What do you do with your kids?
Kids need to be able to explore freely. And if you look at most households, they’re not designed for that. They’re designed to have the kid not explore. The kid comes into your kitchen and pulls out the pots and pans and starts banging on them, what’s the first thing you do as a parent? “Stop that, you’re getting the dishes dirty!”
Yet, these are experiments in acoustics. That’s what that is.
Whatever the kid is doing, if it has the chance of breaking something, you’re gonna tell them to not do it – without thinking that that’s the consequence of an experiment that they are conducting. And every time the kid wants to do something, provided it’s doesn’t kill them – It’s an experiment! Let it run its course, even if it makes something messy.
You agreed to have a kid in the first place. Fine, clean up after them. Because it’s those seeds of curiosity that are the foundation of what it is to become a scientist.
-Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Montclair Kimberly Academy, January 29, 2010
As is the case for most parents, I constantly worry about whether or not we’re doing all we can for Simone. Parenthood is all about flying by the seat of your pants. You know you’re going to screw up, but you hope the good you do outweighs the bad. When I saw the above answer that Tyson gave in an interview with an out of character Steven Colbert, I felt a little better and a little worse at the same time.
For what it’s worth, I think what Tyson says above is exactly right. Not only is it exactly right, it has lifelong consequences for children.
With Simone, I think we do a pretty good job. Our breakables are mostly out of reach. Our house is, in general, very kid friendly. I think we encourage her to be curious and experiment. That said, have we ever told her to stop doing something when really she was just exploring? Of course we have. That is, we could do better.
Simone is a very curious child. Few things make me happier than the enthusiastic “Yeah!” I get when I ask her if she wants to learn something new. The idea that she could one day lose that enthusiasm scares the hell out of me.
There’s another quote from Tyson that encapsulates what he said above, but goes beyond early development. I can’t remember the source:
We spend the first year of our kids’ lives teaching them how to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up.
This also strikes me as uncomfortably true. I see the results of what he’s talking about every day in my job. So many people believe that education is all about learning the rules of math or science or English and then regurgitating that back to the world. This, we are supposed to believe, is how you become a Productive Member of Society. It’s also sadly wrong, because this kind of learning – though necessary at times – is all about discouraging the most basic and important part of what education is really all about – asking questions.
Think about it. Most people in the US subscribe to a religion. Religion, in many of its forms, teaches that some questions are unanswerable (this is the real meaning of attributing something to a god) and thus, are not worth asking/should not be asked. Most of our economic focus right now is on producing people with skills so they can do a job. Learning a skill is not, generally, about questioning and thinking as much as it is about repeating what a teacher shows you.
These are the students I get. I’ve written about it before. Most of my students have a severe lack of curiosity and it breaks my heart because, by the time they get to me, it’s mostly too late. I can’t teach them to be curious after that impulse has been flogged out of them by parents and religion and the education system for fifteen or sixteen years. I try, daily, to encourage them to come up with their own answers to problems, but they don’t want their own answers (one of the saddest moments of my job is when a creative writing student asks me to tell them what to write about). They just want to know what’s right. Tell me what to say so that I can say it and be told I have done well.
The result of all of this is the incurious society we have today. Think about the vast swaths of people who do little more than a drudgery filled job of repeatable tasks before coming home to sit in front of the television. Certainly, that’s not everybody, but it’s a lot of people, and you can’t really say it’s their fault. They’ve been taught not to think. They’ve been taught to regurgitate. Perhaps this is why so many find polarized media so persuasive. It tells us what to think. It asks for no mental effort on our part.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. And if there is going to be a change, it has to come from parents. Parents have to encourage children to be curious and ask questions even when the questions make them uncomfortable or end with something broken. We can’t punish a child for being curious. Sometimes, a child will break something. It’s not their fault the thing was within reach. Sometimes, things we say won’t hold up to their questioning. It’s not because there is something wrong with the questions.
All of this is a long way of saying that, going forward, I want to be a little more patient with Simone (and James, when he comes along). A little more willing to let her mess things up. I want her to grow into someone who engages with the world. Who is willing to ask difficult questions and not take the answers she gets at face value. I don’t want her to conform and regurgitate simply because that’s the best way to get a pat on the head and an approving smile. That’s going to be a hard thing to do, especially as she gets older, but I want to try. We’ll see how it goes, I guess.
(A Side Note: If you want to see the whole interview I quoted at the top of the article – it’s definitely worth your time – you can find it here. If you just want to hear the rest of what Tyson had to say about education, that starts at almost exactly 1:13:00 in the video.)