The “Kids Are Philosophers” Edition

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Zak Rosen: This episode contains explicit language. Welcome to Mom and Dad are fighting Slate’s parenting podcast for Thursday, June 2nd.

Zak Rosen: The Kids are philosophers edition I’m Zak Rosen. I make a podcast called The Best Advice Show and I live in Detroit with my family. My daughter Noah is four and my son Amy is one.

Elizabeth Newcamp: I’m Elizabeth Newcamp. I write the homeschool and family travel blog that statues. I’m the mom to three little Henry who’s ten, Oliver who’s eight, and Teddy who’s five and a half. I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but this week I am coming to you from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

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Speaker 3: Scott Hershovitz, the author of Nasty, Brutish and Short Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids. I teach law and philosophy at the University of Michigan. I’ve got two boys, Rex, who’s now 12, and Hank, who’s nine. And we live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Zak Rosen: Today on the show, we’re going to be talking about what the meaning of life and maybe death, too, and the meaning of meaning and if the number six actually exists. Oh, and the nature of truth, too. And while your kids, as they are now, are very good philosophers, probably better than you and I, and who better to reckon with these heady topics than an actual philosopher? And full disclosure, his brother happens to be Elizabeth’s dad’s former law partner. But that is not why we booked him. It was a total coincidence, we swear.

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Elizabeth Newcamp: A happy accident.

Speaker 3: I’m not sure what that makes up. My brother is your dad’s former, so I think we’re like third cousins twice removed or something worse.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Yeah, exactly. Yes. Post removed LLP. Yeah.

Zak Rosen: First slate plus graduation season is in full swing, and while none of us have kids at graduation age, we thought we’d do some throwback triumphs and fails. Here’s a sneak peek of what you’ll hear if you have Slate Plus.

Speaker 3: So I do think I got that degree, but.

Zak Rosen: But you only think you matter.

Speaker 3: So that was the fail. But actually, I thought I learned, like, a super important life lesson at my high school graduation.

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Zak Rosen: If you want a weekly bonus segment from us and your other Slate favorites, consider signing up for a slate. Plus, you’ll also get to listen ad free and get unlimited access to Slate’s website. To sign up now, go to Slate.com slash mom and dad. Plus again that Slate.com slash mom and dad plus.

Zak Rosen: All right. Before we jump into this week’s interview with Scott, we wanted to dive into our mailbag and share this letter.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Dear Mom and dad. A recent episode of the podcast really struck a chord with me. The letter writer was weighing the decision to quit her job and focus more on her family. And she was really struggling with the identity crisis that comes with leaving your work self behind, even if temporarily. I’ve been in the same struggle lately. I’ve been longing to quit my job. That has shifted over the past seven years into something that really no longer fits my values and passions. My heart knows that I’m ready to refocus my priorities to be more present for my family. But my head had trouble grasping who I would be if I wasn’t working outside the home. Something was said about thinking about your life in phases like the Nine Lives of a Cat really resonated with me.

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Elizabeth Newcamp: Very few things in life are permanent, and so one day after my 40th birthday, I turned in my resignation. I’m working on being okay with not knowing exactly what this new phase will hold or how long it will last, only knowing that this is what’s right for us right now. So thank you for the reminder to listen to my heart when my head wants to overthink it. Sincerely. Newly jobless in Texas.

Zak Rosen: If you ever have any thoughts, suggestions or advice of your own, we are all ears. Send us an email at mom and dad at Slate.com or send us a voice memo and we may play it on the show. We’re going to take a quick break. And when we come back, I’m going to talk to Scott about his book. All right. We are back and I’m excited to interview Scott Hershovitz.

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Zak Rosen: So, Scott, you wrote this new book, which is essentially a guide through so many of the big questions in life and like topics and philosophy. And it’s through the lens of how these things have come up with you at home with your two boys. So tell me, when did you notice that your kids were philosophers?

