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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brooks, Ph.D.


Plan backwards, just as in chess, to yield an intellectually curious human - Post #6 of 21

Chess Championship Trophy and Dad
My Son and I after the 2010 Chess Championship

Stopping to look at a butterfly can make my day. Watching the pulsing, powdered wings open and close always turns my attention back to the amazing beauty and complexity of all the organisms which have evolved over the past six billion years. The rippling muscles of a thundering stallion, the knowing gaze of a silverback gorilla, and the magical high-pitched message of a dolphin have the same effect on me. But by far the most exquisite thing ever produced is the breathtaking potential of a newborn human being. Nature gave me three of these, all born into the obscene privilege of good health, unearned relative affluence, and intellect that was filled with potential. During those first hours of life, as my wife slept and I held the baby in those three respective hospital rooms, each time I was shaken by the lowest of basses; that sensation was the grave responsibility I had just shouldered, a responsibility to maximize my three kids’ experiences while on earth. And I got to work.

Bruce Lee said, “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” Who are we to argue with Bruce Lee? In the first twelve months of life for these three, I set to work to enrich my children’s environments and, frankly, to set my aim, and their aims, laughably high. The process was very intentional and designed to never waiver, but instead to be consistent every day of their childhoods. I was certainly not shooting for Georgetown or any specific college – that seemed like too remote a time. I sought a much more generalized goal. I set out to fire the neurons of my kids at a furious, unrelenting rate that could hopefully generate some of the most perceptive, curious, interested people I had ever met. I wanted my kids to be fearless experimenters, to think with blinding clarity, and to never prejudge anyone or anything.

My oldest is now twenty-five and has backpacked “sola” in over twenty countries and has earned a Fulbright, an internship in the US Embassy in Peru, a degree with honors from Georgetown, and now stops to marvel at every Icelandic and Turkish butterfly she meets. My middle and youngest are equally academically and intellectually curious, and each is a source of immense pride for me. I believe that the following six prongs of our parenting philosophy had much to do with this:

1) Emotional.

When I ranked this list just now, it became obvious that emotional stability should come first and academic curiosity last. If a child feels safe and secure and loved every day of their childhood, there is not much that can really go wrong. Everything else is subordinate to this, and everything builds on it. Hugs and snuggling and tactile contact were, of course, important. In our house, we followed the footsteps from my own childhood: each of my three children owned their own super-trained German shepherd. This meant they slept in the bed with their best friend, and they had a friend who loved them back unconditionally, unwaveringly, and with quite a passion. So my kids were responsible for the happiness of their dog, and this gave them even more of an unshakeable sense of purpose. Traditions also are crucial to the sense of belonging that all kids need as their foundation: We always, always, say the blessing at dinner holding hands, and our Christmas, Halloween, Easter, summer, and Thanksgiving traditions are always an anchor. Of course these are our traditions, and other families will have their own. At their core, our kids know they are an indispensable component of our family. Finally, having two parents who demonstrably love the child and who are committed--no matter what marital storms come--to stay together is a tremendous boost.

2) Psychological.

Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Being tough-minded and resilient is the second-most important quality I tried to instill in my three kids. I was always painfully aware how privileged my three kids were and how much more easily things would come to them than almost everyone else on earth. It was my job to cut through any sense of entitlement and replace that with a fierceness and resiliency. Chess helped in this effort; in chess class, all little kids get crushed at first by big kids, and this beating is important. It puts things in perspective. Over time, each of my three learned to fight, to focus, to win, and to never be scared of anyone, no matter how old, across the chessboard. A fun afterschool chess program like The Knight School is also a great way to make the psychological-toughness growing curve a great experience! As a dad, I also designed treasure hunts on a laughably regular basis. These always, always took different forms/genres each time, but they all had one element in common: they always made each of my kids cry several different times before the prize was secured. They were very hard. They required trying every different possibility until one fit. And from this adversity my kids emerged psychologically strong, with a perseverance and confidence that would pay dividends down the road. There are all sorts of ways to build resilience – competitive sports are great for that. Find activities that challenge your child, and step back. Let them engage in the mental battle and thereby strengthen their resiliency. Chess players at a state championship, for example, have to be mentally tough!

