding "What do you like to do/watch on TV/read/favorite movie?" covers 99% of the conversation starters. 

I bring this up repeatedly - but how many of the issues in conversations for excessively sheltered homeschooled kids come from lack of exposure to any activity of wider interest?   When families are prevented from doing sports, theater, dance, watching TV, movies, listening to most music and highly restricted in reading habits, they've reduced their kids down to a handful of topics to talk about.  Since many of these families are also paranoid that the government is going to crack down on homeschooling, I suspect many of the kids have picked up some level of nervousness around talking about school.  By my count, that leaves pets as a safe topic of conversation....

The last quote clarifies that shyness is a sin:

Prepare the children ahead of time for answering questions they are asked. Don't excuse shyness. Don't even use the word! If your child refuses to speak, treated as a discipline issue just as you would treat any other disobedience. Do not discipline in public, however, but keep the discipline for when you are home, whether it is a simple verbal correction or a consequence. If you allow a child to choose not to speak when spoken to, you facilitate that behavior. Their disobedience is a symptom of a heart that isn't willing to listen to you or follow you. (pg.116

To be clear, the Maxwells believe that if parents want their kids to talk in public, the kids should do it - and failure to do so is disobedience which is a sin.   Presumably, the converse is also true - if parents don't want their kids to speak in public, kids who do so are sinning and should be punished. 

The problem with this belief is two-fold. 

First, social anxiety is a real thing.  When I was a kid and a strange adult asked me questions, my mind would go blank and I'd hear a loud buzzing in my ears.  I wanted to respond as smoothly and well as my parents did - but I literally couldn't do it.   My parents were sympathetic; they gave me time to answer and if I couldn't, they answered the question for me.  That took the stress off of me - and generally let me respond to the next question or ask a question of my own once my body settled down a bit.   They also told me to watch how they interacted with other adults and mimic that.  That was a great tip for me; I find practice conversations stilted - but watching my parents let me connect stimuli found in real life.   This is a pretty common story among shy or timid people; you want to be involved - but your body gets in the way. 

Understanding and patience is helpful.  Having parents who both support you - and challenge you within reasonable limits - is helpful, too.  In my case, while my parents knew I struggled at the first exchange with a strange adult, they expected me to be able to greet them with a polite "Hello" and say goodbye as well.  They gave me positive feedback when I joined the conversation.

If my parents had punished me in any way, I believe my social anxiety would have gotten worse over time rather than better.   It was hard enough to push through when I was anxious, but I knew my parents had my back.  If I was anxious and knew I was disappointing my parents and that I would be punished....well, yeah, I'd be even more blank....and probably progress into a crying ball of Mel.  That'd be impressive to the poor adult who asked me how school was going....

The other problem is the Maxwell belief that parents have the unquestioned right to control their children's every action.   That's completely nuts - and totally insane coming from parents of eight children.   My son is a whopping 18 months adjusted and I can't control his every action!  Honestly, I would never try that.  Right now, I demonstrate appropriate social customs like saying "Hi!" "Bye!" and waving at people.  Sometimes my son mimics me by saying "Hi, car!" or "Hi, cat!" and he's just started waving spontaneously when he sees people - but I'd never try and reinforce that through negative consequences.   I let the natural positive consequences happen like when he waves at a cashier the cashier smiles at him and verbally reinforce that behavior by saying "Oh, it's so nice when you wave at people!". 

I want my son to be a functional member of society - but I also want him to be able to follow his gut, too.  That means that he's allowed to have people he likes and dislikes.  That means he can say "no" to a hug from a family member and offer a handshake instead.  That means he can choose not to talk to random strangers - even if doing so would make me proud. 

The rest of the chapter rehashes topics covered previously so I'm going to stop there.   The next chapter is really short.  The Maxwells try to create an "intermediate" level of conversation and fail miserably.  The most memorable bit for me - and presumably you - is the list of questions that kids should be taught to ask each other...and adults.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Quick Update

Good News!  I'm back subbing and having a blast.   I had a surprise spate of jobs - a surprise visitor from out of town this weekend - and another surprise spate of jobs starting Monday.

I'm planning to resume blogging on Thursday and will hopefully have 3 new posts Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Six - Part Two

Everyone survived the goofy conversational start to Chapter Six, I hope.  I wish I could tell you that the chapter improves immensely from there, but this is written by the Maxwells. 

 "Making Great Conversationalists" by Steven and Teri Maxwell rarely brings helpful advice or sensible activities.  This strange lack of useful information, however, is off-set by quirky insights into their writing process or the general rhythms of their lives.  In Chapter Six, the Maxwells decide to answer the question "Can Conversational Skills Be Taught?" .   I agree that teaching conversational skills is possible and an admirable goal - but I question the wisdom of waiting to answer the question until page 96 of a 200 page book.  I think I would enjoy the book more if the Maxwells admitted at this point that they personally are not the people to each this skill.

With the standard absence of transition between subjects, the Maxwells insert a page of rhetoric about why movies, television, video games, computers and books stifle conversation rather than promote it.  The crux of their argument is that when people are engrossed by media, they do not talk.  If someone interrupts them while they are engrossed by the media, the person will be shushed and conversation will be crushed. 

The problem I see with their logic is that good media either allows for conversations while being consumed or inspires topics of conversation after the media is done.   When I was college-aged, my teenage brother saved up and purchased an X-Box along with Mario-Karts.    Within a few months, my mom, my sister, my brother and I ended playing marathon sessions of Mario-Karts against each other.   We were capable of talking while playing Mario-Karts - although it was generally a series of rants about how horribly we were doing interspaced with hysterical laughing when one of us realized we were doing so badly that we were screwed.   

Now, my dad would join us when we went to see local theater.  Unlike video games, other audience members do appreciate silence during acts.  In exchange for two hours of silence, we gained hours of conversational material.   Most recently, Dad played Firs in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard".   We've discussed the staging, casting, costume and lighting choices of the play - but the longest lasting topic of conversation is Anton Chekhov's surprise that a play he wrote to be a comedy is at best a tragicomedy...and most of the play is simply tragic.

The subject of the evils of modern media wraps up with a very detailed description of how Teri Maxwell always turns to see people who enter the room where her computer is and states that she needs to finish up before talking to the person if she cannot talk right away.   I am astonished by the detailed description of what should be a mundane and workaday habit related to common courtesy.  It's like the Maxwells have cut themselves so far off from most humans that they've forgotten which pieces of information are common - like the phrase "Gotta finish this; be with you in a minute, kiddo" - leading to them feeling like they've made a major breakthrough by being polite.

