A Bunny Runs Around a Tree

Photo: Jason Houston

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!”

Sandra Steingraber is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College.


  1. Thank you Sandra Steingraber for writing this.

    I’ve lived in a rural area of southern Ohio all my life. LIke many of my neighbors we grow or gather most of our food. We get excited when the blackberries are fat and plentiful or when tomatoes ripen well into September. As I read your piece, I was reminded of this phrase from Wendell Berry’s “the Unsettling of America”

    “And so we have before us one of the characteristic political necessities of our time: to take seriously what we cannot respect.”

  2. As usual, Sandra Steingraber is eloquent and insightful. I have had these same questions for a long time, but couldnt have articulated them thus, and I’m grateful that she’s asking us to think more about what we want our children to learn.

  3. So why can’t learning knots, canning, and how to grow a garden be perfectly acceptable college-application skills? Your kids sound like they’re little — what if by the time they got to the point where they have to write those essays, they can articulate what self-sufficiency means to them. At the very least, it would be a more interesting story to read than yet another list of “accomplishments” that were purchased as if at the store. (And canning tomatoes isn’t hard, buy a pressure canner and follow the directions in the little booklet. That’s what I did this past summer and it’s so nice to eat my own tomato sauce in the dead of winter.)

  4. I get that the overall point of the article was much larger than shoelaces! But I thought I’d point out that, as an adult, I own only one pair of shoes with laces – and those are running shoes that rarely get used. Since we have a no-shoe policy in the house and at school (necessary here in the cold, muddy Maine winters), slip-ons just make a lot of sense. For now, it means that my son has three shoes – boots, slippers, sandals.

    The larger issues are certainly worth reflection.

  5. I also had to think of Wendell Berry while reading this article. Not only of “Unsettling America”, but also “The Memory of Old Jack” which catalogs the difficulty of passing on not only physical skills, but also the agrarian land ethic.

    I currently teach English in Austria at one of several “Agricultural” High Schools. There, along with the liberal arts, the students are taught practical farming and home economic skills. These range from cheese-making to the pro’s and con’s of various types of flooring to the uses and worth of the various local trees. I can’t help but think something of the sort could be helpful in working against the erosion of sufficiency described by Mrs. Steingraber.

  6. The dearth of capability in life skills (as well as necessary equipment) is made apparent every time the power goes out.
    I agree with the comments that offer the view that life skills might become more respected and viable as college preparedness with the coming rearrangements that will be made to accomodate renewable energy sources as petroleum becomes less and less available. Elsewise, many of us, and our children, will simply be helpless if our systems of supplies break down. Helpless people used to starve or freeze to death; now, better-prepared people take care of them. Perhaps as we cycle through the development of human civilization, we are reaching the part where we’re supposed to learn to take care of each other. So share those recipes for tomato-sauce canning, and patterns for knitted garments, and definitely, plant your lawn in edible fruits and vegetables and teach your kids how to save and trade heirloom seedstock. And go ahead and teach them to tie shoelaces; it can’t hurt to know that skill. In fact, I think there’s a huge task facing us in simply teaching our kids how to do anything that is involved in housekeeping, homemaking, and family care. Our kids watch us go off “to work”, but they seldom see exactly what we do, or see any connection between our jobs and the actual business of nurturing life. Those are the changes that need to be made, and adjusted to accomodate urban living, such as community gardens on municipal lands, and CSA memberships at small farms near the metropolitan centers. Decentralization of our food supply is key to improving our moral and ethical treatment of animals, the personal attention to our children’s educations, the management of wastes of every kind, and revitalizing the cycles of living systems that form the foundation of our supply of natural resources. Each of us should be responsible for knowing how to live and get along on the earth, at least to the extent our geographic location affords us.And remember that not everyone did everything extremely well. Just trying to do a few things can make a difference. You can start by going outside and looking for something alive in your environment, and observe it and research it until you understand its position in the universe, and be grateful for what it offers to the quality of your own life. There is nothing in natural existence that doesn’t fulfill a purpose, even if we don’t yet know what that purpose is, so each living entity has value, is valuable, and must be respected as such. Learning about these things is common sense. A species that is ignorant of its own environment can’t possibly persist very long in universal time.