Elementary Chess Tournament Championship Team

3) Geographic.

As a dad hell-bent on raising my kids in a furiously intellectually stimulating environment, I wanted my kids to be exposed to new places and new people. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of my teaching career and we travelled extensively in the summers. This was a very deliberate attempt to expose the kids to new things and enrich their environments. Our play had a purpose – when we went to the beach, they encountered cool, sand-covered treasure hunts. Each child also got to go on a customized 23-day long trip known as “The Western Experience” or “The Eastern Experience.” Whether east or west of the Mississippi River, the experience was the same: we visited every single continental state on that side of the river in one big epic trip! I would wake up at three in the morning and load us up and drive six or eight hours until the kids finally woke up in a very different state. We would experience the best kid-friendly aspect of a given state—a national park here, quirky “world’s largest ball of string” there, a top-30 college campus for frisbee (and a college tour), an amusement park, the beach, an alien museum—and then dad would turn in early in the hotel room while the kids watched geographically-related movies. 23 days of this will leave a mark! We even did a Mystery Trip where we woke Mom up at 3 am, she pulled a quarter out of a bag with all the state quarters in it, and whatever she picked, we were sworn to hop into the idling car and go there immediately and explore. She picked Rhode Island. Again, our play had purpose and during our travels all three of my kids were required, as part of a treasure hunt, to draw freehand and label all the states in the U.S., and also to draw a map labeling every country in the world.

World Map drawn by a Child

4) Disciplinary.

Face it: kids will inevitably get into trouble. And without a proactive discipline policy, this trouble can leak onto the high school transcript and decimate college plans. I remember a high school Monday when I tried to pry out of my class why “Johnny” was absent. After class I was discretely informed that Johnny chose to ride home Saturday night with the wrong people and he was still in jail. His National Honor Society chances were over, he had violated the school’s code of conduct, his college counselor would be compelled to mention this in his mandatory recommendation, and Johnny’s teacher recs would suffer. All from one horrible decision. How to avoid this? Begin shortly after the cradle with a very consistently-applied discipline plan. Consistency is the key. My German shepherds are so trained that many of my friends have seen them in a stay command serving as the goals on an immense ultimate frisbee field and have asked to come over to have me train their dogs. I usually joke and tell them to leave the dog at home, that only the human has the problem: inconsistency. No means no. Whether high schooler, three-year-old toddler, or German shepherd, the reaction of every effective disciplinarian is identical: swift and decisive. Three timeouts for the day and my kids went to bed, no matter what time it was. My classroom for twenty years was harmonious because I actually enjoyed writing discipline slips, and the kids knew it, but they also never forgot I was really glad they were there and planned to have a fabulous, funny class, but on my terms, not theirs. During treasure hunts no hints were given, no matter the volume of tears. As humans, we are biologically driven to strain for and work towards independence. If you begin with a consistent disciplinary system, you can grant more privileges and freedom throughout the years. It is much more difficult to start without boundaries and then try and rein things in when you face behavioral issues. Engineering who our children’s friends were, by carefully choosing afterschool chess class, honors classes, and academically-minded kids—also helped minimize the negative, anti-intellectual influences that can be the majority even in the best high schools. My kids were surrounded by likeminded, future-oriented kids who, even at an early age, shared a deep commitment to go to a great college. Here is page one of four of the letter my oldest wrote to Berkeley when she was in third grade.

3rd Grader College Letter

5) Artistic.

