I made a game with my daughter to help get her excited about math…

…and here it is… Pirate Addition!


I’m a believer that kids should learn because it’s fun, not because they “have to.” BUT, I also believe that people have to practice boring stuff and fight through it in order to get to the value on the other side.

When your kids are 4 and 2 that creates a problem because they simply don’t understand the “long term value” of pushing through. So often I just have to kind of “force” my daughter to write a bunch of A’s or practice adding, or whatever fundamental stuff we all have to learn.

But math has just been harder, so I thought I’d try something creative.

Lily loves pirates, she makes up little games where we run around the house going on treasure hunts. So I thought “hmm… is there any way to combine pirates with math so that I can trick her into thinking math is fun.”

Limitations are legion. I don’t have anything to “make” a game with. She will be awake in an hour. I am not a game designer, etc etc. I think this was successful because I didn’t overthink it. Kept it simple.

Here’s the components:
1) Each person is a pirate ship (I printed out a pirate ship picture, taped it to a coin and used a plastic alligator clip to make it stand upright.).
2) There are cards that have “easy” and “hard” questions (green x and red x).
3) The board is a piece of paper printed to look like a parchment and 6 islands I taped to it.
4) There are black squares between the islands that indicate where the ship sails to.
5) There’s a big black “X” at the end where the “treasure” is.

That’s it.

The game is simple. You oscillate turns and you pick an “easy” or “hard” card. If you answer the question right you move one space for each easy question and two for each hard question. (easy are 1,2,3 addition, hard is 4 and 5).

There’s a special “Lava” square. note this is cause I screwed up and accidentally drew a red square and Lily asked me if that was “hot lava.” I said “uhh…. yes….” and then made it a “2 turn” square. Turns out this breaks up gameplay nicely.

The first person to the “X” wins.

Shockingly… yes. Lily and I have played about a half dozen games and during that time she does about 6-10 math questions per game. I gave her a “pirate notepad” to allow her to figure out the problems on her own. I also have her “help me” answer my math questions.

Frankly I’m surprised that it worked and I wish I would have tried this earlier. Now I’m tempted to tinker and iterate, but I suspect that I will most likely ruin the simplicity and she won’t like it as much.

There’s no REAL treasure, there’s no benefit to winning and there’s nothing really complex going on.

I think the key lesson here is that if you just try something simple with what you have in front of you to try and solve a problem, it’s amazing how far you can get; and if you spend forever thinking about it, it’s amazing how long you can procrastinate.

Give it a try!

How I teach my kids self awareness.

I’m not a great parent.

I let my kids use the iPad and phones. I lose my temper and yell at them. I get impatient and frustrated. I burn out and take it out on them. I feed them junk when I can’t create the self discipline not to. And so on…

But. There are things I think are very important.

One of them is self-awareness.

I think without self-awareness it’s incredibly difficult to be successful in life.

To use a modern analogy self-awareness is like the little radar system for my Tesla X.

Self-awareness is the process by which we can understand ourselves. In order to this we require a few things:

1) Other people.
I personally believe it is impossible to “know who you are” without having other people to communicate with. Our brain is just far to good at fooling itself to get around this. So you need to have people you can rely on for regular, honest feedback.

2) A desire to improve.
“Improve” is a vague term, but I think self-awareness is a big topic. Define improve how you like, but I think if you don’t have an internal mechanism telling you to “get better at x” there’s very little motivation to be self-aware.

3) An ability to forgive yourself and others.
This is the other part of the feedback loop. Sure, you need other people to help give you a sense of your “shape” but you also need to be ok with the fact that your shape and other peoples’ shapes might not be perfect… and that’s ok.

I thought about this a lot and actually my wife was the one who started doing it first.

When kids are having negative emotions parents tend to tell them how they should feel. Actually this happens with adults as well, but it’s more acute with kids.

You know the drill.

Lily is angry because Alex won’t play tag with her. She comes to you crying like her world is ending. What do I normally do. I comfort her. I hold her and say “It’s ok. You don’t have to be mad. People won’t always play with you.”