  7. People think it’s so amazing that I can my garden produce, gather healing herbs and turn them into tinctures and salves, and am still eating my own garlic in the dead of winter. (I should be still eating my own potatoes but last summer was so wet they got blight for the first time ever). Last year I started baking all our bread using sourdough starter and I now also make all our own yogurt (and Greek yogurt), from milk purchased at a nearby farm. I used to sew my own clothes and still could if necessary, but I don’t. And there is so much I don’t do or don’t know how to do and the reliance on electricity for virtually everything in the house is daunting as a commenter already pointed out. We have a long way to go when so much of what we need to survive is purchased and often comes from very far away.

  8. I just discovered Orion magazine today while at the bookstore and, while checking it out online before subscribing, I discovered this article. I’m a Montessori directress working with three to six year olds and our curriculum includes bow tying, dish washing, and plant care. I’m conflicted on a daily basis when children come to school with velcro shoes and the like! I was a Girl Scout and learned many practical skills that are not valued in our society; however, I am a mother and I do understand how difficult it is in our hyperspeed world these days. It is sad to see all of these skills going to the wayside.

  9. To Joy Prescott- you say “Since we have a no-shoe policy in the house and at school (necessary here in the cold, muddy Maine winters), slip-ons just make a lot of sense.”

    My opinion is that these things aren’t necessary. Many losses of skills and old-time habits are caused by matters of convenience. Slip-ons do make sense because of their ubiquity; if I were in your shoes (pun intended) I would use lots of mats.

    Not criticizing your thoughts, just wanted to mention that I think subtle changes in thinking happen and we sometimes forget simplicity over buying something for convenience.

  10. Just read your blog entry, Laura, and wanted to say, “Excellent, cool idea!” This is exactly what we need: teachers and others in positions of authority or instruction with our children, who will teach them the skills of living on the Earth, so those skills will not perish. Since our society, which seems to be completely run and ruled by giant profit-seeking corporations and marketers of “quick-and-easy”, is making these things obsolete, it is up to us, each one, to make sure we teach or learn and teach some of those skills to the ones who look to us for guidance, wisdom, instruction, and approval. We don’t have to follow the lead of those who would make us obsolete; remember: arise, unite, organize, protest, overcome… all those “subversive” ideas we had at the time when we really thought we could change the world? Well, we still can. In fact, we better! And we’d better get to it right now! Here’s some of my list, that I can offer: Contact me to learn breadmaking, canning and/or freezing food, raising chickens, cooking whole vegetarian meals, designing a house, a permaculture landscape, read some wildlife sign in the woods and fields, identifying plants in the NorthEast, minimum yoga (salutation to the sun), massage, stacking firewood, planting trees and fruit-bearing shrubs and bushes and perennials for flowers for medicinal, culinary, or health-pleasure proximity, shrub pruning, hedge-shearing, and a few other things!

  11. So….learn to can tomatoes!

    That’s the point, isn’t it? Not shoelaces but that when we need and want to learn to do things, we learn them. Humans didn’t always have shoelaces.

    It’s a romantic nostalgic view that we’ll all go back to livin’ off the land. But if we needed to, we’d do it. We’re remarkably agile and adaptable creatures, we humans are. At least judging from our history.

    We learn what we need for right this very moment.

  12. I appreciate your article and see the point…things have changed, and not always for the better. However, I wonder if everything must be taught in school? If you want to be sure your children can tie shoelaces, buy some shoes with shoelaces and teach them. Do parents wait until Kindergarten to help children learn to count? to recognize letters and colors? to interact with peers? I hope not. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to help our children learn what we think they should know and do.

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