I envision my day job (software development coaching) being rather akin to parenting. If that sounds paternalistic and creepy, consider firstly my complete lack of personal experience with parenting, and secondly my mental model of what raising children is like. My model says, given that humans…

  • Are independent and individual
  • Are always in development
  • Are always influenced by our environments and experiences
  • Exert some influence over our immediate environments and experiences, and those of perhaps a few others

then we’ll know we’ve succeeded as parents when one more human responsibly owns and directs their own continued development. If that’s what success looks like, then we’d want to act every day as the temporary, partial, and grudging guardians we seem to be, and seek every day to direct our love so as to hasten our abdication.

My mental model of parenting, untested though it may be, says “raising children” is an inapposite way to describe the goal of aiding in the development of adult humans. (In my darker moments, the common wording — along with “having a baby” — does nothing to dispel my suspicion that many parents aren’t interested in raising adult humans.) But this post is less about parenting and more about informal aunting and uncling: about what we can be doing, as a colleague who’s already doing it asked, to “involve the next generation of young minds.”

They’re already involved

According to my parenting model, combined with a pretty simple interpretation of observed behavior throughout human history, we could stick with parenting our own kids if any, letting others parent their own kids if any, and getting what we get. Given the importance of parenting to human development, any additional effort might be lost in the noise.

Help children play at their enthusiasms

It seems more likely to me that any additional effort could produce exponential benefit. For instance, standardized schooling as commonly implemented can be notoriously stultifying. Imagine attending your neighborhood public school’s PTA meeting and volunteering to supervise an age-appropriate “maker space” every other week. How likely is it that they’d accept? What kind of impact might you have on the lives of a few children? What kind of second-order impact could that have on all of us?

If you’re finding opportunities to interact with young minds, take your opportunities to provide options that might interest them. Help them see all that is possible. Help them experience the enthusiasm of others. If you have an opinion about the apparent talent of a youngster, be a grownup and do whatever it takes to keep it to yourself. For humans of any age, do not…

  • Steer them toward what you think they should want
  • Manufacture enthusiasm on their behalf

…but especially for kids, who have less practice detecting and deflecting sociopathic behavior.

Humans have their own enthusiasms. Help them find theirs. If you must tell a kid what you think about their activity, tell them how interested they appear to be, or how much fun they appear to be having. If they agree, you’re being helpful so far; find more options along that path to show them. If they don’t agree, you can be helpful by showing them options along some other path. We don’t need humans forcibly arranged into the fields we wish they were in (e.g., more women in STEM fields). We need humans who maintain their capacity for enthusiasm into adulthood, and who have seen and followed ways to turn their enthusiasm into expertise.

Help yourself play at your enthusiasms

If you don’t get to interact with young minds, maybe it’d be good for you. What’s the last wacky new thing you tried?

Help grownups put their enthusiasm to work

Until recently, I’d only ever worked at jobs where I wasn’t sure their values matched mine — or where I was sure they didn’t. I’ve finally found a place where I’m sure they do, where the enthusiasm I’ve managed to retain about software development is reflected and magnified by the kind and capable folks around me. I’m no more deserving of this sort of work-joy than anyone else. I simply had enough advantages in life to be able to keep holding on and hoping. How many people are forced to learn quickly what I managed to refuse to believe? How many are forced to grin and bear it because “Hey, that’s why they call it ‘work’”? How can we grasp the enormity of what is lost when we take intelligent, self-directed, decision-making adults and consign them to an infantilized workaday fate?

If you’re part of systems that influence the development of humans — and as a human, you are unavoidably so — you have some degree of influence over those systems. You can find ways to make them more beneficial, or at least less harmful. Where your influence stops — and as a human, it is unavoidably finite — you can find alternatives to offer. And if you have, against all odds, preserved and nurtured any form of enthusiasm in yourself, then you are uniquely positioned to preserve and nurture it in others.

Imagine taking advantage of your position to create a workplace where your favorite enthusiasms are cherished. What kind of impact might you have on the lives of a few grownups? What kind of second-order impact could that have on all of us?

I couldn’t begin to tell you. But I’ve been given such a gift. I hope I’ve begun to convey how it feels to have received it. May I pass it on.