Speaking of being isolated from all people, the next section about ideas for good talking times with your kids contains no new ideas.  The only one I remembered after reading was the decent idea that some kids relax more when a parent lies on a bed with them.   The reason I remembered that is I ran into a set of pictures of the bedroom of the Maxwell "girls" where Sarah, Anna and Mary sleep.  Anna and Mary share bunk-beds that might not work so well for those two girls.

The benefits of setting up relaxing talking times evaporate if readers follow the questionable advice over the next two pages.  Steven Maxwell is all about having individual meetings with each kid once a week to talk.  If families followed that idea, I'd think it a bit hokey, but harmless.  The problem comes when people follow Maxwell's ideal of using those meetings to go over the personal failings of the kid with an occasional sop of pretending to take the kid's feedback about where Maxwell is currently failing.  I don't remember having major character flaws when I was growing up that required in-depth serious conversations weekly; if I did, the repeating nature of the conversations would make me nervous.

Once we've slogged this far in the chapter, we are rewarded with plans to carefully - oh, ever so carefully - allow kids to practice conversations with people outside of their family.  Let's be honest; this is crazy even for CP/QF families.  Most people let their kids interact with other kids at school, at church and in the neighborhood.   Not the Maxwells - and the control freak moments seep out.

You can also invite another person or family over from your church for dinner. It is certainly a bit easier if it is just one person, such as a young, single adult or a widow or widower. That allows the conversation to focus on that particular person so it doesn't have to be spread among a couple or a whole family. (pg. 102)

Imagine you are a teenager in a family of eight kids with two adults.   In which scenario would it be easier to talk: when one adult visitor is over for dinner or when a similarly large family is over for dinner?   Based on my experience, it's a lot easier to find a person to talk when there are lots of available people to talk with.  The only reason that I can think of for the Maxwells to restrict the visit to a single person is to control the access of their kids to conversation and possibly to control the conversation focus to remain on the parents.

As conversation experience grows, having a family from church over for dinner allows a greater degree of not only practice but also ministry. The girls can have conversations with the visiting daughters and mom while the boys engage the other families' sons and father. (pg. 102)

Goody-goody-gumdrops!  Once the kids have demonstrated that they will not spill deep family secrets or embarass the parents (like 5 year-old Cynthia when she didn't want to talk to a stranger), the kids will be allowed to interact cautiously with other like-minded families.  Now, I'm not sure how that would work for the Maxwell Family since they've always managed to skirt the theology mind field of home-church vs. joining a congregation by running a "congregation" that consists entirely over retired home aged-folks.   The best bit, though, is training kids early to not interact with kids of the opposite gender.   Romeo and Juliet can't be emotionally impure - let alone secretly married and having sex - if they've never spoken to each other, after all.

The next rung on the experience ladder will the conversations with non-believers. When you invite them into your house, you will be cautious to oversee conversations between them and your children. They will not have sensitivity to what a Christian would consider appropriate topics for children's ears. Parents can stop or forestall what they don't want their children to hear. (pg. 103)

Boy, I had so much fun imagining the type of non-believer that couldn't handle being around children or teens without launching into profanity, epic stories of drug use or hedonistic orgy stories - while also trying to figure out where the average CP/QF adherent would find this interesting of an adult.  And then I realized the problem: I was using the standards of mainstream USA to determine what stories are inappropriate for kids.   In Maxwell-land, I am a great example of a non-believer who could warp their kids.  I attended college - and liked it!  I have worked in a career - and found it beneficial!  I married late in life and *gasp* waited to have a baby for several years!  I watch TV! I believe in evolution!  Oh - there are so many ways I could contaminate their children...and I'd never even know.

Anytime your family is out in public, there are conversation possibilities. It could be talking to the checkout person while at the store. Maybe it is the teller at the bank when you stop by to do some banking. What about when you were waiting in line to return or purchase an item and there are people in front of you and behind? When you are out, be watchful for people with whom your children could begin a conversation, and help them initiate the conversation. (pg. 103)

Um.... yes.  That is a possibility - but why do the Maxwells need to explain this?  I generally strike up conversations with people in the wider world - and presumably my son will learn that from watching me like I learned it from watching my parents. 

The next chapter discusses teaching children how to have conversations....which is so weird.....

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Six - Part One

It's official!  I have now had more ear infections as an adult as I did prior to age 4!   Honestly, I didn't have many ear infections as a child - but I am apparently the oddball adult who has one Eustachian tube that doesn't drain well when my allergies act up and about twice a decade I manage to get a real-honest-to-goodness middle ear infection with the resultant fever, crabbiness and ear/tooth/side of head pain.   

The funniest bit is that the well-meaning nurse practitioner, resident. or physician's assistant always starts by explaining that adults don't get ear infections....they just get fluid buildup without infection which can hurt a lot.  I nod understandingly - because that's generally true - and then have them look at my ears followed by "Oh...yeah.  That's infected.  Huh." 

Thankfully, my husband was working from home studying for an insurance licence so he could watch our son while I slept most of the day.  Also - thank God for those prescription ear-drops that end pain. 

Anyways, Steven and Teri Maxwell's "Making Great Conversationalists" includes two example conversations at the beginning of Chapter Six.   The starting example is the "bad" conversation - which doesn't seem that bad to me: 

After praying for their evening meal, Dad says, "Tell us about your day, kids."

"It was fine," sixteen-year-old Morgan begins.

"Mine too," fourteen-year-old Hunter adds.

"What did you do?" Dad works towards getting more conversation from the children.

"Oh, not much," Hunter answers.

"Hmm, I don't know," Morgan says.

Dad gives up on the conversation with his children and focus on finishing his dinner so he can get to his computer to answer some pressing emails. (pg. 93-94)

I find the fact that Dad is "praying for their evening meal" rip-roaringly funny.  "God, we...really need food for dinner.  Oh, wait.  Here it is!  Thank you!"  That's why the standard preposition used is "before" as in "After praying before their evening meal....".  An equally acceptable phrase would be "saying grace".

Dad is not good at soliciting conversation from his kids and the Maxwells never point out that he's doing worse at getting them to talk as they are at responding.   He essentially commands his teenagers to entertain him with stories from their day without providing them with a conversation point.  His original request has nothing for the kids to grab onto and respond to.  Because of that broad, bland request, most people will blank out and have little or no sensible response.   Simply bounding the request with a time frame and an emotional reference like "Tell me your favorite event from this morning, kids" is much easier to respond to.   This is supposed to be a family, though, so Dad should be able to fit the question to his kids.   I went to a traditional high school and my parents knew which classes I was taking and what extracurricular activities I was in.  Homeschooling is supposed to make parents more informed about their kids' lives - so what went wrong in this family?

Dad's not demonstrating persistence or determination for his kids to model at all.  He tries to talk to his kids for 30 seconds.  When the kids don't give him the response he wants, he shovels down dinner and returns to work.  That's underwhelming for an adult.