That second statement is what I want to zero in on.

“You don’t have to be [x]” where [x] is sad, mad, jealous, frustrated, etc. is where we can put our self-awareness training in action!

Let’s reflect on ourselves for a second. When we are really frustrated about something and we tell someone. What do we really want? Mostly we want to vent and be justified. We want to be RIGHT. We want an echo chamber that will reinforce what we already know and feel. When someone tells us:

You know… you shouldn’t be frustrated…”

How do we feel? MORE frustrated. It’s not like we WANT to be frustrated. It’s not like we woke up and said to ourselves “Self. Today I’m going to get really frustrated… that seems like a lot of fun… Yeah… and then I’m going to tell my friend about it and hope they tell me I shouldn’t be frustrated; cause that will really piss me off. This will be a GREAT day.”

Of course not.

But what we want isn’t all that great either. It’s nice to hear our emotional voices bouncing off a friend echo chamber, but it would be much better if that friend told us? “Wow… seems like you’re really frustrated about the guy at Stabucks burning your bagel again. But you know… maybe you’re over reacting a bit? Is something else bugging you as well? Or maybe you could have just asked for another one? Or maybe he’s having a rough day too? Let’s go for a walk and see if you feel better.”

That seems like a much healthier way of dealing with the sin of a burned bagel.

Well… I think our kids are the same.

When we say “You shouldn’t be frustrated” I think the underlying message is that frustration is bad and should be avoided. So in the child’s head she’s thinking ” if I feel frustrated it’s because (a) there’s something wrong with me or (b) I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing.”

That is the exact OPPOSITE of what we want for our kids, right? I mean we want kids who are challenging themselves, getting frustrated, and then pushing through… feeling confidence and growth on the other side. How will they learn that with us telling them that how they are feeling is wrong? If anything we should be promoting frustration :P.

So instead what we now tell our kids is:

“It’s ok to be frustrated. Mommy and Daddy get frustrated too. It’s totally normal. Now, let’s see what we can do about it.”

We then try to dig a bit deeper as to the cause of the negative feeling. I find it helpful to relate personal stories in a funny way as it keeps things light. Our four-year-old isn’t ready for heavy philosophy or psychology… although daddy keeps trying… but if I tell her about times when daddy got mad and then lost his temper and said or did something he shouldn’t have… she thinks that’s pretty funny.

We try different exercises. Talking about it. Counting to 10. Going away into a separate room for a while, and so on.

They key thing we’re trying to get through here is that it’s GOOD and NECESSARY to have negative emotions. However, it’s also critical to learn how to identify and manage them; and that it’s within her power to do that. We want to be on the list of people our kids can talk to and bounce their feelings off. We don’t want our kids to think that when they feel frustrated there is something wrong with them and bury them, pretending they don’t exist; and we certainly don’t want our kids to run around in life thinking that actions the lead to negative feelings should be avoided altogether.

Well… I don’t really know exactly. It’s a slow process and kids are super unpredictable.

That said, I’ve had MANY occasions where Lily will tell me how she feels and tries to do something about it. We’ve also noticed an improvement in her desire to challenge herself. We’ve been a bit anxious (probably over anxious, because that’s how parents are) about Lily’s tendency to keep doing easy things instead of pushing herself. But we don’t want to FORCE her to do hard stuff because then we risk teaching her arbitrary compliance. We don’t want her to just do hard things “because I said so”.. we want her to want to do hard things because she will find them rewarding.

Even more amazing is that when *I* get mad or frustrated… she will tell me “It’s ok dad, we all get mad sometimes. It’s ok to feel mad” which always makes me feel quite a bit better. I can’t wait for the day when she’s coaching me to be less angry and frustrated.

I am not a child raising expert or a psychologist so I have no idea if this makes any sense. That said I think it’s a very important skill to have and I found this to be a really great way to help teach it.

I’d love to hear about what everyone else is doing. What has worked and hasn’t. It’s a messy business this kid raising thing.