How a Little List of Lessons for My Daughter Became So Much More

Jeremy N Smith
·6 min read

When my wife Crissie told me she was pregnant, my first response was to call my parents.

My second was to start making a list.

As a father-to-be, I had so much I wanted this kid to know — even though I didn’t know anything about this kid.

How could he or she get through life without my vaunted pizza dough recipe, or my expert advice on making an omelette?

What if my offspring didn’t understand why “Sk8r Boi” by Avril Lavigne may be the greatest story ever told or how gravity seemed to reverse itself watching Michael Jordan play live?

I had hard-won time management and personal improvement strategies I wanted to share, foreign language learning tips I needed to pass on, and even a brilliant if counterintuitive theory about why it’s good to have a disaster occur as early as possible in a relationship.

Sure, I could wait and tell her — we were having a girl, we discovered — but it would be years and maybe even decades before my daughter was old enough to take in my teachings.

The list ensured I wouldn’t forget anything. That she would, eventually, know everything.

I titled the document “You Must Know Everything,” which I meant both literally and literarily — in homage to an Isaac Babel short story whose ending has a grandparent make this exact demand of a grandchild.

My daughter Rasa was born the following August.

Somehow “You Must Know Everything” stuck with me — and vice-versa.

As Rasa transitioned from nursing and crawling to talking and walking to talking back and walking away. I kept adding to the list.

She entered daycare, and then preschool, and then kindergarten, learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, joined gymnastic class and a soccer team, made friends and started having sleepovers.

Meanwhile, I expanded list items into individual letters I planned to give her when she was older.

But when Rasa was 8, I accidentally referenced the list and letters in front of her.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

I explained the concept and she was immediately curious.

“Can I read some?” Rasa said.

“Not yet — I’m not finished and you’re still too young to understand,” I told her.

She put up a brief argument, but I held firm, and we moved on.

Then came the pandemic.

Last spring, when COVID-19 hit the U.S., I was a journalist and writer between book projects and my wife was the executive director of a shelter for young mothers and children.

It was immediately obvious which one of us would stay home all day with Rasa. But, I wondered, what would we do during the time outside of the two or three hours a day devoted to remote learning?

Rasa, by this point a fourth grader, was the first to remember “You Must Know Everything.”

“Now am I old enough to read your letters?” she suggested.

She was, I realized.

“But we can do something even better,” I said.

I realized I could toss my fussy letters and just tell Rasa everything I wanted her to to know in person. That way, she could respond, ask questions, or add her own ideas. It could be a conversation. And Rasa could teach me as much as I taught her. We could trade off.

Because for everything I knew and she hadn’t learned yet, there was just as much she knew that was either news to me or, in the process of adulthood, I’d already forgotten.

Last, I thought, we could record the exchange, turn it into a podcast, and let the whole world in on the education.

“Let’s do it!” Rasa said, and quickly sketched a logo.

We taped, edited, produced, and posted our first two episodes.

My little list turned into something much larger. In the past year, Rasa and I have made and released nearly 100 episodes of You Must Know Everything.

Soon after we started, our local paper profiled us and we got picked up by public radio. In the fall, as she entered fifth grade — two days a week in person, two days online — we appeared on the evening news. In the winter, CNN, NPR, and Headline News all featured us. This spring, we made the New York Times.

Listeners love the example of a father taking time out to do something creative and empowering with his daughter, and families nationwide are taking inspiration — especially when we flip the normal parent-child dynamic, with Rasa becoming my home-learning teacher.

So far, for example, she’s taught me the trouble with lollipops, how to leave a note, the joys of slime, everything adults don’t understand about Halloween, and much, much more.

In addition to sharing life lessons, Rasa and I always read and discuss a poem together and research and answer a vexing question: What makes shadows? Who invented pencils? Why do people get wrinkles? Or — one favorite — how many people fit a socially-distanced 6 feet apart in the state of Montana? (The answer is 113 billion, by the way.)

My biggest takeaways, however, are probably behind the scenes.

First, giving Rasa more responsibility has made her more responsible.

While she initially bristled at me trying to fill in for her classroom teacher, she shows up early, eager and prepared, to learn from or teach me on air.

She’s learned to edit the show herself and asks to take meetings together as we try to reach new audiences.

“I love having an agenda!” Rasa says, no pun intended.

Second, inspiration follows collaboration.

As a writer, I was long used to working from home, but I never had a colleague. In ten years, working alone on my list for Rasa, I maxed out at a dozen or so total items.

Now, working with her, I think of new ideas all the time. Each podcast conversation seeds the next. We’re like an improv team, continuously building on one another’s best suggestions. Instead of an impediment, parenting turned out to be a creative outlet.

Third, the highest intelligence is connection.

Almost every day, listeners write to me and Rasa about “You Must Know Everything”. Their feedback suggests what people appreciate most about the show is feeling like they’re in the room with us. By listening, they join our family, and we join theirs. The appreciation goes both ways.

Rasa and I have missed friends so much during the pandemic. But sometimes we’ve missed strangers even more.

In retrospect, it was ridiculous to think I could ever write down everything I wanted Rasa to know. In part, that’s because there’s no limit to what I want her to learn.

Even more, though, it’s because she should learn from everyone, not just me and Crissie. And, most of all, she should learn from her own experiences.

Swapping lessons via the podcast, one 10-minute episode at a time, makes explicit that her real-life education never ends.

And now, neither does mine.

Jeremy N. Smith is a journalist, podcaster, and author. He has written for The Atlantic, Discover, Slate, and the New York Times, among other outlets. He hosts the podcasts The Hacker Next Door, Stimulus & Response (with high performance coach Damon Valentino), and You Must Know Everything (with his daughter Rasa).

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