Thursday, January 10, 2008

Father love, part 3: Curious skepticism

Cliché as it sounds, my children are curious. I really, really like that about them. As a teacher, curiosity was my top criterion for the ideal student, which makes my 3- and 4-year-olds about the three best students I've ever had. To my unending delight, they ask "Why?" all the time.

This is not to say that they believe much of anything I say in response. One of the curious questions they must ask themselves routinely is, "Where did Dad get the inane idea that he knows more than the piano bench?" I had fantasized, as a prospective father, that my children would adoringly hang on my every word, accepting as truth whatever precepts my infallible lips should utter--at least till the age of 10.

In harsh contrast, eavesdroppers at our doors can enjoy conversations like this:

Child: (sweetly) Daddy, what color is that tree?
Father: (matter-of-factly) That tree is green.
Child: (with horrified contempt) No, it's not!
Father: (insisting) Yeah, that is a green tree.
Child: (livid) No, it's NOT!
Father: (heated) Yes, Daddy is smart. Daddy has been speaking English for a long time. Daddy has seen lots of trees and lots of other green things. You can believe Daddy when I say that it is a green tree.
Child: (in full tantrum) STOP TALKING TO ME, DADDY! YOU HURT MY EARS!
Father: (sternly) Do not talk to me like that. If you talk to me again like that, you are going on time out. (As child cries and runs from room, Father secretly wishes he could have a time out.)

This can be annoying, but I deal with it, because part of what I love about their curiosity is the way it leads them to question authority, even mine. They are inquiring minds, and not only do they want to know--they want to know for themselves.

A couple weeks before Christmas, Brielle was regarding the poinsettia plant with some ambivalence. "Poinsettia plants are poisonous, Daddy. If you touch them you have to wash your hands before you do anything." She paused. "Daddy, I don't like that poinsettia plants are poisonous. We don't need poisonous things for Christmas." I agreed with her about the irony of something so pretty being poisonous.

That's when she began her inquiry of epistemology, which won my heart over to her at yet a new level. "Daddy, why do all the people who come to our house know that poinsettias are poisonous?" I mumbled something about someone reading it, learning it in school and then people talking with each other and spreading the fact.

But the vagueness of my answer and the attraction of Brielle's skepticism gave me an idea. "Brielle, let's read about it ourselves. Do you want to read about poinsettias on the computer?" Oh boy, did she ever. She squirmed up onto the couch beside me and we Googled "poinsettias poisonous" and a click later learned that this unfortunate fact is no fact at all. Don't go adding poinsettia leaves to your salad--they taste terrible--but it turns out that a 50-pound kid could eat around 500 leaves without topping the experimental dosage, which has showed no evidence of toxicity. (See the Snopes piece yourself.)

Brielle was indescribably gleeful over this discovery; now she could dig poinsettias without suspicion. As for me, Brielle was officially my hero for the day. She had questioned a widely-held belief (two-thirds of florists surveyed held the same false notion about their own merchandise), we had researched it, debunked it, and the truth had made our lives richer.

I'm just glad she didn't ask me about poinsettias' color.


Questions I'm asking myself:
  • I want my kids to learn to trust, but also to think critically. How do I do one without damaging the other?
  • Where might it serve me to regain the curiosity that my kids have? Where do I need to have a healthy skepticism?

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