Speaker 3: So it kind of went in stages, right? Which is to say really early on, maybe when my kids were like one or two, certainly by the time they were three, I noticed that they were doing things that were philosophically interesting, even if they weren’t yet philosophers themselves. So some of the stories in the book are about our early attempts to sort of punish Rex and correct bad behavior and which, when went awry in like really amusing ways, they were completely unsuccessful. And I would take these things back to my philosophy of law classes and tell my students what had happened and asked them what I could have done differently and what our aim should be say and trying to punish our kids or they challenged my authority.

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Speaker 3: You know, by the time Rex was three, he was saying, You’re not the boss of me. And I thought, well, yeah, I am, but. But it’s really hard to explain why. It’s especially hard to explain to a three year old why. And so I take that to my class, too, and say, Am I the boss of him? What is authority? When do people have it? Stage one was they were just philosophically interesting creatures, but then they really started to do philosophy on their own. So when Rex was for one night at dinner, he said, I wonder if I’m dreaming my entire life.

Speaker 3: And that’s that’s a question that goes back to antiquity. It’s asked all around the world. Maybe the earliest formulation comes from a Dallas text 2000 years ago in China called this one guy more famous.

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Speaker 3: In more recent times, Descartes asked the same question and and we had really, like, you know, really phenomenal conversations, Rex and I, about whether he was dreaming his his entire life when he was four, we had conversations about God and just like so definitely by the time they’re three or four, they’re asking the big questions themselves and struggling to answer them.

Zak Rosen: So often we’re teaching our kids something like they’re asking us a question and we’re kind of explaining how or why. But when it comes to philosophy, they they often have questions that I mean, I definitely don’t know the answers to and that challenge our own understanding of of the universe. And so what is it about this dynamic of, you know, not having answers? Why is that intoxicating to you as a human being?

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Speaker 3: So I think talking to kids about philosophy can create a different kind of dynamic than you often have in your relationship with kids, whether you’re a parent or a teacher. Often you’re in the role of authority. Maybe you’re in the role of an authority telling them what to do or telling them what to think. But if they’re asking a question like, What are our lives for? Or Does God exist? Or How big is the universe? Chances are you don’t know the answer either. You might have views, right ideas, but. But you’re not going to be sure about what the answers are and maybe you’re really unsure. And so that creates the opportunity to have a kind of collaborative conversation with your kid, to treat your kid as equals.

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Speaker 3: For the philosopher who is best known for work with kids, this guy, Gareth MATTHEWS, who would go into schools and talk to kids about philosophy and collected lots of stories from parents about the questions their kids would ask and the conversations that they would have. And he said that that these conversations can be genuinely collaborative because you’re each bringing something different to the table, you know more about the world, and you are a more disciplined and rigorous thinker, but your kid is more creative than you, and they’re they’re more open minded than you. They’re going to challenge things that you’re taking for granted. And so there’s really an opportunity to work together. And I think that’s super cool.

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Zak Rosen: You’re right. It may be part of what it is to grow up is to stop doing philosophy and to start doing something more practical. And what do you say? It’s like at eight or nine or something that that our culture kind of says, like, all right, enough with these big questions. Let’s let’s kind of buckle down here.

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Speaker 3: The thing I say immediately after that, which is to say, like, if that’s true, then I never fully grown up, which will come as a surprise to to no one who knows me. I kind of got stuck with the questions that little kids have got, but but yeah, like the research suggests that between, say, ages three and eight, kids are spontaneously interested in philosophy and they’re raising philosophical questions on their own. They start to slow down around eight or nine, and it’s actually really important. You can still prompt these philosophical conversations and kids will still take them up and they’ll take them up with enthusiasm, but they don’t raise them quite as often as is on their own.

Speaker 3: And I think there’s a couple of things going on there. One is that, as you say, like their attention shifting elsewhere, like they’re they’re becoming more interested in like the social world. They’re developing a sense of what other people think of them. They’re negotiating like social status and social hierarchies as they get into middle school. And that takes a lot of their time and attention. It also gives them a kind of reluctance to seem silly or to be wrong. And so I think they’re still probably having some of those big questions and big thoughts, but they’re keeping a lot more of them to themselves.

