I would never characterize Don or me as lazy or disinterested parents, but a recent trip to the Boston Museum of Science left me wondering where you draw the line between being active or interested and overbearing or superfluous. Kids have a visceral and very natural curiosity about their world, and it has always been our belief that if our children were engaged in something that was piquing their interest, we would step back and let them take the lead. As the adults, we might see (or think we see) a different, even better way to approach a task, but we have always been content to reside in the shadows and let them be. In a museum setting, we are not the parents who pull our children from one exhibit just so we can move on to the next. And though we may show our children something they can do in an exhibit if they seem unaware of its potential, we don’t ever ask them to stop what they’re engaged in doing to listen to our tutelage.
On Saturday, while Edgar went with Don to see the space exhibits, Oscar opted to come with August and me to the Discovery Center, an area geared toward younger children. At the water table, there are various toys–including a dozen or so small plastic fish. Oscar had gathered about five or six of them–as is many children’s wont and goal. An older woman came over to Oscar’s temporary collection and took a fish. She said to him, “I’m giving this to my granddaughter.” Oscar looked at her, then at me, and brought over one more fish to the little girl–who, for the record, seemed unfazed and not at all interested in the toy. A few minutes went by and Oscar had replenished his stock. The woman came over while he was taking off his jacket and took two fish then seemed aghast when he went back to get them. She sneered at him and said, “What, do you think this is your own private collection?” To his credit, Oscar ignored her.
On the way home, I thought a lot about this episode–about a grandmother who was working far too hard to ensure her granddaughter was entertained non-stop by little plastic fish, about a little girl who was perfectly content just to splash the water and watch the bubbles, who seemed befuddled by her grandmother’s attempt at rapid-fire stimulation, and about a six-year-old boy who showed kindness to a young child and the ability to let someone’s negativity disappear into the ether.
If I had been busy trying to script what Oscar should have been doing with his time at the water table, putting object after object in front of him just to keep it lively, I might not have observed this, and that would have been my loss. This grandmother missed seeing her sweet, gentle granddaughter at play and denied her the opportunity to work out her own issue should she have wanted a fish. Her loss.
This world we live in creates and simultaneously caters to the rapidly shrinking attention span, instant gratification is expected, and blame is quickly deflected from ourselves and tossed to someone else. The Boston Museum of Science may have something else in mind when it seeks to educate the public, but I might suggest that there are even more important lessons for our children to learn there if they are allowed–how to follow your inspiration, how to wander through and get lost in a thought, how to take your time and to follow through with an idea, and how to accept responsibility when it is yours. And for parents, perhaps the most important lesson is a simple reminder to observe–not just the scientific world, but ourselves and our children and allow them to be the self-directed learners they were born to be.