Life and learning

The little dude is nearing 16 months. For the past while, the best thing in my life has been watching him learn. My favourite is when he surprises me by demonstrating a new skill he’s picked up by example. For instance he’s started wiping the table-top of his highchair when he’s decided he’s had enough food – adorable! His dad does the palms-up shrug a lot and the little dude has picked this up, so if I ask him a question (like “where’s the wombat?”) and he doesn’t know the answer he’ll put his hands out and raise his shoulders. SO FRIGGIN CUTE.

It’s funny too how once he knows how to do something, I immediately take it for granted that he can do it. It wasn’t so long ago that he couldn’t walk, but I’ve almost forgotten that crawling baby.

Similarly, it was not so long ago that I felt like the motherhood learning-curve was so steep that if I stopped climbing for even a split-second I’d start to slip backwards and fall down an abyss. It’s cool now though. The new challenges have started coming at a more manageable pace.

Learning stuff is hard.

Knowing stuff is easy.

All kids I’ve ever met seemed to have a fairly strong drive to explore and learn new things, an eagerness to gain mastery of a skill, a sense of joy and pride when they achieve something. I’m not sure I can say the same about all adults I’ve met, which makes me wonder when this gets lost and why. Adults are sometimes reluctant to learn new things, toddlers on the other hand resist any attempt to curb their learning (how dare you interfere with my mission to learn how to climb onto the back of the couch?!).

You know what I’m great at? Cleaning a kitchen. Seriously. I can wash the hell out of some dishes, I am fast and the dishes end up sparkly clean. This is because when I was a child, I loved to bake and my mum said I could only bake if I cleaned up afterwards and made the kitchen look like it did before. Also it’s because we don’t have a dishwasher. Note: I didn’t say that I like cleaning the kitchen. The whole “chore” category of life is well down my preferred activities list. (I don’t see baking as a chore; it’s fun.)

My husband is not so good at cleaning dishes. He has other strengths, including interpreting complex and technical statutory provisions, designing and building wooden furniture, and making up stories featuring the adventures of Davy Ducky to tell our son.

In commentary and studies about division of domestic labour, there seems to be a near universal focus on the time spent doing chores, not the skill involved. When skill level is taken into account, cis men in hetero relationships come off even worse than they otherwise would. I can get done in an hour what my husband would get done in about three hours. As a result, we have ended up dividing our chores according to the rules of comparative advantage, in a context where my advantage reflects learning as a child, which must surely be attributable to gender norms. But we’re both conscious that parents have great power to change these norms in the next generation, so we’re working on being good role models together. Also it’s super cute when the little dude tries to use the mop.

Babies are born and start learning from day one, absorbing so many social messages and acquiring a great many skills. By 16 months they have learnt a phenomenal amount, and they keep learning and learning and learning and developing and it’s all pretty incredible really. Once people are adults we categorise paid work into “low skill” or “medium skill” or “high skill” – which is kinda weird because even so-called low skill work requires  a hugely complex range of skills, all of which have to be learnt from scratch because that’s how people learn everything. In the discussion of paid work, skill level is (often falsely) assumed to correlate with rate of pay. The funny thing is, once you have mastered something it becomes simple to do, and easy to keep doing, and it’s kinda irrelevant how hard it was to master. I look at the little dude walking now and it’s difficult to credit that only three months ago he was still pretty wobbly.  

The skills that are valued most highly are the ones with two features: they are in demand, and they are rare. Nothing to do with how hard the job is, or how patient or organised or strong or smart  you have to be to do the job. It’s purely about how rare the skill is and how many people want it. That’s how things work in an economy run on principles of supply and demand. Although, side note, the game can be rigged in several ways too. For example falsely high barriers to entry, or conversely insufficiently high barriers to entry which drive up supply while undermining standards, or a single purchaser who sets the prices for that type of skilled labour. But even if the market is functioning perfectly, the connection between value to society and pay is a bit random and tenuous. Surgeons get paid less than investment bankers. Childcare workers get paid less than lawyers. 

Here’s another thing: if you don’t know anything about the nature of a particular job, it is almost impossible to know how difficult it is, or how important it is. Think about this for a minute. It’s true right? My cousin is an engineer specialised in robotics, I literally have no clue how hard that is relative to my job. This leads to a hit-and-miss valuing of other people’s skills. Either you might over-value it because it sort of “sounds hard and complicated”, or you might under-value it because it sort of “sounds like something ordinary people do”. So I might think robotics engineer sounds hard maybe? Except that I have no idea! I know I would find driving a bus incredibly difficult because I can extrapolate that out from driving a car (Wellington bus drivers are incredibly highly skilled in my view), and I would also find it difficult to do anything that involves concentrating even though things are noisy – like road works for example – and anything that involves being patient and kind day in day out, like caring work (it’s hard enough with my own child and I love him to bits!). 

I personally found the first year of motherhood considerably harder than completing a law degree. Very very different. Incomparable really. But if I had to put them on the same ledger, one was challenging and transforming and incredibly difficult, and the other was just more of the same of stuff I did at high school but a bit more advanced: “reading and thinking”. I’m willing to wager that there are other mothers with a half decade of tertiary education who might agree with me.  

There’s no grand idea at the end of this post. Only the same broken-record point that we need to honour and recognised all work, paid and unpaid, and get rid of the dichotomy of skill levels which is based on all sorts of screwed assumptions.  We need to realise that ordinary people do hard and complicated things, all the bloody time. 

And that responding to a child who is learning and changing means learning and changing ourselves, just to keep up with them, and that while this is a joy it is also a challenge. Challenges are good though! Just ask a toddler, they might not understand what you mean but they’ll definitely want to try figure it out.  

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