Speaker 3: So I tell this story in the Book of Rex when he was seven, I had an argument for me. He thought the universe was infinite and he thought he could prove it to me. And it was like a super cool argument. He said, like, what if I take a spaceship all the way to the end of the universe and I’m standing right there at the end, and then I kind of punched my hand. He said, okay, I’ll have to go somewhere, right? And I was like, Well, I don’t know, maybe it just stops. And he’s like, Well, if it stops, there’s something stopping it. So you’re not really at the edge yet, and there’s all kinds of problems with that argument.

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Speaker 3: But that’s an argument with a long history. It goes back to ancient Greek philosophy. The Pre-socratic class, a pre-socratic philosopher named archetypes, was at least the first person in recorded history to make that argument. Lucretius made that argument. Isaac Newton was attracted to that argument. So it’s super. The seven year old is just thinking on his own about the size of the universe and comes up with that. But also what I think is interesting is if he was 17 and had that thought, he wouldn’t have shared it. He would have gone to Google or just kept it to himself. You know, and I think that’s because you don’t want to be wrong when you’re 17 or you don’t want to seem silly for for having these having these sorts of thoughts. That’s one thing I think is really super fun about little kids.

Zak Rosen: Are there parts of the world or subcultures where, you know, maybe a 17 year old wouldn’t have that self-consciousness where philosophy is really encouraged beyond, you know, the butt beyond eight year olds?

Speaker 3: Yeah. So I my suspicion is that 17 year olds are probably always kind of anxious about what people think of them. But there are definitely places in the world and actually most places in the world other than the United States, that encourage philosophical thinking in kids. It’s very commonly a part of high school education and in lots of other places in the world. And there’s even movements here in the United States, but sort of more advanced in other places to incorporate philosophy into early education. And and I think that’s really terrific because it can help kids hold onto their natural sense of curiosity. And if the adults in their lives signal to them these questions are important and they’re we’re thinking about it and we value thinking deeply, then you can you can sustain that better, I think.

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Zak Rosen: Yeah. What’s a practical way for parents to do that?

Speaker 3: So I think the most practical way is to signal that you’re not just interested in those questions, but you’re interested in what your kids have to say about them. So, you know, if my kid asks a big question, like, is God real? I’m not just going to share my views. I’m going to say, What do you think? And then take what they think as a conversation stopper and not a conversation starter. Right? So if they say, yeah, I think God is real, then I want to know like, oh, well, wait a minute. Like, have you have you noticed that at the beginning of the Bible there are two creation stories and they don’t seem to fit that well together. What do you think is going on there? Or if they say, I don’t think God is real, then I don’t know. Where do you think the world came from and how do you think it got started? So I think the simplest way to kind of nurture this curiosity is to show that you want to engage not just the issues, but them in a conversation about the issues.

Zak Rosen: Speaking of engaging in a conversation about the issues. Scott, what is a flu for do for? And why is it important in grasping our understanding of revenge more fully?

Speaker 3: Yeah. So I’m still not sure what a flu producer is, but when when Hank was three, he and I were hanging out at home one day. He didn’t have school, and we were just, like, snuggling in bed. And he says to me, yesterday, Kaden, a kid in his class, Kaden called me a flu producer. And then Kelly, the teacher, came to talk to me and I said, Well, wait a minute, you know, why did she come to talk to you? And he really like the story came out and bits and pieces, and it was never quite clear what happened. But it was what was clear was Kate and called him a flu for due for he took that as an insult and I think probably properly so. I don’t know exactly what a flu for do for is but you’re probably not good to be called a flu for do four.

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Speaker 3: But then Hank responded in some way and I could never get him to tell me what he did. But that’s why the teacher came to talk to him, to talk about however he took revenge. And I figured this out because at some point I said to him, Hank, did you think it was okay to do something mean to Caden? Because he said something mean to you and you looked at me like I was stupid. And he said, Yeah, right. Like he called me a flu photographer, as if sort of obviously upon being called a flu for do for one’s honor has been challenged. And you must you must seek revenge.

