Following Our Own Advice

I don’t know about you, but I tend to assume that guidebooks — particularly, perhaps, ones like ours that have words like “essential” and “guide” in their titles — are written by authoritative experts. (The Sibley Guide to Birds, for example, was written and illustrated by “David Allen Sibley, America’s most gifted contemporary painter of birds.”) However, although several of our contributors — New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante, say, or Olin College of Engineering professor Deb Chachra — are indeed experts in their respective fields, the authors of UNBORED are not expert at blowing things up, crafting, cooking, hacking, gardening, making music, inventing games, or any of the book’s many other amazing topics. At best, we’re enthusiastic amateurs who’ve developed a few skills.

Also, our kids will no doubt be the first to tell you, we’re not necessarily America’s most gifted contemporary parents. Again, we’re enthusiastic amateurs who’ve developed a few skills.

But that’s OK! One of the most important points we’re trying to make with UNBORED is: It’s OK not to be expert. Living a life that’s productive, meaningful, and fun is about trying new things — getting started by getting started — and enjoying the process. We wanted to edit and write UNBORED not because we have all the answers — though we do offer a lot of our own hard-won knowledge — but because it would be a terrific opportunity for us to try new things, and learn more about the world, with our kids. Also, as the parents of middle-schoolers and older elementary school kids, we wanted a book like UNBORED to exist; it didn’t, so we decided to do it ourselves.

The book comes out in October 2012. It hasn’t been printed yet, but Elizabeth and I have advance copies. They’re paperback, instead of hardcover; they’re black-and-white, instead of color; and they’ve got a few uncorrected errors in them. But we’re using them with our kids!

This summer, for example, Elizabeth and her husband and kids followed the advice we offer in UNBORED about making family road trips more fun. She (mostly) and I wrote about this topic for Slate.com in June. And here, for example, is my 11-year-old son Max doing some soldering in our back yard last week.

I haven’t soldered since shop class at the Martin Luther King Jr. School in 1978… but Max wanted to try it. And the “Manifesto of Doing” that Bre Pettis and Kio Stark wrote for UNBORED says that learning how to fix stuff is important for kids (and their parents). So we sent away for the AmeriKit Learn to Solder Kit, which you can get from Amazon or via our friends at Make Magazine. We burned our fingers once or twice (OK, twice), but in the end we built a circuit board device with flashing lights and a siren — and learned how to solder, strip wires, and decipher the coded markings on resistors and capacitors. Awesome.

I’ve heard that these books are good for beginner electronics hobbyists, but I haven’t read any of them (yet): There Are No Electrons by Kenn Amdahl, MAKE: Electronics by Charles Platt, and Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots by Gareth Branwyn.

UNBORED also features a Q&A with Mark Winne, a food activist whose most recent book is Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas, about the importance of growing your own food — even if that means planting a garden on a rooftop. So earlier this summer Max planted tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce on the roof of our garage.

Now we’re eating Max’s produce every evening. Yum.

Elizabeth and I have transformed from the book’s authors into its readers, and it feels great.

PS: Here’s an excellent list of safety tips for kids who are just getting into using power tools and electronics kits.