There's a minor issue in play between the two kids.  Morgan sounded like she had more to say after "It was fine" - but she was cut off by Hunter.   For quieter kids, once someone shuts them down, they might not get back into the conversation so the family should work at teaching Hunter to wait his turn - even if he is a boy in a very patriarchal culture.

The second response from each of the kids seems odd in a homeschooling family.  If I was Hunter's mom-teacher and I heard that he didn't do much today in school, we would be having a serious conversation about if he wanted to have his assignments picked by me in detail every day.   Similarly, Morgan's response that she can't remember what she did in school - at all - should set off warning bells.  I was taking 7 subjects a day in high school.  I might have some difficulty remembering exactly what we did in a class that was easy for me like history or religion- but I could generally discuss what I was doing in math, science and Spanish which were very challenging for me.  Is Morgan not being challenged?  Is she in classes that are completely overwhelming her?  Does she have memory issues? 

And now I present the "good" conversation.  It makes me laugh so hard that I kept causing my transcription software to freeze up.  I have broken the conversation into small chunks because I can't make it any further before I have to bring up some issues.

After praying for their meal, Dad says, " Tell us about your day, kids."

"It was a normal school day for me," Hunter response. "I have been struggling with equations in my algebra. Mom has been encouraging me to pray and ask the Lord to help me. Today I finally felt like I was making some progress. It felt so good." (pg. 94)

Steven Maxwell needs to guard against getting whacked-upside the head by an elderly Dominican nun in a short habit.   I went to a Catholic high school and was taught AP Calculus by Sister Robert Anne.  She was probably the last remaining of the old school religious math teachers.  She didn't hit anyone with a ruler in my class....but we were never entirely sure that she wouldn't hit us if she thought it would teach us math.    SRA was didn't pull any punches - but she wouldn't let anyone mess with her students - and she showed up at most athletic and artistic events regardless of weather, distance or skill of the performers.    We always had a few students who enjoyed messing with her - and she messed right back.   She appreciated hard work and spunky students.    I can't imagine the spunkiest student telling her that they've been praying for God to teach them Algebra.   I'm sure she'd reply tartly that prayer can't replace studying and getting help when you need it.....or maybe that the student should simply jump to invoking St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.  After all, she was crystal clear that attending monthly Mass as a high school cut into her teaching time and that if students really wanted to attend Mass they should get up earlier and go to 6:00 am daily Mass at St. Isadore or St. Adelbert.    So, yeah, Maxwell should look out for an angry nun who is going to whack him for the good of all those homeschooled kids.

Just out of curiosity: has Hunter made some progress in praying for help or in learning algebra?  Both are possible based on his response.....

" You know, son, math was hard for me, too, but there was a great a sense of accomplishment when I understood something. I didn't know the Lord when I was a teen so I didn't have His help like you do," Dad encourages. " What about you, Morgan?"

"School was fine, but what I was really excited about was starting to work on an apron I am making. I had washed and dried the fabric yesterday. Today I was able to cut out the whole thing so tomorrow afternoon I will be ready to begin sewing." (pg.94)

Dad's first sentence was great!  His second sentence....well, let's say that I doubt anyone can find a correlation let alone causation between skills in Algebra and salvation status.  I hate to think that there are kids and teens out there that believe that being saved makes you better at skills you struggle at. 

Now...Morgan.  The Maxwells are reinforcing the worst excesses of CP/QF homeschooling for daughters in a few sentences. In the first conversation, she had no memory of anything she did in school.  In the second conversation, nothing she did in school is as fascinating as discussing the symbol of domestic femininity that she's making as a budding young woman.  I have the bona fides of an accomplished homemaker; I can make clothing, grow a garden, preserve the produce, raise a baby, and build kitchen organizers from scratch.   My parents taught me how to keep a home - and they would have been horrified at the implication that the only way to learn housekeeping skills is to cut back on academic accomplishments. 

Ironically, Teri Maxwell should have been allowed to write Morgan's dialogue.  She would have realized that even a detailed farmhouse apron doesn't take that long to cut out - and that the most time-consuming part of preparing fabric is ironing the laundered fabric.

Once the kids have entertained their dad for a few minutes, the family can launch into the only subject left:

Then Hunter introduces another topic for discussion: " Dad and Mom, I'd like to tell you what the Lord has been teaching me through my Bible time in the morning. I'm reading in Jeremiah, and it is so convicting. I wonder if there aren't a lot of similarities between today and Bible-time Israel."

"Son," Dad responds. " I have felt the same thing as when I read Jeremiah. Whenever I read that book, I come away so amazed at God's patience with Israel and then with the world today."

Morgan chimes in: "Dad, do you think God could be running out of patience with mankind?"

"He certainly would be justified if he is. It is amazing how little interest people have in the Lord Jesus or anything that has to do with the Bible.." (pg. 94-95)

This goes on for another full page.  The important thing is that the kids - or the mom who finally speaks up - ask questions of Dad that let him expound on his views of how modern America sucks and how God's gonna smite everyone God dislikes. 

Maxwell never brings up an example where a kid comes to a very different conclusion from their personal Bible reading time than the parents do.  He's probably never experienced that since his kids have been carefully protected from any dissenting Bible views - but I'm curious how families are supposed to respond to that.

Of course, neither of the Maxwell parents, any of their children who read the book or the proofreader that they swear that they use found it strange that a 14-year-old used the term "Bible-time Israel"  rather than "Biblical Israel" or "Biblical times" or...well, there's a lot of options other than "Bible-time Israel".    In fact, "Bible-Time Israel" sounds like an attraction at Ned Flanders' Praiseland on the Simpsons or a Little People toy set marketed to Christian families. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Five

How many types of bad speech did you grow up with?  My husband and I brainstormed and we grew up with four different types of bad speech - swearing, being exceptionally crass (e.g. "potty mouth) lying and being hurtful to others.  As an adult, I think the list still stands.   By using the Bible very literally Steven and Teri Maxwell have found six separate ways that words can be harmful.  These six themes make up the beginning of the sixth chapter of "Making Great Conversationalists". 

The first theme is "idle words".  This theme was retrieved from the 36th verse in Matthew 12 about people being held to account by their idle words.  Looking at the entire chapter, Jesus has been irritated by some local Pharisees who have been nitpicking very action he's done.  Matthew 12:36 is the culmination of Jesus telling them off and to stop bother him.  The Maxwells use the King James Version and don't believe in crazy liberal ideas like using the context of a they struggle deeply to create an entire paragraph about idle words.   The Maxwells steal a definition of "idle" from Strong's Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries, make a few vague threats about how Jesus will punish people for idle words...and that's it.