Speaker 3: So in in the book and nasty, brutish and short, this is a kind of a springboard. What I want to do, it actually connects up with my academic interests. I think about how we respond to wrongdoing. What I what we do and what I do in the book is try to think like, what is it that makes it just seems so obvious to three year old Hank that if somebody said something insulting to you that the thing to do is take revenge. And and then once you get a sense of what his interest is in striking back, like, what are the other ways you can achieve whatever those interests are without hitting Caden or calling him a flu for do four or whatever? It couldn’t have been that serious. The school didn’t send him an incident report, so I don’t think Hank was physically violent. But but what are the substitutes for taking revenge as a kind of live question in that chapter and in in in life in general?

Zak Rosen: I think when you think back on all of the conversations and debates you’ve had with your kids over the years, is there something in particular that’s come up that’s just been like one of the most puzzling or just like the biggest head scratcher for you?

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Speaker 3: So I’ll tell you about a puzzle that I think like my kid helped me make progress on by saying something really profound. So so when Rex was for one night at dinner, he asked, Is God real? And we’ve been sending him to the Jewish Community Center for preschool. So he’d been learning a lot about God and the stories that the Jews tell about God. And so he asked this question a lot. And so I just reflected it back and I said, Well, what do you think? And he said, I think that for real, God is pretend, and for pretend God is real. Mhm. And I was just kind of like stunned by that. It was like some like such a sophisticated thought and I was like, what do you mean? Tell me more about that. And he said, God isn’t real, but when we pretend he is.

Speaker 3: And I just thought about that for four days, weeks after he said it, because I’ve always had this sort of puzzle about myself, which is I don’t think of myself as a religious believer in the sense that I think the stories in the Bible are true and happened just as they’re told, and I don’t really believe in God is part of what’s in the world.

Speaker 3: But nevertheless, I participate in lots of religious practices. I celebrate holidays. I fast on Yom Kippur, I take my kids to synagogue. And so I always am puzzled, like, why are these things important to me if I don’t actually have these beliefs? And I and Rex helped me understand it. Right. Which is to say, I think he’s right that for real, God is pretend. But for pretend God is real. But pretending like, as you see from your kids all the time, can make the world like a more rich and meaningful place. And like by pretending when we go to synagogue, by pretending we participate in these holidays, we create these traditions in our lives that we value as occasions to bring people together and to think about the things to be that we’re grateful for, that we’re thankful for. So that was a moment in which kind of upended my view of an important part of my life and helped me make sense of things.

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Zak Rosen: I just I never I was going to say rarely, but I was gonna say I never speak to professional philosophers other than today, so it’s a real treat.

Zak Rosen: I wondered, what kind of advice do you have for for those of us who aren’t reading much philosophy, but who are, you know, just hungry for making meaning in our lives? What can we take from your discipline?

Speaker 3: Well, so if you’re if you’ve got kids around and I suspect most of your listeners do have kids around, I think that you can piggyback off their efforts to think big questions and to try to make sense of the world. And so really like my ambition for the book is partly to get adults to see kids as the serious thinkers they are and to nurture them and support them. But also really just as much, maybe even more. I want to help adults recapture some of the wonder that kids have. So, you know, when your kid asks a really hard question or a really weird question, lean into it and try and figure out what they’re thinking.

Speaker 3: One of the things I’ve loved is, as I was working on this book is I meet a lot of parents who then share questions their kids would ask. So I met this one mother whose daughter every night at bedtime, she was four years old, was asking, why do the days keep coming? And, you know, and her mother tried like the basic science of like, oh, the earth is rotating. But it wasn’t like a science question that was interesting to her. And mother is like struggling to figure out just what is driving this. Is it anxiety? Like I’m having trouble like taking what the world is throwing at me? Is it uncertainty that like the things in the future are going to be the same as they are now? And so I think all kids are just going to ask these questions that they come out of left field a little bit, and to take those as kinds of gifts to try and figure out what they’re up to and then go on this philosophical adventure with them.

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Zak Rosen: I love it. Scott Hershovitz is the author of Nasty, Brutish and Short Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids. It’s delightful, Scott, and like, very it’s very readable. This is not an academic book. This is just a really fun, deeply wise and funny read. So congrats on the release and listeners, you should check it out.

Speaker 3: Thanks so much. This was a blast.

