Cool Secret Codes for Kids: The Mix-O-Matic

The key to a really useful secret code is simplicity. Spies are busy people. They have secrets to uncover, death-defying acts to perform, and super-powerful spy gadgets to deal with. The last thing most spies need is yet another thing to complicate their lives. That’s why, if you took a poll of spies, you would find that a large majority of them, in a pinch, would rather use something simple that they can remember than something difficult that takes time, effort, and an elaborate key to encode and decipher.

In my last post I discussed substitution codes. There’s nothing more simple than a substitution code, but sometimes a secret agent might feel like exercising a little variety in her choice of codes. Just like we all like to eat something different for dinner every day (well, most of us do), most spies like to have a few options when sending secret messages. Otherwise, life can get boring.

So for the secret agent seeking variety and simplicity, let me present a code that I call The Mix-O-Matic. There’s nothing the mix-o-matic can’t do. It can slice and dice, mix and chop, blend and puree. And in the end, it is as reliable as any other secret code. Your results, of course, may vary.

Using the mix-o-matic is like making a smoothie with a blender. Take the primary ingredient, the sentence you wish to encode:

i like spumoni ice cream

Now, decide what flavor of code you want by picking a single letter from the alphabet. I have a craving for the letter “e” today, so I’ll choose that letter and I will add it to the end of each of the words in my sentence. Now it looks like this:

ie likee spumonie icee creame

Then I hit ‘blend’ and smash all the words together like this:


That sentence is already looking hard to read. I’ll make it more difficult by hitting ‘chop’ and chopping that super-long word into 4-letter segments like this:

ieli kees pumo niei ceec ream eqwr

You’ll notice that I had an extra ‘e’ at the end, so I just added a few random letters to the end. My fellow agents do that sort of thing all the time. Now, we have a pretty good secret message. We could send it like this. Or, we could make it more complicated by putting the four-letter segments in reverse order and then blending them back into a single long word like this:


Now, all another agent needs to know is the number of letters per segment (4) and the fact that I’ve reversed the order of the segments. That’s easy enough to remember, and makes for a pretty tasty secret message. Yum.


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Cool Secret Codes For Kids: Substitution Codes

There’s no getting around it: secret codes are cool. Spies use them to protect secret messages and that is very cool. George Washington used secret codes during the Revolutionary War, and there is no doubt that a white-wig-wearing future President of the United States writing in secret code was mighty cool. I feel cool just writing about secret codes.

Spies and secret agents use codes for a clear purpose. They have information to protect, intelligence they don’t want to share with an enemy, or sometimes even the fate of a nation to safeguard. But those of you who are not yet spies or secret agents can use secret codes just for fun. And what is more fun than disguising a message in a secret code that only you and a trusted friend (or perhaps a fellow agent) can understand? That’s right: nothing.

Here’s something I don’t need to write in code: this month’s topic is secret codes. You probably figured that out already. Very smart, you are.

One of the easiest codes to learn is a simple substitution code. To convert your message into a secret code using a substitution code, you simply replace each letter with a letter or number using a consistent pattern. For example, a very simple approach would be to replace each letter with a number corresponding to its place in the alphabet. So ‘A’ would be replaced with ‘1’, ‘B’ with ‘2’ and so on. To say ‘Hello’ in this code, I would write this: 8-5-12-12-15.

That is a simple example. The code can be made much more complicated. There is no need to start numbering at ‘A’, for example. A super smart spy could start with the letter ‘X’ as ‘1’ and continue until the end of the alphabet, wrapping around and continuing at the beginning of the alphabet. An even more super smart spy could number backwards. The smartest of super smart spies might even substitute letters, such as replacing each letter with the one that follows it by 3 letters in the alphabet.

The secret to deciphering all these codes, though, is knowing the key. It does a spy no good to send a coded message if the person on the other end cannot decode it. That is why spies often agree on a secret code and memorize the key in advance.

That way, when one spy sends another spy a message like this:


The other spy knows that it means…. (oh, come on, you can figure that one out, can’t you? Here’s a hint: A=B)

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4 Great Things About Youth Sports Today

In my last post, 4 bad things about youth sports today, I detailed a few troubling trends in the world of youth sports. It was a depressing post to write. I needed a few weeks to recover.

Now it is time for the good news: those trends are real and they are troubling, but they have not diminished the many wonderful things about youth sports today. Like a slightly bruised apple, youth sports have a few dark characteristics that require mentioning. In spite of those minor bruises, however, the majority of youth sports programs today are delivering just the sort of fun play and character development we should celebrate.

