Point of View

Three essential lessons every child needs for life

September 21, 2013 

Senior discount day at my local food store chain recently netted me a windfall not intended by management. My bill was $60.71, and I tendered a $100 bill from my Social Security check. The cashier handed me $50.39 in change! After I told her the correct amount due to me, she still couldn’t get it right.

Everyone makes mistakes, but this one was compounded when the cashier called a supervisor, the supervisor called another aide and the three of them needed an adding machine to get the figure I had shared with the cashier.

When I told the story to friends at Sunday brunch as we calculated the tip, most had similar stories of gross math errors.

Parents and schools are responsible for raising contributing members of society, but what are our schools teaching these days? All kinds of errors crop up constantly.

A local commentator, deploring the widespread use of improper syntax and grammar, recently criticized folks ranging from telephone receptionists to public officials.

Beyond problems of basic miscommunication and math lies possible physical jeopardy. Most of us have experienced endangerment from reckless drivers who don’t follow the rules of the road.

None of this behavior needs to be tolerated. The simplest solution is to have parents and our schools to get back to basics. An easy, three-step program can do it.

Starting when they were very young, my now-adult children were encouraged, and supported, in learning three things:

Enjoy reading, silently and aloud.

Do simple arithmetic in your head.

Keep to the right and pass on the left.

No reason everyone can’t master the same concepts.

Enjoying reading opens whole, new worlds. Starting with names on the sides of buses and moving to billboards or comics, a new skill is added painlessly. More information about the community is gained with every word read.

Books teaching social skills, along with the newspaper, were on my kids’ reading list. Soon, each child demanded a library card! Those plastic rectangles gave free access to buildings filled with ideas – far more books than our home could hold!

Couple books with reading aloud and children learn what a good sentence looks and sounds like. They learn spelling, vocabulary and syntax.

“The Wealthy Barber” by David Chilton taught them the benefits of setting aside 10 percent, off the top, of everything earned. But how much was 10 percent of an allowance or 18 percent for a tip after a meal out? Doing mental math should be another component of basic education.

Doing simple arithmetic in their heads prepared our public school-attending kids for handling worldly transactions. Balancing a checking account leaps to mind. Mental math skills minimized the chance they’d be cheated or that they later might make the kind of error that would hurt an employer. “Estimating” totals, rounding larger numbers into units and multiples of tens and subdividing those smaller units were invaluable.

Understanding simple arithmetic can stir interest in science, music, art, theatre, engineering, electronics and higher mathematics. Mental math skills also eased my kids’ entry into the world of computers, learning to create original computer programs to play games and solve problems.

Now, add the concept of functioning in society and acquiring social skills to the enjoyment of reading and doing mental math.

Keeping to the right and passing on the left is my shorthand way of saying that our community has rules to follow and social expectations of its citizens to make life work more smoothly for each of us.

Beyond obeying stop signs, yielding the right-of-way and not speeding, social obligations need to be met. Courtesy in conversation, taking turns, contributing to charity, caring for the sick, being truthful and polite at all times makes for the betterment of us all.

My kids are contributing citizens of the world, thanks in part to the fact that each enjoys reading, does simple math in his or her head and knows the rules. The public school system also must master these basics for civilized society to survive.

Oh, and the change from that grocery bill of $60.71? When I tendered a $100 bill, simple arithmetic says I owed more than half of that $100. So getting more than $50 in change had to be wrong. Sixty dollars from $100 leaves $40. But we have 71 cents to deal with. Seven from 10 leaves three, so 70 cents from 100 cents leaves 30 cents. We have rounded numbers and estimated results. That pesky penny means 1 cent less than 30 cents, or 29. The correct change was $39.29. But, you already knew that, didn’t you?

John T. “Jack” Hall of Raleigh has retired from practicing criminal appellate law and teaching at NCSU but is still active in community theatre circles.

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