Zak Rosen: Okay, it’s finally time for some recommendations. Elizabeth, what do you have for us?

Elizabeth Newcamp: Okay. I am very into the comeback of the fanny pack now called hip pack, especially for those of us who they don’t put pockets in your clothes and then you’re asked to carry all of your children’s stuff. So there’s a lot of great ones out there, but I really am in love with it’s the Sipsey Wilder. They’re a small company, hip pack, because you can attach a water bottle holder. And you guys, when I am hiking like on these short hikes or when I’ve been traveling with the kids, I can hold everything I need in this little hip pack, including a water bottle. It has been a game changer for me. I have tried backpacks and shoulder packs, but then if I have to pick up the kids, it’s like they slip around. Or if I, you know, I’m constantly like turning the bag around. This has just been such a wonderful little collection. I’m loving it with the kids.

Zak Rosen: What about you, Scott?

Speaker 3: So I’m going to recommend a website. The Prindle Institute for Ethics has a website called Teaching Children Philosophy. And What They Have there is like modules like for four picture books. A lot of the picture books, you probably own books like Knuckle Bunny or Frederick. And for each book that they’ve got, they’ve got a kind of primer for a parent on what philosophy questions that book raises, and then also a list of questions you can ask children as you read or after you read the book.

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Speaker 3: And and even as a professional philosopher, I. Use this website all the time. When my kids were little and we were reading picture books, you know, some nights you just want to get through the story and get them to bed. But if you can have a little more relaxed bedtime. So many of these books raise really deep, interesting questions that you’re just kind of passing by and missing the opportunity to have a conversation about. And so I’d glance at the Teaching Children philosophy website very briefly before reading that nice story and pick one or two questions that I might ask along the way.

Zak Rosen: I’m going to piggyback on the Getting Kids to Sleep piece. Noah has stayed up late for the last couple of years and we’ve just been having a hard time figuring out like what will actually calm her. For a while she was like listening to her favorite TV show and then she was listening to music and that that wasn’t serving us very well. And just this week, I finally got her to listen to a podcast for the first time in her life. This is a big victory for her father, who is a podcaster, but it also has just just put her right to sleep.

Speaker 3: So she listening to you? Yeah.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Good luck with your podcast.

Zak Rosen: Yes, she’s listening to our shows. And so, in a way, she she doesn’t well, she’s listened to my show a little bit, but now she’s not very interested in me. So I put on Julie’s library. This is Julie Andrews podcast with her daughter from American Public Media. She just reads a children’s book. And I’m telling you, I put it on and like, Noah is not coming into our room as much. She’s listening or she’s just falling right asleep. And it has served us very well. It’s like a really just nice, soothing way to spend the last few minutes of your day.

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Elizabeth Newcamp: I mean, who doesn’t want Julie Andrews to lure you off to sleep? I mean, life happens.

Zak Rosen: Yeah.

Zak Rosen: Shout out to American public media. They do a lot of great kids. Good shows. All right. Well, that’s it for our show. We’ll be back in your feeds on Monday. Subscribe to the show so you don’t miss it. This episode of Mom and Dad Are Fighting is produced by Rosemary Belson and Jasmine Ellis for Scott Hershovitz and Elizabeth Newcamp. I’m Zak Rosen. Thanks for listening.

Zak Rosen: All right, Slate Plus listeners, let’s keep it going. It’s that time of the year where if you get too close to a university or high school, chances are you’ll hear pomp and circumstance floating through the air. We thought it’d be fun to do a round of graduation themed triumphs and fails are just stories. Scott, do you want to go first?

Speaker 3: So I think I’ve had a fail and then a and then like a larger lesson about fails averted. So. So my fail is from my my college graduation. Actually graduate. I had enough credit hours I had accrued. I was getting a like a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in this on the same day. And I we went to the grad first graduation and that went off fine. And then there was like lunch. Then we went to the second graduation and there’s a much smaller graduation for the master’s degrees. They were actually saying people’s names, and I was in line and they said the name of the person in front of me, and then they said the name of the person behind me. And they didn’t they didn’t say my name. And my dad had come up and he was right there with his camera. And I kind of looked at him and he kind of looked at me. And I think he had a moment where he wondered, why did he really get this degree? Am I putting him on? I just decided to walk across the stage anyway. And so he got pictures. But my name was never said. They did mail me, do a diploma. So I do think I got that degree. But.