Here, then, are a few of the lessons and values that properly run youth sports programs can teach our kids:

  • The importance of teamwork. This might be the single most important benefit for kids playing team sports: being part of a team with a larger purpose. Most young teams are formed through some combination of skill, planning, and chance. Because of this, almost no kid playing a sport today gets to choose her teammates and no team is composed of players with the same strengths and interests. I have certainly never witnessed a team that starts off the season as a group of close friends. Life is like that: we don’t choose our classmates, our coworkers, or our neighbors. What youth sports teach is that we need to find a way to succeed despite these differences. It is great preparation for life.
  • The value of effort. All sports require effort. The myth of the “natural” who steps into a sport and does not need to work to improve is just that: a myth. Learning that improvement requires effort in practice and that victory requires effort in games is an invaluable antidote to the impression kids sometimes have that one is either “good” at something or “bad” at something. What we learn when we participate in sports is that what matters is improvement, and improvement requires effort. Just as important is this simple fact: a lot of things happen in life that we can’t control, but effort is not one of them; if we always try our best, good things will usually happen. This is an attitude that translates to all areas of life, but sports are an area where kids can witness it firsthand.
  • The need for respect. I do not spend my time involved with youth sports because I think it is important that kids can run faster, throw better, or kick harder. I believe it is one of many important ways that we can help kids develop character. One of the areas where it is most helpful is in establishing the centrality of respecting others. There are, in sports, many opportunities to show disrespect toward teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials. It is natural to feel emotional and competitive, and sometimes it is tempting to lash out. Participating in a properly run youth sports program helps us learn to avoid such temptation. On my own team, we show respect by listening to the coaches when they are talking, by encouraging and supporting our teammates with positive words and actions, by showing good sportsmanship toward our opponents during and after games, and by politely accepting whatever calls the referee makes (even if we think she/he is wrong).
  • The power of persistence. Most things in life worth pursuing require persistence to achieve mastery. It is true of piano-playing, algebra, and even, in some cases, relationships. Sports are no different. Athletes young and old must stick with it through good times and setbacks if they expect to truly improve. In youth sports the payoff from such persistence often comes over the course of a single season, when a team can come together to perfect a difficult play or an individual can become successful at performing a move that was initially difficult. That visible and fairly quick payoff makes kids realize that persistence pays off. It doesn’t require much for them to see that it works in other areas of life also.
These are only a few of the lessons that make youth sports worthwhile. The fun, the physical fitness, and the parental involvement that go along with these sports are other obvious characteristics worth mentioning. Fun is worth mentioning twice. That, after all, is why most kids participate. And that is what we should always be seeking when we lace up the shoes and head to the court or field.
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4 Bad Things About Youth Sports Today

I spend my spare time coaching a youth soccer team. There is nothing better than a sunny day, a freshly-mowed soccer field, and a bunch of kids kicking around soccer balls. It reminds me of everything that is great but fleeting about youth: the boundless energy, the effortless spontaneity, and the pure joy. All of that plus nifty shin guards equals a mighty good time.

For a soccer family, Saturday mornings mean soccer games. There’s a ritual: wake up, eat breakfast, drink coffee, load soccer gear into the car, drive to a local soccer field, and watch the kids (and parents) have fun. That’s exactly how this last weekend started for me: full of optimism and excitement about playing on what was a nearly perfect spring day. But the game itself turned into a stark reminder of a few of the elements of youth sports today that I don’t like. This became the inspiration for the topic of this blog post.

There are so many positive things about youth sports, and so much to say about the positive impacts that youth sports can have on kids, that it may seem rather pessimistic to start with a focus on the bad side of youth sports. Don’t worry; my next post will cover those. But I find that nothing more reminds me of why I do what I do than being exposed to those who do it wrong, or shouldn’t really be doing it at all. (I’m looking at you, bad/mean/yelling coaches!). Sometimes we need to see the bad in order to appreciate the good.

So here they are. Four bad things about youth sports today:

