MY OWN CHILDREN, ages ten and seven, cannot tie their own shoes. More accurately, neither of them can reliably secure two pieces of string into a bow that holds together without the need for triple knotting and without at least one of the loops flopping along the ground. The results are frustrating to all of us.
As far as I can see, their shoelace skills are less developed than mine were when I was five. Of course, I was a beneficiary of Mrs. Mitts’s kindergarten bow-making curriculum. This consisted of a pegboard interlaced with strands of colored yarn — and daily practice sessions. Mrs. Mitts also told a helpful story about a bunny who runs around a tree and jumps into a hole. (The tree is the green yarn, the bunny is the brown yarn, and the hole is the space your thumb creates by looping together the green yarn and allowing the brown yarn to circle it. My husband learned bows under a different rabbit-based pedagogy: he makes two loops and twists them together into bunny ears.) My report card from 1964 shows that I mastered both shoe tying and coat buttoning and was promoted to first grade. Daydreaming and talking out of turn were identified as bigger problems.
A retired first-grade teacher to whom I confided this story said she had one word for me: Velcro. I couldn’t argue. Of the eight pairs of children’s shoes in our house, more than half have Velcro fasteners (as do all of their hats, coats, and backpacks). But this is only part of the explanation. Look at the pages of children’s shoes in any mail-order catalogue. There are mocs and Crocs and all manner of pediatric footwear molded out of stretchy synthetic materials. When they are not held together by Velcro, the current generation of children are now shod in slip-ons.
Shoelaces seem to be going the way of the slide rule — which I never learned how to use because my first physics class coincided with the advent of calculators — and the way of the tatted doily, which I did, in fact, once know how to make. In spite of my grandmother’s careful tutelage, I have long forgotten how to tat, and to that skill loss, I say good riddance. There is a reason that the French word for tatting is derived from frivolité.
But how far down this road of incapableness am I willing to travel? My lace-making grandmother not only tied her own shoes but also kept a set of cobbler’s tools to repair them. She knew how to plant crops, can vegetables, bank a fire, butcher a hog, plaster a wall, maintain a root cellar, make soap, repair furniture, and raise canaries. I can do none of those things well — and most not at all — nor can I instruct my children in these skills.
Does this matter? Fortune magazine, of all sources, now argues that it does. In a recent article on world oil production and the convulsive changes that may soon arise from the end of the era of easy oil, Fortune issued a couple of droll recommendations: “Learn to garden, and buy some comfortable walking shoes.” Flippant or not, this is just the latest in a long line of calls for increased self-reliance in the face of future instability. Best-selling authors Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver have convincingly made the environmental case for home gardening and home cooking, while other writers have pointed out the need, in a post-oil economy, for more farmers, more carpenters, and even a return to North American shoemaking.
But that message is not yet found in mainstream parenting literature. The same day Fortune told me to grow my own dinner, my local newspaper advised me on how to help my children build a competitive résumé for college scholarships. The time to start is middle school or before. Of the many items on the list of leadership-building activities, all would necessitate me driving someplace in a car. Teaching kids to can tomatoes in the kitchen was not on the list.
It is easy to scoff at scholarship-strategizing parents of ten year olds until you consider that the cost of tuition at most liberal arts colleges now exceeds forty thousand dollars per year. This sum is tenfold what my father paid for me in 1977, a bill that was reduced further when, much to his relief, I won the local Elks Club scholarship. I do not scoff at scholarship strategizing. But neither can I tote compost and sterilize Mason jars while squiring my children to drama camp and field hockey practice. Is there no low-carbon route to college admissions?
I have two observations to offer here, and one of them is about shoes. Learning to tie them is no longer a childhood rite of passage. The schools no longer teach this skill, and indeed some openly discourage children from wearing shoes with laces. As a working mother with a long to-do list, I’d be happy to surrender the shoe-tying lessons were it not for the fact that the laceless children’s shoes that dominate the market are largely made of materials that derive from a barrel of oil and are assembled in faraway lands. If the three-thousand-mile Caesar salad isn’t sustainable, then neither is the vinyl gym shoe wrapped up with hook-and-loop strips of nylon from China.
Second, the ongoing erosion of our repertoire of life skills, from one generation to the next, seems like a topic worthy of conversation. If our children are going to inherit a world more economically and ecologically unreliable than the one we grew up in, how do we prepare them? What does it mean, at this moment in history, to “teach your children well”? I say this as someone who mostly feels like a dope when it comes to self-reliance. Compared to my grandmother — or even my mother, who once asked me to help her change the belt in a washing machine — my skill set is painfully abbreviated. Basically, it’s this: I can cook (using recipes), sew (using patterns), swim, drive a stick shift, tie three kinds of knots, and garden (but almost always with unexplainably disappointing results). I have actually never canned tomatoes — but I would like to learn. I am also competent at reading maps. I wouldn’t have thought to add this to my skill list, except that, while I was consulting an atlas recently in heavy traffic, my daughter complimented me. “Mama,” she marveled from the back seat, “you are a living GPS!”