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Zak Rosen: But you only think you don’t remember.

Speaker 3: So. So that was the fail. But actually, I thought I learned, like a super important life lesson at my high school graduation from my principal, Ted Newman, who gave us like a stern talking to during the rehearsal for graduation. He said there are some events in life that on the surface look like they’re about you and they’re really about other people. And graduation is one of them. And, you know, like, yes, we’re marking the fact that you have finished school and that’s an achievement. But really, we’re giving your family and friends a chance to celebrate you and also a chance to feel good about their accomplishment in getting you here and do not mess that up for them. And I feel like that is a lesson I tried to pass on to my kids, which is, you know, not everything in life that looks like it’s about you is about you.

Speaker 3: And and to remember, you know, you don’t get to make all the decisions about your bar mitzvah, for instance, coming up soon, because that’s partly about your grandparents and our extended family and providing everyone a chance to gather together. So so that and I think he probably avoided many graduation fails by warning people against the misbehavior.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Yeah.

Elizabeth Newcamp: I feel like you’ve really put a damper on my rants about how much I hate graduations.

Speaker 3: Go for it. Well, I think there are too many graduations now.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Yes, there’s two everybody has got. I have been to so many graduations.

Speaker 3: And upside of the pandemic is just how much of this stuff moved online. So we went to we went to Atlanta for my nephew’s graduation, but we weren’t allowed to go to the ceremony because they capped the numbers for COVID. So we watched the live stream in his house and it was a million times better.

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Elizabeth Newcamp: Yes, this is all I want to be in a nice house watching something on a TV as a shared.

Speaker 3: Yeah. So I can pay attention being able right before and right after. Yeah. And yeah that’s.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Jeff now is in an academic position. It’s also like a full day of his time where he’s going to sit up on a stage and not and, you know, be there as part of the like ambiance to watching the students graduate. And I’m not saying I know it’s like a huge deal and it it just feels like we’ve made them to be these things that I’m not sure meeting anybody.

Speaker 3: I am very strategic about where I get where I stand in line for for placement on stage. Like I better be in the back row where nobody, where nobody can see me if I’m going to survive. I love meeting families afterwards, celebrating with my students. Yes. And I kind of wish we could just do it more as an interactive party. But the hours, the hours spent on stage of a prop I could definitely do without.

Zak Rosen: Scott’s insight about graduations not being for the students just just struck me pretty hard because I think back to my high school graduation and. There was just this like deep sense of melancholia that I that I remember feeling that day and, like, I wasn’t. I just wasn’t joyful. I was never a high achiever and like all of my friends were. So I think I felt like some inferiority there. But I was also just like I just wasn’t happy in a way that I that it felt like I was supposed to be. And it’s always like.

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Zak Rosen: It’s always that the memory of that stuck with me, like, why weren’t you happy when you graduated high school? And, you know, I was I was in a kind of, you know, my parents had got divorced a, you know, couple years before. So I was kind of in that malaise. But it was like an alienating day. I felt like everyone was smiling and happy, like, aren’t you so happy? And I was like, uh, I don’t know. I don’t know what I am.

Zak Rosen: And then I ended up my family came to my college graduation weekend, but I told them that I had no interest in like going to the main ceremony, and they were like, cool. So we just like totally skipped it and had a great day, you know, like we went out for a meal, took a great walk, and I felt like that was such a great, a great use of our time rather than sitting, you know, in a stadium for 4 hours.

Zak Rosen: So that’s another thing. Just like if you feel like you don’t want to do the thing, maybe just like opt out, give yourself a break. But if you are celebrating a graduation, whether it’s your own or a family of friends, congratulations. This is a big deal for so many people. And we want to hear your funny, crunchy, sentimental graduation stories. Send them in to us, our mom and dad at Slate.com, and be sure to join us Monday for another regular episode and Thursday for another bonus segment later.