  • Specialization. There was a time when youth sports were attached to seasons. Just like you could expect certain kinds of produce at one time of the year and not another, you knew that every sport had a season, and every season a sport. Winter meant the squeak of basketball shoes against varnished wood, spring meant the sharp crack of bat against ball, and fall meant cleats churning away grass that just wanted to be left alone to prepare for winter dormancy. Things have changed. Sports are no longer connected to seasons. Due to competitive pressures from various sources, nearly every youth sport is being played year round. This is a powerful trend, encompassing more sports even as it reaches to lower ages. If a child wants to remain competitive in any sport, she must choose at a ridiculously early age–sometimes as early as the second grade–to focus all her energy and attention on a single sport 24/7/365. This additional training time allows for a relentless focus on the development of sport-specific technical skill and conditioning. It is not unusual for fifth graders these days to engage in sport-specific strength training with professional trainers. It is a recipe for the development of narrowly focused skills, for physical injury, and for mental burnout. It is not a recipe for fun.
  • Hyper-Competitive Spirit. As players become more focused on individual sports and parents begin spending greater and greater resources to improve skills and performance, it is perhaps natural that a hyper-competitive attitude would emerge. I am not opposed to competition or the desire to win in the context of youth sports. Competition can be healthy and good. It can focus the mind, encourage hard work, and improve both character and athletic skill. In far too many cases, though, the competitive drive that is a natural part of athletics has overflowed the banks of reason and has resulted in a hyper-competitive spirit that is ultimately corrosive. Far too many of the folks involved in youth sports today have lost sight of why we want kids to compete in the first place. It is not, I would argue, to make them better athletes and it is certainly not to win for the sake of winning. Competition and the winning and losing that it entails are the means to a far more noble end: character development. Once folks lose sight of that end and become fixated on the winning itself, the entire enterprise loses value.
  • Uptight Coaches. As long as there have been sports there have been bad coaches. We’ve all seen them: they scream, they stomp, they denigrate. They argue with officials, they berate their players, and they coach with winning in mind to the exclusion of everything else. They are jerks, and fortunately they are rare. But they still exist, and the trends toward specialization and hyper-competition stoke rather than dampen the flames of their bad-coaching behavior.
  • Booster Parents. Parents are the lifeblood of youth sports. None of it would happen without their active participation, their volunteer efforts, and their support on the sidelines. They are a necessary part of any successful youth sports program, and the first thing every successful coach will mention when asked what is important to her is a team full of supportive parents. Such parents help and cheer and holler at games, but always in a positive and supportive way. There’s another kind of parent; I call them “booster parents” because they act in almost every way like the boosters who are a part of nearly every college football team in the country. They assess the skills of players with an eye toward improving the team by replacing one kid with another. They chatter in the coach’s ear about playing time, coaching strategy, and substitution patterns. During games, they yell at the referees and their own players as if they are watching a televised sporting event. They are obnoxious. I am fortunate to have never had such a parent involved with my team. But they are out there, and they are LOUD.

These bad elements are not pervasive in youth sports, but they are present, and their effects are wholly negative.Fighting against such trends is not like fighting against the tides or the wind. These are cultural issues as much as anything, and they can be affected by actions as simple as parents standing up and saying what they want from youth sports.

If parents want recreational sports programs that allow kids to develop character, sportsmanship, and athletic skill (in that order) in a supportive environment, we need to say so. A simple supportive statement to a coach who is doing things right, an email to a sports program that is drifting in the wrong direction, or a phone call to other parents just to express appreciation for being positive fans can work wonders.

The pressures pushing these trends are powerful and vocal. They push hard. Parents need to push back.


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Why Star Wars Matters

My first post of each month usually announces a new monthly theme. Change of plans.

On this “National Star Wars Day” it is worth taking a moment to address the question of why Star Wars matters.

It is easy to dismiss the importance of the films and the stories they convey. There is too much hype, too much advertising, and perhaps a bit too much hipster nerd nostalgia for a lost era when Star Wars and Asteroids ruled the young teenage landscape.

But the characters and stories conveyed in this collection of six films are part of our popular culture for a reason. They present a series of archetypes that have been staples of storytelling at least since Homer: the young man pursuing his heroic destiny (Luke), good battling evil (Empire vs. Rebels), the inner battle between good and evil culminating in a final act of redemption (Vader), the secretly conniving politician in search of power (Palpatine), the self-absorbed swashbuckling adventurer who learns the importance of responsibility and attachment (Han Solo) and, finally, the practical and brave heroine (Leia).

Kids need such stories. It helps them structure their mental world at a very basic level. We all learn as we grow older that the world is not as simple as such archetypes suggest. The world is complicated. Things are rarely as clear as the battle between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, between the evil of Emperor Palpatine and the youthful virtue of Luke Skywalker.

But the power of such stories lies precisely in their clarity and simplicity. They suggest general patterns of thinking and behavior, simple–and even simplistic–ways of categorizing an otherwise confusing universe.

There are those who reject the value of sych archetypal characters and plots. I am not one of them. Such stable archetypes provide a sort of anchor for exploring the complexities of human morality. Attaching them to a story with action, adventure, and Wookies only expands their power. Of course, such simple patterns of thought do not serve us forever. As we grow, we learn new patterns that help us process complexities. We could do much worse than Star Wars as a first step on the journey.

Now, I have a Lego set to build and Episode 4 to watch. Happy Star Wars Day.

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