The next theme is "foolish words" - based on the KJV translation of Ephesians 5:3-4.   The verse itself is clearly letting Christians know that they shouldn't join in existing pagan rituals involving drunkenness or sex.   I prefer the New Revised Standard Version that changes the sentence structure to "obscene, foolish and vulgar talk" instead of the "neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting" of the King James.  When I think of obscene, foolish, vulgar talk, I think of a rowdy party involving immature people imbibing lots and lots of alcohol.   The Maxwells, on the other hand, think of this:

In our family, we still occasionally talk about the foolishness of our children's Grandpa and Benny stories. They went through a phase of making up stories and recording them. The theme was a fictional Grandpa and Benny. The stories were total folly and foolishness. We didn't know enough in our parenting at that point to eliminate the foolishness and to direct your children to edification. Those stories have provided us with a good example of foolish talking and children. (pg. 77)

From that quick synopsis, I hear a lot of good practices for education of kids.  Grandpa and Benny stories required characterization, development of plot and anticipating the desires of the audience who will hear the story.  If they were recording the stories, they were either taking notes, writing a script, memorizing the story or improvising the story during the recording - all of which are excellent literary skills!  This is a great exercise for kids - not a descent into sinfulness.   

I feel awful for the younger Maxwell kids - Joseph, John, Anna, Jesse and Mary.  The lives of the older three kids were restricted over time but at least Nathan, Christopher and Sarah experienced some of the simple, innocent and carefree joys of childhood.  They played team sports, created goofy stories and read books.  The younger kids never had those options and that's so very sad.

In addition to losing those joys, the younger kids have apparently had "joking" taken away from them.  Now, the book conflates the term joking with using sarcasm or passive-aggressive humor as a form of discipline for children.   Using pointed humor in lieu of constructive criticism is a terrible idea - and is modeling poor responses to a kid.    There is an entire world of humor outside of pointed jabs, though.   I've enjoyed a good pun, situational humor or well-timed spit take for decades.  Personally, I have a very dry sense of humor that works well with teenagers once they get used to me as a straight guy.  For example, I had an entire monologue worked out in which I explained that a certain stuffed virus was given to me by my husband a few years ago.  I really like it because red is my favorite color and the virus fit well with the decorations we had up for Valentine's Day.  Now, the virus is out of scale for the bacteria near it - but the virus is the Epstein-Barr virus that causes mononucleosis which some people call "the kissing disease".  Now, most of my students' eyes had glazed over at that point - but there was always one kid who would sputter at that point and say "Your husband gave you the Kissing Disease for Valentine's Day?!?!"  I'd beam and say, "Of course!  He's a romantic!" 

*mimics a rim shot*  

As corny as my jokes are, I cannot believe that God dislikes me bonding with students over quirky jokes about science.

The next theme is that people shouldn't talk too much.   Even the Maxwells admit that there's no Bible verse that forbids being a chatterbox - but that doesn't stop Steven Maxwell from letting people know that their kids should be quiet and listen to him.  Also - Maxwell doesn't like it when his kids know more about a subject that he does ...I mean... act as experts in an area they know nothing about - but there's no Biblical support for requiring everyone to kowtow to Steven Maxwell, either.

The next chunk discusses "wrong words" which Maxwell defines as flattery.   He spends over two pages on how evil flattery is which is odd to me.  Flattery isn't really a major problem for small children or even most kids who are under junior high age; using flattery is a fairly high-level technique for winning someone over to your point of view.   Maybe other kids developed this skill long before I did - but I doubt I would have recognized obvious flattery between two other people let alone tried it myself before I was 11 or 12.   Plus, I've always though flattery was a cheap trick for people who weren't persuasive enough to convince people of their point of view so that made it feel slimy to me.    Apparently, though, the Maxwell kids picked up the skill somewhere:

As specific situations arise, we think you will find teachable moments to help you define and explain to your children the difference between flattery and praise.

For example, John notices that Anna is playing with his favorite toy. He walks over to her and says, "Anna, I love how you play with your doll Jennifer. You look like the perfect, happy mommy when you were holding your dolly."

" Really?" Anna replies as she puts down the toy to go find her Jennifer doll.

Obviously, John was not sincere and its complement of his sister. It was flattery. He had an agenda and figured out a way to accomplish his goal. How much better it would have been for John to ask and a directly for permission to play with a toy and pay its complement another time, when Anna was playing with her doll. Then it would have been sincere praise. (pgs. 81-82)

I believe this story snippet happened - but, man-o-live, this family is weird! 

I have an identical twin sister.  This means I have a same age sibling that I could theoretically attempt Machiavellian shit like this on - but I never tried to trick my twin out of a toy through flattery for two reasons.  First, my parents don't flatter people.  My teachers didn't flatter people.  My friends didn't flatter people - nor did their parents.  Because of that, it never occured to me to try it on my sister.  Second, she was WAY too savvy to fall for that shit.   She would have collected the toy she was playing with and carried over to her doll to play with both if I tried it.

I can't figure out an age for John - who is two years older than Anna - that doesn't make the story even more bizarre.  If John was 4 which is old enough want to get a toy through subterfuge - Anna was two - which feels young to care about how she looks with her dolly.  If Anna was 6, she's old enough to be a bit gullible still and young enough to play with dolls a lot - but that makes John a disturbingly calculating eight-year-old.  If John is 12, that level of planning feels more natural - but that makes Anna frighteningly gullible for a ten-year old.   

Most surreal of all is the fact that telling Anna she looks like a happy adult mommy when she holds her baby doll is enough to send her off after her doll.   I had plenty of dolls that I loved on and took care of - but never because someone told me I looked like a mommy.   In my life as a preschooler and elementary school kid, I assumed that my siblings, my cousins and my friends would all grow up, get jobs, get married and have babies.  Sometimes we played house and other times we played school or superheros or animal tamers or unicorns.  We had so many options of adult lives that another kid saying "you look like a teacher when you wear your dress-up clothes" would be greeted by a blank stare followed by "Huh?"  rather than running off to play school.

The next bit in this chapter that keeps dragging on is the fact that we have to teach our kids not to use words that hurt others.   Duly noted and it didn't take me four paragraphs to explain that tidbit to readers.

