Some tough questions from a fishing trip
Sometimes, tough questions don’t announce themselves at your front door like well-mannered guests. They creep up on you and startle you, especially when they’re asked by children.
In a mood to enjoy what could be the last few weekends of summer, we went fishing today. The weather was wonderful, the drive a lot of fun. As soon as we reached we picked up our fishing rods and head to the lake. I taught Tyke how to tag the bait and cast his line. He learned a valuable lesson in patience as we both waited for the trout to bite. He was fascinated by the bobbing line and the tug when it bit. As I helped him reel in the thrashing trout his eyes widened in amazement at the fight it was putting up. Tyke yelled in delight at his catch and asked “what’s his name?”. I was flummoxed. Name? “Let’s call him ‘Tasty'” I said to drive home the point that the trout was for our consumption. This seemed to satisfy him but only temporarily. As I set about removing the hook he admonished me with “careful, you’ll hurt the fish!” I was busy trying to keep it from splashing me with water so I reassured him that the fish won’t feel anything because “it was dead”. In retrospect I don’t think I really understood what he meant. By then he was distracted by the crackle of the barbecue grill so he let it go.
We’d caught another fish and planned to filet it at home for a curry. In the evening as I cleaned and cut the second fish, Tyke quietly shuffled up beside me and watched with much consternation.
“Hey! Why are you cutting the fish?”
“Because we have to eat it”
“Is the fish….dead?”
“Yes, it is.”
At this point I removed the head and tail.
“STOP! You cut the tail!”
“Yes, I did. What happened?”
“Now how will it get home?”
I paused and turned to explain to him that the fish wouldn’t need to get home anymore. I continued to pause because that was a daft answer to a very simple question. I tried anyway.
“It’s, er, dead so it won’t need to get home.”
The puzzled look didn’t leave his face. He’d been building up an image of the fish as another entity that would interact with him, like his cartoons or his toys and the prospect of going quietly into a curry was strange to him. After all, he’d seen it exhibit such vigor and gusto a few hours ago as it battled me for its life. The missus saw my discomfort and chimed in, explaining to him that the pieces would now be used to make a delicious curry which he was sure to like. Tyke allowed the prospect of good food to overpower his curiosity about the fish’s existence, yelled a “YAY!” and ran off.
I don’t know what startled me more, my inability to explain the consequences of death or the fact that kids always seem to ask the simplest, most incisive questions that hold within them the essence of phenomena. How do we manage to lose this ability as we grow up?
Perhaps children never take cause and effect for granted. Everything has significance and can be connected. Adults tend to beat this ability out of their kids by constantly deriding connections and logical leaps not consistent with their own rigid mental frameworks. For example I’ll dismiss “the moon is half-wound today (half-round)” with a condescending “isn’t Tyke the shmartesht little boy?” and get on with my work. He probably wants to add corollaries but doesn’t because he can’t communicate them today. He’ll be able to do so a few years from now but by then I, or his education, would’ve squeezed the wonder out of it and those ideas will die an unlamented death. The most pitiful part of my predicament is that I understand my flaw, I KNOW what should be the best way to encourage my child’s curiosity and yet I find it difficult to let him ask questions that could get him laughed out of a room.
“It’s better to ask a stupid question than make a stupid mistake.” I believe American schools drill this adage into the minds of their wards as early as first grade. In India, it is “death before dishonor”. Eighteen years of living “death before dishonor” has infected me with an inability to ask stupid questions and worse, encourage them in those who seek my advice. I don’t want to make this a debate about education systems but I wonder if there really is a method of instruction out there which provides this freedom? If you do, please let me know.
Two weeks ago Tyke said to me “I want to make a birdfeeder with my crayons” (We’ve got a birdfeeder on our porch). I indulged him by fetching his crayons and some paper and left him to it. An hour later as I walked over to the porch I heard him say “watch out! you’ll crash into my birdfeeder!” I looked on the floor. The paper was untouched. He had replicated the trapezoidal shape of our birdfeeder by making a wireframe out of his crayons.
Game, set, match. Eighteen years of education lost to the perspective of a three year-old.
If all goes well, I’ll be losing more often.