Friday, May 31, 2013

Following the Evidence

You have probably already come across Carl Sagan’s words that “every child starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them”. Watching my 4-year old picking up hands full of sand and experimenting with the distance the wind carries it if he blocks the wind’s path completely, partially or not at all, I am bound to believe that. (Let’s forget for a moment that this happened in the second inning while he was supposed to be guarding First Base, and that he was almost flattened by the base runner.) The good news for me here is that my job to raise scientists just became a whole lot easier. With the spark already there, I only have to keep alive that wonder about how the world works, encourage them to never stop asking more questions or looking beyond what is known. As long as they keep enjoying the process of discovery they will always be scientists at heart. 

My favorite tool for that is the phrase “Follow the evidence” (raise your hand if you just pictured Gil Grissom in his lab surrounded by bugs). I used to just answer questions such as “Why do the peonies in our front yard always bloom 2 weeks after the ones in the backyard”, “Who ate the last piece of cake” or “Why does that bird swoop over our heads every time we leave through our front door”. I was stuffing my kids with facts, but it left little room for them to do the exploring. So now my answer is always “Follow the evidence”. And follow they do. It makes them go closer. Look longer. Collect more details, make hypotheses and check them against things they already know to be true. Sometimes they groan, because it is work to find out for yourself instead of being fed the answer. But once they have followed their evidence and come to a conclusion, their satisfaction more than makes up for that. Especially when I can verify that they got some things right. Plus, the stuff they come up with is often just so innocently sweet. My 4-year old decided the peonies in the backyard feel more loved because we spend more time with them, which makes them bloom earlier.

Of course with everything in parenting, no good deed goes unpunished. Easter Sunday evening my 6-year old walked up to me and said “I think the Easter bunny is not real. I looked at the evidence and it makes no sense that he would be real”, then proceeded to present three minor errors I had committed while covering my tracks. He did not even ask “if”, or give me a chance to explain away anything. He was certain he had gotten it right. A month later out of the blue, he was wondering out loud if Santa might not be real either. He knew he had no evidence against Santa, but extending the logic of the Easter Bunny, why would Santa be real?

Oh, what to do? Create more fake facts that make Santa sound plausible? Or congratulate him on completing this quest of following the evidence and arriving at a logical conclusion? I chose the latter; I just did not have the heart to crush his accomplishments under a mountain of lies. And judging by the evidence of his smug grin, I think it was the right decision. I totally made his day. For those of you worrying about the Santa magic, he said it’s okay that I turned out to be Santa, as long as he still gets the same presents (yes, the priorities of a 6-year old ...). So there. For my budding scientist following the evidence and learning the truth is more satisfying than believing in something beautiful, but imaginary. And it is my job to keep it that way.

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