Avoiding hurtful words took less than a page.  Running away from other people's words that might shake your worldview takes up a page and a half including this gem:

We also want to educate our children by providing biblical cautions regarding the words others will speak to them. There are times when it is not appropriate for them to remain in the conversation. Recently Teri was talking to a woman who told her she had just read the history concerning a wicked profession. Teri did not want the conversation to continue so she quickly changed the subject. (pg. 83)

I really want to know what book this woman had just read.  Based on two minutes on Google assuming that the woman read a newly published book in 2013  gave a great list of books on prostitution, the history of birth control and being a drug-runner.  The problem is that I can think of scads of books that would terrify the Maxwells that were published prior to 2013.   "The Poisoner's Handbook" by Deborah Blum in 2010 is a favorite read of mine; I'm sure the title alone would terrify any Maxwell.  The similarly terrifyingly titled "Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Pornography and Fast Food Have Shaped Modern Technology" by Peter Nowak was published in 2011 so that's a possibility.  I read this section to my husband and he thinks the book was either Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"  or C.S Lewis' "The Magician's Nephew".     The sad bit is that this evil profession could also be a memoir of a public school teacher, a member of any non-Christian religion, or any woman who works outside the home because the Maxwells are that crazy.  (Feel free to add any personal ideas on books you know of thought of in the comments!)

Long-time readers know that I have a personal antipathy bordering on rage directed at people who use works that help disadvantaged people as a form personal therapy.  My general theme of digression on this point is the disturbingly common memoir written by an insanely privileged young white person who feels lost after earning a college degree in any subject besides teaching and decides that they wanna give teaching a shot.  The person joins Teach for America - or something like - receives a few weeks of "intensive" training and is dumped in an urban school with massive poverty, a fractured community, limited English speakers and preferably gang-warfare.  After bumbling their way through two to three years of marginally effective teaching, the person escapes back to Harvard, Yale, Columbia etc., and writes an award-winning best-seller about how the kids changed their life. 

No one in the book - especially the author - ever questions why we don't dump these late-blooming, badly-life-planning teacher wannabes in rich suburban districts instead of the inner city.  The author never questions if the kids and community are harmed by the carousel of young yuppies who capitalize on the shock value of the lives of their students.....

And I've digressed again - but I get to blame Steven Maxwell for this one.  The Maxwells brag all_the_time about the fact that they took their sons to minister at a homeless shelter when the boys were young.   In this book, Teri lets a fascinating little tidbit slip:

For example, for many years Steve took the boys to City Union Mission once a month to minister. Those Saturday mission services gave Steve perfect opportunities to discuss what Scripture says about alcohol and drug use, the physical dangers of it, and the destruction that does to families. The children were able to observe first-hand the points Steven would make in his conversations with them. (pgs 84-85)

God, that's gross!  Every time I think I've developed a thick skin for CP/QF crass shit I realize that I can still be shocked and disgusted by them. 

Notice that Maxwell implies that the men at the mission are homeless because of drugs and alcohol with the related implication that addiction is a personal moral failing.   Notice the similar lack of discussion of the effects of war, abuse, and untreated mental illness leading to alcohol as a self-medication.  I doubt Maxwell has ever discussed with another adult the spiral of poverty that is interlinked between unemployment, loss of permanent address and lack of reliable transportation let alone his kids.

For anyone who needs an excuse to be catty about how other people (read: women) dress, Maxwell's got you covered:

What about modesty? Do you want to teach your children to dress modestly and to avoid looking at in modesty? Being in public where there is much immodesty affords the opportunity to discuss modesty with our children. We can tell them why we have modesty standards and why we don't want to dress as the world dresses. These conversations come up naturally as we are exposed to the ungodliness of the world. (pg. 85)

Or....and I know this is out could mind your own damn business.  My parents managed to raise three kids who dressed modestly without ever pointing out immodest dress in others.  Similarly, they've raised three kids who have not murdered anyone without dragging us into a SuperMax and pointing at an inmate while saying "That's a murderer!  Don't be like them!" 

The questions for this section are precious.   If you are looking for a way to make mealtimes with your family fraught with anxiety, sullenness and outbursts of rage, bring these questions up weekly:

1. Do you, your spouse, or any of your children talk too much?

2. Is anyone having trouble with the wrong words described in this chapter? If so, document in your notebook or on your computer who and which category.

  • Idle Words
  • Foolish talk
  • Jesting
  • Deceitful words
  • Flattering words
  • Evil words
  • Hurtful words

4. At mealtime or other family discussions, have each person evaluate how he is doing in those areas listed above where you evaluated him. Record their personal evaluations. Encourage those who are not doing so well on how they can do better, and praise those doing well. (pg. 90-91)

Question number one has destroyed plenty of families, friendships and businesses.  Just....don't ask this question unless you can handle the fall-out.    In relation to the Maxwells, well, I suspect Steven Maxwell lets everyone else in the family know that they talk way too much since he's got a lot of control issues.

If your family is speaking to each other at the end of the first question...or when everyone calms down a few days later.... question two is likely to go over wonderfully.  In the hands of a family dictator, everyone else can be charged with something since all of the categories are completely subjective.    For me, the list demonstrates the frightening CP/QF habit of treating a minor issue like "idle" or "foolish" talk the same as a major issue like "evil" or "hurtful" words.  Idle and foolish talk harms no one and doesn't need a remedy.  If you've got a kid who is regularly using "evil and hurtful" words, the family need immediate intervention with a therapist before the kid turns into a psychopath.

Once the hurt feelings and temper tantrums caused by the second question subside, it's time to critique the individual progress of each person in front of the group.   After all, that's a great way to bond people tightly to your personal cult.   The trick is to alternate the love-bombing of children with the detailed tearing apart of their failures.    Once you find the right ratio - and it varies a bit from person-to-person - make sure you take notes of whether last week was a "good" or "bad" week for each person.  Remember the shock value is most effective if there is no pattern of how children's actual behavior affects their evaluation in front of the family.    Turning certain kids into continual scapegoats is tempting - after all, some kids never get with your program - but those kids are much more likely to escape the family as adults. 

 Wait....what do you mean a family isn't a cult?  Pshaw!  A good CP/QF family is indistinguishable from a cult.

I see why C.S. Lewis never wrote a sequel to "The Screwtape Letters"; I can only put myself in the mind of a narcissist for a few minutes before I feel sick.

Chapter Six begins with an ideal fever-dream of a conversation that lets us learn way more about the Maxwell Family priorities than anyone should know......

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists - Chapter Four

By this point, "Making Great Conversationalists" has mostly focused on how CP/QF folk who follow the advice shared by Steven and Terri Maxwell can wow the rest of us unbelievers.  I am unimpressed with the conversations that I've read in this book so I doubt that others will be amazed at kids who ask intrusive questions.  Now, the Maxwells turn readers' attention to the massive failures of conversation in their own homes.  Personally, I'm fine with the conversations I have with my husband and son.   Sometimes we have deep, heart-to-heart talks; other times we're being goofy or working out the details of running a home.   That's fine for me - but the Maxwells seem to think we are missing out in a variety of ways.

The chapter starts with two sample conversations between a father and son.  In the years I've been researching CP/QF beliefs, I've learned that the standards and expectations of behaviors are lowest for the married fathers who lead homes.  The "bad" conversation example confirms that men get the easiest standards of behavior.

