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.

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22 responses to “Some tough questions from a fishing trip”

  1. Vikas says :

    Life is a journey from innocence to experience

  2. Spellanzani says :

    Beautiful post.. This reminded me of a question asked by a friends daughter when I tried to show her ” what a grasshopper was” The very next question was ” Where is the Grasshoppers mother” …Simple questions with difficult answers.

    • daddysan says :

      That’s a nice example :) Simple questions with complex answers. Speaking of which, I’ve been fascinated with Richard Feynman’s approach to teaching. His principle was “if you cannot explain a concept to a first-year undergraduate student, you haven’t really understood it yourself”. Although he was talking of quantum electrodynamics I think it’s a great principle to adopt when learning.

  3. Chartulal Chiranjeev (@supremus) says :

    Schools like any other business cater to the lowest common denominator, hence creative and out of box thinking I believe would be the last on their priority list. Don’t say there aren’t schools like that but they are expensive, either back home or here. I guess the onus is on us parents to encourage such questions and let their imaginations run wild.

    I’ve been very intrigued with Waldorf Principles and often think that might be a way to go for young children to foster their imaginations.

    Great post as usual!

    S

    • daddysan says :

      Thanks S!

      We looked at the Waldorf system and the only reservation we have is the highly unstructured methodology. It’s very open and encourages a lot of creative thinking but I’m not implying I don’t want tyke to be exposed to any frameworks. Some structure is very important to build upon. Call it standing on the shoulders of giants. The ideal situation is for schools to provide bookends within which kids can freewheel.

  4. purplesque says :

    Oh, daddy san.

    I try to talk to all kids I meet like they’re grown up. That seems to work well.

    (Also, don’t be so hard on yourself- I grew up asking a ton of questions and being encouraged to do so by my parents, until medschool beat it out of me.)

    • daddysan says :

      I always appreciate your perspective and encouragement. I see the point of talking to kids like adults, it makes conversation seem less patronizing. But….THEY GROW UP TOO FAST AS A RESULT!

      (I want everything).

  5. Gargi Mehra says :

    Tough questions, indeed! It’s already tough enough to answer all the ‘why’ questions in their little minds.

  6. Asmita says :

    I saw my mom & my aunt talking a lot to kids. They weaved stories along with them. They always had time to listen to kids and respond if had a response or say “I don’t know, what do you think about it”. I think that was the best way to bring up kids. They didn’t impose ideas, just asked something to be done a certain way if it needed to be done like that. If the kid came up with something else, it was given proper regard and if possible also followed upon.

    Another very important thing is – kids learn as you do. Now that you are aware, if you start looking at things without preconceived ideas, your son will continue doing so in his adult life.

    We completely underestimate the amount kids learn from the way we are.

    • daddysan says :

      Two excellent points there Asmita.

      I am a fan of stories. I have been re-educated in the power of stories and their ability to explain phenomena and encourage more questions. Even the effort to create a story requires the ability to start linking phenomena together and it’s an art I will strive to teach tyke.

      On learning from parents, yes it’s a sad fact people like me succumb to frameworks, but I’m trying to change that.

  7. Ravi (@RK18) says :

    Cant agree more with the article.
    I remember my brother, when he as a kid, asking me questions like “Why wont the stars and moon fall from the sky?” for which he never got the answers. And now he is one among those “death before dishonor” groups.

  8. PETA says :

    Or how about telling him the truth about what it means to kill animals and have them for food? My sister took her kid to an abbatoir to show how animals were slaughtered and that was the last the time kid ever wanted to have meat again.

    Just a thought.

    • daddysan says :

      PETA, It’s possible to sensationalize anything and elicit polarizing emotions. There are distinct merits to meat-eating and there are merits to eating vegetarian food. My job is to offer a balanced perspective consistent with our lifestyle and culture. After that, it’s for tyke to choose what he likes best.

      He’s not lacking in perspective, he lacks exposure to fundamentalist opinions and that’s the way I’d like to keep it.

  9. Naveen Bachwani says :

    “Encourage questions.
    Use every opportunity to provoke his curiosity, and help him form connections.”

    That’s the education system we all need. And it doesn’t cost much to deliver it.

    Oh, and read the Wood Tape post:
    http://naveen.bachwani.com/dad/2011/07/13/forgotten-truths/

    • daddysan says :

      Totally agree Naveen. I think the part about making connections is crucial. I read somewhere the definition of “genius” as “the ability to make intuitive connections between two seemingly unrelated phenomena”. Now I’m not saying Tyke’s a genius but I think the ability to investigate connections is a critical aspect of creative thinking which gets buried under conventional knowledge.

  10. Rainbow (@ra1nb0w) says :

    WOW! great post. Thank you.

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