Art is when you interface with an experience—a sculpture, a dinner, a dance, a checkmate, a play, a building, a song, a painting, a poem, whatever—and the experience strangely twists around and the experience is suddenly about you and your own potential, not the work of art. My three kids were each in various dance and music classes, and they learned to appreciate art, and to appreciate the friends they made in these classes. Perhaps more formative was the art they made themselves. They would choreograph dances for father’s and mother’s days, make paintings, write songs, enact plays, and make incredible meals. For my kids, museums are to be enjoyed slowly, and they are a destination in and of themselves. Mom is a singer and guitarist, and I have written two novels, and the kids are very aware of each of our artistic accomplishments. Modelling the desired behavior is much of what parenting is about, and our profound appreciation for art in all forms is something my kids silently witnessed every day of their lives. Our family considers amazing checkmate sequences like the ones we would engineer at summer chess camp to be art. Our best art, however, had to be when my kids and I collaborated. We would work together to make three-story, zipline-connected treehouses or tarp-lined swimming holes in the backyard with slides and misters. Art begets creativity. Carrying a fluency with creativity into a challenging array of high school courses is a tremendous advantage. And never forget: Broadway is the motherload of intellectual stimulation.

Les Mis

6) Analytical.

Problem solving has always been at the center of my childrearing philosophy. I always wanted my kids challenged with situations that forced them to think, and I made that happen. In our family one mantra is “solve a problem with a problem.” That means identify and articulate two problems you have, and use one of them to solve the other. Examples of one problem solving another include when my kids and I were aware our creek-stopping tarp dam was about to burst from the weight of the water and at the same time we had been dreading carrying a bunch of discarded heavy boards from a fort we had built long ago all the way back up the cliff to the street; solution: we used the boards to reinforce the dam! Another example is in chess class, when TKS coaches realized the senior kids had two problems—wanting more wristbands and wanting to be valued more—and the newish kids had two separate problems—wanting to make more friends, especially with the veterans, and needing to understand the basics of chess better so they would feel more confident. Solution: pay the veterans one advanced wristband if they would befriend and teach the newbies!

Preschool chess classes are an obvious arena to fully flex the intellectual capacity of a child. I deliberately chose external motivator prizes for our treasure hunts because I wanted to instill a sense of getting a carrot after a hard labor. Since my kids view Georgetown as the ultimate carrot, it follows that they would be motivated to get there, no matter how late the studying goes into the night. Navigation during travel was another fun exercise. In our family, the youngest was always the navigator. Another family mantra that comes up often is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing!” We always played the “Vocabulary Game” in which my kids wrote down any unfamiliar vocabulary word from their readings, and when they accumulated ten words, I would quiz them on the meanings of each for a prize. The Vocabulary Game not only made my kids hungry for more and more difficult words, but they also made my lessons on etymology and mythology more relevant since they help with definitions. Additionally, a childhood chock-full of fun chess tournaments for kids and summer chess camps really helped. Finally, I cannot overemphasize the importance of having a kid who reads for pleasure. My youngest daughter so far has only got in trouble at school once, and it was for ignoring the school librarian’s repeated requests to stop reading during carpool. Deep analysis and problem solving—such as solving the challenging "find the checkmating move for white" chess puzzle below—was an important cornerstone of my three children’s childhood experience. By the way, can you see the checkmating move below? Is it for white to move to the red, orange, green, or yellow square? The answer is provided at the bottom of this blog post.

Checkmate Puzzler with En Pessant


These six elements—emotional, psychological, geographic, disciplinary, artistic, and analytical—were crucial components of a childhood foundation designed to ensure that my kids could handle the rigors of an all-honors course load in high school. Jumping into such a schedule without the proper preparation and character could be very problematic for some children. If you are reading this blog, I expect you already do many of the elements listed above (and your own remarkable parenting elements that I never discovered!), but for younger parents, I hope this list illuminates some of the choices you will be making as your child grows older. I was always keenly aware of the stresses of some of the more difficult high school courses, and my kids report after the fact that most honors and AP courses were relatively easy to handle. My belief is that the earliest formative days in the crib, as a toddler, and as a young child established a foundation that would make possible any future they wished to create.

Answer to chess puzzler: Green! Simply employ the en passant rule to checkmate black. When the white pawn moves to the green square, it captures the black pawn by en passant, which means the bishop on B2 suddenly unstoppably checks the black king!


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