John walks into the living room where his dad is reading email on his phone.


" What?" John's dad responds still looking at his phone.

"I've been having trouble with Cathy. Lots of times she is saying things that aren't nice to me, and that bothers me."

"Hmmm." Dad glances at his son then back of the phone.

" When I came out of the bathroom, she says I'm taking too much time. I only stay in as long as I need to, though. Yesterday she saw my jacket on the floor and told me I was a messy little kid. I dropped it there because mom had told me to hurry to dinner. I was planning to hang it up later."

" Well," Dad mutters, still reading on his phone.

" I guess this isn't a good time to talk," John says as he dejectedly walks away.

John's dad lost a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his love for his son by meaningfully sharing in this conversation with him. (pgs. 55-56)

No...John's dad is a few miles away from demonstrating love for his son. 

John's dad is failing to demonstrate the most basic form of courtesy - showing some form of meaningful response when being spoken to.   Maybe this is a crappy time for John to talk to his dad.  If so, that problem can be solved in under 15 seconds by John's dad using his words like a big boy.  "John, I need to finish this email for work before I can talk.  Give me 5 minutes and then we can talk about the issues you are having with Cathy, slugger."  John's dad gives John the basic courtesy we extend to other human beings.

I have not included the "good" conversation because John, the far younger and less experienced member of the dyad, says the exact same thing.   The only difference is that his dad pays attention and gives verbal responses that imply he's really paying attention rather than grunting like a CP/QF Homer Simpson.

The hypocrisy of holding mature adult men to the lowest standard kills me.  The Maxwells have complained about a nervous 5-year-old girl who won't say her name in a store, the conversational failings of 16-year-olds of both genders, and the quirks of frazzled mothers during a move.  The 23-year old guy who calls about courting was raked over the coals while giving informative answers to his crush's father because he stammered and forgot to ram Jesus down the father's throat.   John's dad - who says the same number of syllables as five-year-old Cynthia in a far less stressful situation - gets a mild scolding about not paying enough attention to his kid.  That's ironic because Dad is paying no attention to his son. 

Since the most common theme for fathers in the Maxwell canon is that they are obsessed with their jobs and checked-out of raising their families, I wonder how much of this is a window into the action of the Maxwells themselves.

Next up: another idyllic conversation for young teenage girls to have:

Let's listen to a snippet of conversation between two 14 year olds whose families are having an evening of dinner and fellowship together.

" Susi, I am concerned about the way you treated your little sister by telling her she needed to go play somewhere else. The Bible says, 'And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you' (Ephesians 4: 32). I don't really think you were being kind or tender-hearted to her."

" You're right, Emily. I was being selfish. All day she has been messing up whatever I'm involved with and making a lot of noise. I didn't want that to happen again. It would be better, though, to let her be with us."

" Maybe, Susi, we could find something for her to do. Let's go to the toy closet to see what we can find and invite her back."

Emily's conversation is more powerful than most children's conversation because she has a Bible verse to share. It should be more effective than it would have been to just tell her friend that she was being mean to her little sister. Teaching our children to use the word, using it in our conversations with them, and encouraging them to use it in their conversations with others will enhance those conversations and relationships. (pgs. 60-61)

I suspect that Emily's parents wonder why they never receive a second invitation to anyone's home.  The parental units are also confused by Emily's total lack of friends outside of Susi...who suddenly cut her relationship with Emily after this evening of fun, food and nagging.

At the most basic level, Emily is working at teaching Susi to be a victim. There are important peer-to-peer social skills that kids learn among their siblings and among other families.  Before Emily staged her intervention, Susi was enforcing a boundary that when her unnamed younger sister behaved disruptively during the day, the younger sister would be excluded from playing with Susi and Emily later on.   This is a normal and healthy situation.  Along with "if you are a jerk, you get excluded", families are a great place to learn "sometimes someone I want to play with doesn't want to play with me and the world doesn't end", and "I am allowed to have positive and negative feelings.  Other people have the right to do moral things even if I have negative feelings about their moral choice." 

Emily's intervention, however, is in essence the infamous Jana-Jessa Duggar interaction played out again. For those who don't know the story, Jessa was kicking Jana's bunk bed keeping her awake at night when the girls were early elementary school age.  Rather than enforcing any kind of consequence for Jessa, the senior Duggars in their wisdom decided that Jana should give her treasured jewelry box to Jessa.  The rationale - although I hesitate to call it rational - was that Jessa would be so touched by Jana giving Jessa her prized possession that Jessa would stop kicking the bed.  In a broader context, England tried to avoid the start of World War II by not objecting to Hitler's invasion of countries...and that process of appeasement failed just like appeasing Jessa failed over the long run.

Emily is encouraging Susi to overlook bad behavior and teaching Unnamed Sister that bad behavior has no consequences.  That's a bad plan.

On a related topic, why is CP/QF so invested in the idea that kids of the same gender need to run around in packs that do not self-segregate by age or maturity?   I have a twin sister and a brother who is 4.5 years younger.  My best friend has a 3 year younger sister.   When my best friend would come over, having my twin around was fine.  Jess figured out how to lip-read enough to talk with my sister and we were all the same age.  My younger brother was rarely involved with our activities; he was enough younger that the maturity/skills gap made a lot of our activities not fun for him.  When I was over at Jess' house, we'd sometimes include her younger sister if we were doing something she could participate in.  But most of the time, the activities we were doing were not that interesting to her. 

A four year age gap is nothing in adult life - but huge among children and teens....

This next quote cracks me up:

" Good morning, Mom," Ryan greets Mom as he walks into the dining room for breakfast. " I am very hungry, and breakfast smells great. I am excited to tell you about what I read in my Bible this morning."

" Good morning, Ryan. I sure love you. Tell me what you are excited about."

" I was reading in 1 Corinthians 10 today, and I was very convicted. It was talking about the Israelites murmuring in the desert, and then some of them were destroyed. Then it says how that was an example for us. That made me think about murmuring and how easy it is for me to be a murmurer. I realize that not only does God not like murmuring, but I don't think you or Dad or anyone else in our family likes it either. I really want to stop murmuring."

" You know, Ryan, that is convicting to me too. I was standing here murmuring in my heart about my frustration over the toaster not working very well. I think that the Lord would rather have me thank him for our breakfast and the tools he has provided to help me prepare it," Mom responds. (pg. 63)

I don't know many people who speak in complete Standard English sentences, thankfully, and none of them are children or teenagers.  In my home we use the informal English dialect referred to as "Valley Girl" - and suspect that most people use one informal dialect or another among their loved ones.

