Parenting Consultant: “What I Don’t Know”
By Parenting Consultant, Ann Brown
As I write this article, we are already encroaching upon 2014. Because I am an old crone compared to you who will be reading this, I can remember, back in the 1960’s, the awe I felt when I imagined what the new millennium would be like. The idea of the year 2014 was mind-blowing to me. It still is.
The world your children will grow to inherit is already so much different than the world I inherited. My world had the first color TV, a man on the moon, polio vaccine on a sugar cube, the Pill. My childhood was filled with wonder, not only at the marvels of the time but also at the natural, almost magical happenings around me. I was five years old when my childhood cat had kittens. My sister and I sat on the kitchen floor while Gigi delivered nine gooey, red and white striped babies (Moses, Hebsibiah-Tzipora*, Pegasus, Penny, Fluffy, Sarah, Rebecca, Piñata and Pierre) onto my favorite Lanz nightgown with which we’d lined a cardboard box from the grocery store garbage bin.
Karen and I watched silently as Gigi did what ancestral knowledge guided her to do. She hadn’t read What To Expect When You’re Expecting Kittens, or gone to Lamaze class or sat in a crowded primary school auditorium with the rest of the fourth grade girls in her class to watch the 8mm movie about menstruation; the movie from which I gathered that when you are around twelve years old you get your period and continue to get it every day until you are fifty or so..
Witnessing the miracle of Gigi’s delivery and the birth of the nine kittens incorrectly answered as many questions in my young mind as it created new ones, and my sister and I spent years afterwards jumping to some alarmingly wrong conclusions about how species procreate, including, but not limited to, my sister’s insistence that babies are made in the shower (my sister recently explained to me that she was pretty sure people were naked when they made babies and the only place she could fathom anyone would be naked would be in the shower) and the belief that if a cat and a dog made babies, half of them would be kittens and half would be puppies. Our homegrown information about the miracle of life also reached, tragically, to the miracle of death where in the process of our extensive research, I am sorry to confess, many innocent pet turtles with painted shells, purchased regularly on Los Angeles’ famous downtown Olvera Street, gave their lives in such heroic ways as being lost behind the living room couch and being abandoned in the blazing LA sun when we grew tired of turtle races in the tall grass of our front lawn, only to be discovered days or weeks later by my mom and flushed down the toilet. I fully expect to see those turtles, their backs brightly painted with the colors of the Mexican flag, waiting for me at the Pearly Gates with a major chip on their shoulders. And well I deserve their wrath. Although I might point out, just fyi, that the paint those poor turtles were covered in was probably toxic and they weren’t destined to live a long, healthy life, anyway. Not that I am trying to worm my way out of my own accountability.
My world still has sources of wonder that are beyond my understanding: installing apps into my i-phone, using the hashtag correctly; things that have turned me into an embarrassment, a dolt, a technodinosaur; someone who, say, would have tried to play a vinyl record on her Polaroid One-Step camera. I kinda like that. I like knowing that every day, if I wanted to, I could find something unbelievable in this ever-changing world.
I’m not so sure that your kids will be as mystified by life as I was and am. Your children live in a world of instant information, of explanation, of empirical evidence. Parents today need to work hard to protect the gift of wonderment for our children. The world is so scientific, so informative, and so little is left to the imagination. Children are expected to learn the way adults do, and adults are expected to learn like machines. There is a dearth of acceptable opportunities for learning by experience or apprenticeship or just plain passage of time. Learning by experience leaves room for misinformation, to be sure but it also makes room for imagination, hypotheses, confidence, perseverance and acceptance of occasional failure. It also makes room for something even more important – the space to not know something until the time is right to know it.
What leaves with wonder is a sense of possibility that lives outside our realm of control – a sense that we might be surprised by life! There’s not much today about which your young children cannot access information. Computers tell them that teeth fall out because of physiological readiness, TV commercials tell them that Christmas toys are made at the Mattel or Nintendo factory, not in Santa’s workshop. Our kids are woefully sophisticated these days about the ways of their world.
I think that’s a shame.
Granted, maybe I am woefully uninformed about certain things – I still say “i-pad” when I mean “i-pod”, and vice versa– but I believe that if we crowd our young children’s minds with facts and information, it will be at the expense of leaving no room for magic and wonderment.
When my children were little I used to cut their apples in half in a way that the seeds made a star shape in the center. Now, certainly there is a botanical answer to why that is so (or so I presume) but my kids thrilled to believe it was magic their mom could summon by saying, “apple, apple from the tree, make a star that we can see!” before she cut into it. I imagine that my cerebral, brainiac boys figured out the scientific reason for the seed placement long before I did (uh, I still haven’t….) but they still enjoyed the flourish and pomp with which I cut their apples. In fact, even though they are both grown up, out of college and out of law school, I cut apples that way every once in a while, just to remember the old days. When I knew more than they did. A long, long time ago.
Children have a way of figuring things out. True, they are usually wrong. But they need the opportunity to be wrong and later discover a new answer. They have a lifetime to learn what they need to learn. The Information Age offers us a tempting buffet of learning everything now, quickly, all at once. It takes willpower to hold back, to give our kids factual information and experiences slowly, in appropriate moderation. It is hard because today there is a sense, in our culture, that we can know, and thereby control “it all.” That we can “fix” life. Yet…there is so much in life that you can’t muscle your way through – tragedy and joy alike. Our culture steps a bit roughly on the hope of the unexpected. In grooming our kids for success from infancy, we squash the “Gee, I wonder where life might take me?” that earlier generations had. At age 6, my son hated for people to ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He shed tears of frustration over kindergarten career day. He felt like they were asking for too much of a commitment. And I don’t blame him. I think it shows great wisdom – not wanting to open that present yet. Why ruin the adventure?
The tradition of misinformation being passed from sibling to sibling was continued when I had kids. One day, I overheard my then-four year old son telling his nine-year old brother about menopause.
“It happens to all of them and it takes a really long time,” my four year old explained.
“How long?” my nine-year old asked him.
There was an awed silence. Then the nine year old spoke. “Explain it to me again,” he said, “because it really doesn’t make sense.”
The four year old sighed with an exasperation I’ve recently recognized when he’s had to explain to me for the gajillionth time how the Electoral College works and why we have the Iowa caucuses.
“Okay,” he said evenly, “it’s called menopause. And she stays in the cocoon for a whole, long winter and that’s where it happens.”
I was rooted to my hiding place behind the door. This was something even I didn’t understand about menopause. Guess my big sister didn’t tell me everything, after all.
“In a cocoon?” asked the older one, “are you sure?” He was beginning to sound alarmed. Frankly, so was I. I had to break in.
“What are you talking about?” I asked them. My younger son eagerly shared his knowledge with me.
“Menopause,” he said, “you know, how the caterpillar goes into the cocoon and comes out a butterfly.”
I was slightly hindered by a weak high school background in science and a college degree in Ethnomusicology but even so, I felt capable of asserting my educated opinion.
“Do you mean ‘metamorphosis?’” I asked him.
He considered my question for a moment. “Oh yeah”, he said brightly.
Albert Einstein said, “there are two ways of looking at the world: that everything is a miracle, and that nothing is a miracle.” I choose to keep some wonderment, some miracles in my life.
Especially when it comes to installing apps on my i-phone.
Ann Brown has a private practice in parenting consultation