My deeply loving response to Ryan would be, "Dude, it's too early for this.  Let Mom wake up, then we'll talk."   Thankfully, all of my immediate family members share a requirement of 15-30 minutes of "wake-up warm-up" time before expecting anything deeper than "Breakfast smells great. Thanks for making it."

I don't think I'd be as nonchalant about the fact that my kid wants to stop murmuring after reading about how the Israelites were killed because they murmured against God.  I want my kid to stop whining, sure, but not because they're afraid that God will smite them if they don't.

I dislike how CP/QF theological practice requires lying during prayer.  God's the Creator of the Universe.  I suspect God can handle the fact that a person is frustrated that their toaster doesn't work.  That's more honest and true than thanking God for a toaster that isn't working very well.

Please, for the love of all that is holy,  remove the verb "to purpose" and the newer meaning of "to convict" as a lazy shorthand for "I have a deeply held conviction" from use.    A family that earns two convictions before breakfast generally is having a horrible day in court rather than a calm breakfast.

Now, imagine the following conversation actually happened instead of being a fever dream of Steven Maxwell:

Next we find that words are to be pure and lovely. That means our children are to be gracious and pleasant in their conversations. " The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself" (Ecclesiastes 10: 12).

Compare these two conversations:

" Jason and Jennifer, I thought you might enjoy playing a game while your mother and I talked."

" Okay."

On the other hand, this could have been the response:

"Thank you for the game you got out for us to play." (pg. 65)

Yes, Maxwell's ideal family is filled with Stepford Children who can spontaneously respond identically in standard English.   Keep that tidbit in mind in all Maxwell writings. 

The phrase the Stepford Kids use is odd in terms of the emphasis.  The kids are thanking the parents for the game primarily with the action of getting the game out as the subsidiary action.    I think the sentence would make more sense if the mind-melded kids thanked their parents for getting the game out.  Of course, since part of each of the kids' brains are now locked to their siblings, that might mess with their control of word placement in sentences.

I just realized something!  Maybe the CP/QF obsession with massed single gender groups is because of the mind-melding!  Many small groups of kids playing with close-in-age friends would get so confusing so fast if the kids were receiving telepathic transmissions from their siblings in other places.  This means that what I viewed as a weird obsession is actually an act of kindness.

Oh, they aren't budding telepaths?  Well, that shot down that idea.  Still a crazy idea, then.

Finally, we learn how to teach your children to narc on each other the right way:

Here's another verse that shows the importance of helping her children towards good reports rather than tattling: "Where no wood is, there the fire go without: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth" (Proverbs 26: 20). Good reports stop children from speaking negative or critical words. With a good report, virtue, and praise comes the encouragement of another.

Jimmy runs to Mommy and reports, "Sandra is playing with the guinea pigs. She's not doing her chores."

Think about how much better this conversation would be.

" Sandra, I know Mommy wants you to finish your chores before you play with the guinea pigs. My chores are done. I will help you with yours." After Jimmy and Sandra complete her chores, Jimmy runs to Mommy and reports, " Sandra finished her chores. Now she is playing with the guinea pigs."

Of course, there may be times when one child should let you know what a sibling is doing or isn't doing, particularly when sin is involved. However, even in that process, a child can learn to have a humble spirit that is more concerned for his sibling spiritually than he is for getting that sibling in trouble. In this case, even though it isn't positive news he is telling, is actually a good report because the information is shared only with the parent and will be for the benefit of the sibling.(pgs 66-67)

Jimmy's first tattling conversation makes sense.   Tattling is super annoying and his mom is well within her rights to squash that habit - but at least Jimmy's action of tattling makes sense.

Having Jimmy run up to his mother - who wasn't present when Sandra and Jimmy worked together on their chores - and report that Sandra's done now and playing with the guinea pigs must be slightly disconcerting to Jimmy's mom.  She's got eyes and could have figured that piece of information out on her own exactly like she would have figured out that Sandra skipped chores to play with the guinea pigs - but either outcome is preempted by Jimmy's random announcement.    It reminds  me of the "Arrested Development" episode where Michael thinks his son George Michael has developed OCD because George Michael keeps checking to see if the stove was turned off and throwing out food.   George Michael's behavior makes a lot of sense when the viewers learn that his aunt Lindsey is trying to be a good homemaker - but keeps accidently endangering everyone in the house by leaving the gas range on and not actually cooking meat.  Michael missed Lindsey's mistakes, however, so George Michael looks crazy. 

The last paragraph is a sad attempt to justify using your children as an in-house KGB force ratting each other out as long as the kids have the right level of humility.   That's a terrible idea.   My family had a far more sensible rule: you were not tattling if and only if your sibling was doing something that was dangerous to themselves, dangerous to someone else or highly destructive of property.  Outside of that, we were instructed to mind our own business. 

It's a good piece of advice - especially for the Emily's of the world.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Three - Part Two

The first post on the third chapter in "Making Great Conversationalists" by Steven and Teri Maxwell focused on the first meeting between two neighbors.  The ideal Maxwell conversation wallpapers over the fact that the new neighbor clearly bought a lemon of a house by either employing a ragingly incompetent inspector or doing the inspection themselves.   

The rest of the chapter alternates between implying that CP/QF homeschooling families don't really know anything about their kids while giving sample conversations that feel sinister since the ideal Maxwell conversation is as much about concealing information as sharing it. 

First up: undermine the last whiffs of self-confidence that the Maxwells' loyal clients might have in their parenting skills:

Within your family, how much do you really know about your children? How much do they know about you? How much do they know about their siblings? Does each love the others enough to open up his life to his family? (pg. 42)

Time out. 

I thought the main difference between homeschooled CP/QF families and the rest of us was that the CP/QF homeschool families had emotional family bonds that could not be replicated by families that spend eight hours apart everyday.  The spouses are bound rock-solidly together forever.  Each parent bonds deeply with their children who they spend mountains of unpressured time each day.  Meanwhile, all of the siblings are best friends with each other.   In exchange for giving up having friends outside of the family and most careers, families are guaranteed an idyllic, deep and satisfying family circle.


Of course, if this lifestyle was so natural and God-ordained, the adherents wouldn't need to build so many boundaries between themselves and the rest of the universe. Teenagers and young adults would be able to meet their spouses through church friends or Christian singles groups and date.  Married men and women could trust themselves around people of the opposite sex without fearing an affair.  Mothers and fathers would get to their children simply as their parents - trusting that their life-long relationship had more weight than could be threatened by outside adults.    Women could take pleasure in career and family while allowing men the pleasure of helping keep a home and raising children.   Siblings would learn the truly complementary difference between siblings and best friends.

Or you can follow the Maxwell lead and decide that the only way to cement family bonds is to isolate your family from nearly everyone.

This next conversation between makes me wonder if this is what Lydia sounded like in her surprise courtship to Billy Hill - the one where she ended up sobbing a prayer on a run that God would let her fall in love before she married.

"Hi Ashley. How are you?" Amy asks.

" I'm really good. I have exciting news!"

" What's that?"

" I just started a courtship with Chad Swisher. My dad has been talking to him for months, and I never knew it. My dad just told me last night and asked if I wanted to enter a courtship with Chad."

"Ashley, I'm so happy for you. This will be a very exciting time for you and Chad. I'll add you to my prayer journal. I'd love to hear the whole story," Amy replies. (pg. 45)


 So...Chad's been talking to Ashley's dad for months - MONTHS - about being allowed to court Ashley.  That's a heap of opportunity costs for Chad and Dad if Ashley replied, "I'm not that into Chad."  If a parent has a good relationship with their kid, the adult child can benefit from having parents who listen to how a romantic relationship is going and make sure that the romantic interest is a good person.   This only works as long as the adult child is more invested in the romantic relationship than the parent is.

Chad's been talking to Ashley's dad for months - and Ashley had no clue. I'm trying to figure out how this all went down.  The easiest way would be to pull a Jim Bob Duggar and screen guys long before the guy is allowed to meet the chosen daughter.  In that case, Ashley's dad's a control freak - but at least Ashley and Chad start a relationship on even footing.   What if Ashley already knew Chad?  Were Chad and her dad lying to her -directly or by omission - about their meetings?   I'd refuse to marry someone who could  lie to me for months even under the guise of protecting my "emotional purity".  Heck, my husband won the "Least Convincing Liar Ever" award for his performance the night he asked my parents for their blessing on asking me to marry him as part of his plan for a surprise proposal on his birthday.  He had been so nervous that the dinner went on way longer than he anticipated...because he kept pushing off asking them.   Well, this meant that I fell asleep on the couch of my apartment at 6:00pm expecting him to be there by 6:30pm - and woke up at 8:30pm with no boyfriend in site.  I got a hold of him and he apologized since he had gotten distracted while shopping but he'd be right over.  He gets to my apartment, I give him a big hug and a kiss, and ask cheerfully, "Where were you shopping that you got distracted for two hours? " expecting to hear about a new store.  My future husband turned as white as a sheet, is visibly sweating, and blurts out, "I can't tell you!".   I blink and respond, "Um....ok. "  That gives him time to start breathing again and slightly more smoothly he replied "After all, you have a birthday coming up..."   We got engaged later that week - and I've always taken some comfort in the fact that he's a pretty terrible liar.

Has Ashley had time to be with Chad as her...suitor?  (What do you call a romantic interest in a courtship anyway?)  Ashley and her dad had their big talk last night so I don't think she's had time to be around Chad since then if he works a standard schedule.  Perhaps courtships work best when the two people speak more to other people than they do to their romantic partners....

Later, the Maxwells wax poetic on the benefits of conversations in life:

Conversations open up a window into another's life. The quality and length of the conversation determines how wide that window is open. Our children's conversations with others will give spice to each day. Many spend precious time reading novels or watching movies, but conversations are true life, not made up fiction. We're able to talk to real people with real adventures, real needs, real hurts, and real joys. Conversations are wonderful opportunities to get a mind off of itself and onto others. (pg. 45)

About that: What are Maxwellian followers supposed to talk about?  Television, movies, theater, dancing, and the majority of books (and I'm assuming music) are off-limits along with all sports that Steven Maxwell doesn't personally like, most outdoor activities, gambling and alcohol.  For the women and homeschooled family members, the family was together during the day so that's not going to lead a lot of new, novel or spicy events to talk about over dinner.  Talking with your family all day sounds great - but if everyone's needs, hurts, adventures, and joys revolve around the same small group of people it doesn't take much for internecine warfare to break out.

I just realized that I feel that a lot of CP/QF households are like polar exploration voyages during the late 1800-early 1900's. Good planning and lots of money generally lead to a crew that can tolerate each other; poor planning or bad supplies devolve into hellish conditions. 

Before we dive into the last quote, think about all of the "good: conversations modeled so far by the Maxwells.  For all of their stilted, canned ways, the conversations do demonstrate that a good conversation involves communicating in a way allows all people in a conversation to stay engaged and active.   Think of that - and read this next "good" real-life conversation:

Recently 16 year old Mary and I (Teri) were returning a couple of items to Sam's Club. The customer service lady looked at Mary and asked her, "What grade are you in?"

Mary responded, " Tenth grade."

"Where are you planning to go to college?" the lady asked.

"I am not planning to go to college. I would like to be a wife and mother someday. In the meantime, I am studying art so I can illustrate children's books. I can do that at home and save all the money that college costs while not being exposed to the negative influences of college."

The grandmotherly customer service lady seemed a little surprised, but Mary had presented her case so well that her only reply was, "That's nice."

In a short conversation, Mary was able to clearly state her goals for her life and persuasively speak against the customary thinking that young people should go to college. She gave a very different view to this woman than what the lady was probably used to hearing. (pg. 49)

As a survivor of guest service work, let me divulge a secret.  "That's nice" with a look of surprise generally means "Are you on crack? What fresh hell is this? I don't get paid enough for this"

On the other hand, I think Teri Maxwell's motherly pride in Mary's response is sweet and loving.  That same maternal pride is why I know I can never homeschool my son (and any other children we're blessed with).  Maternal pride messes up your ability to look dispassionately at your own child's performance.

As an outsider, Mary's response was a conversation-killer, not a perfect response.  Mary has packed so many tropes from CP/QF surrounding the role of women in society, the role of education, the assumption that anything can be learned at home, and the decline of higher education  that the nice lady at Sam's is left gaping.   It's not considered polite to start arguing with a 16-year old at a guest service desk - and where would she even start? 

The kicker is that plenty of teens are not planning to go to college directly after high school - or ever.  Mary's statement of her future career plans only got really jarring when she added the bit about being a wife and mother in the middle.   If she dropped that along with the random dig about "negative influences at college", her response would be within the norms of conversations while signaling that she'd be willing to discuss studying art at home or her interest in illustrating children's books. 

The final awkwardness is that books can't erase passages a few years later.  Mary is now 22.  She has not gone to college, is not married and doesn't have any children.   She has illustrated two children's books - but they were written by her older sister and published by their parents' ministry-business.   So far, she's not making any headway on her goals.  I hope for her sake she'll make good on her dreams - but her family has not managed to find acceptable suitors for her two older sisters and using the three adult daughters as cheap, semi-skilled laborers benefits their parents and brothers so I'm not terribly optimistic.

Next post: Checked-out dads, teaching your kids to narc on each other properly, and nagging your friends to let their younger siblings hand out with you.  Good times.