The other day, my son was asked to draw a picture of something he is grateful for.
He made semi-scribbly, red twisty lines. Above them, he wrote “DNA.”
I asked him why. Why DNA?
“Because it’s here,” he said. “No life would be here without it. Not the trees, not you or me. Nothing.”
To be honest, I am far more grateful that he is happy we exist than I am that he understands DNA.
I asked him if I could blog about what he said and he agreed.
“What should I say about DNA?” I asked him.
“Life needs it in order to be here, just think about it,” he said. “Just write about it in a long sentence. Write that it controls cells. That cancer happens when DNA is broken.”
I think back on high school and remember myself as a girl with an aversion to science. Today, I don’t know that it was an aversion so much as something that my teachers presented in a way that I couldn’t find relevant to my daily life. I was technically adept, but confounded by chemistry. And if there were programs designed to promote women and girls in science and math in 1980s Central Ohio, we never crossed paths. I veered into social science and the arts and humanities, where the world seemed to invite me.
So now I live with an almost six-year-old whose aptitude for understanding quantum mechanics, geology, biology and especially astronomy have long since dwarfed my own. This is thanks to Google, several extremely cool kids’ science books, our fantastic local science center. a great, old-school observatory, the vast array of images in discounted Hubble Telescope picture books, PBS, National Geographic, the History, Science and Discovery channels and the availability of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Netflix.
When my son was two, he was in love with everything he could find out about the planets, moons, stars, dark matter and endless nebulae (he loved watching the short film Powers of Ten over and over, which we found on a now-defunct kids’ astronomy site). Around that time, Neil DeGrasse Tyson floated the idea on some talk show or other that he was working on a book that would tell parents the key things they needed to know to be scientifically literate and raise scientifically literate children.
I’ve longed for this book, although I think my re-education in science has gone okay without it. My son used to get frustrated with me over the things I couldn’t answer. Now we’re both content to let him do most of the teaching. Truthfully, he always has.
Here’s the thing, though: If it all went away tomorrow, if his interests suddenly took a radical turn into Batman and baseball and fart jokes, I like to think that I wouldn’t turn into a judgmental parent who turned her nose up at “lesser” pursuits. I’d be sad to see interests that have been so fun and exciting and integral to his life diminished, but our lives would be easier. I wouldn’t have to evaluate, every year, the thorny politics of introducing him to a new classroom and new teachers. Parents wouldn’t dislike me because I’m worried about my smart kid. To most, it doesn’t sound like a problem. It sounds like bragging.
If you go around telling people that your kid is smart, special, or at least has a high aptitude for a particular subject, I’ve found out that you’re likely to do that child more harm than good in the classroom, on the playground, in life. What you say can turn morph into a temporary blind spot for teacher, who has heard a thousand parents’ confident descriptions, many of them wrong, or at least lacking the perspective on a sea of children that an experienced educator has.
I try to let my son unfold before his teachers without my assistance. And if they are good teachers, they find him. They see him. And if they are very good, they know how complicated it can be for sweet-faced boy who still has all of his baby teeth to know so much, so very, very much. Together, we see him recognize the reality of things that once just seemed cool or interesting to know before, not scary or heavy. I see it suddenly weigh on him and I sometimes wish I could erase that thing he learned a year ago, that thing I thought he would forget. He rarely forgets.
And so I let him explore Super Mario Galaxy, joke books, America’s Funniest Home Videos and Justin Beiber. I am relieved when dances like a lion, puts a pylon on his head or tells me about playing “crazy baby” on the playground with a friend. I don’t want him to be the ultimate brainiac of the universe. That’s lonely. I want him to be every bit his brilliant self, but I also want him to be happy. I want him to feel okay and whole when he’s not feeling brilliant.
I imagine Sagan, as well as Tyson and the wide host of living celebrity science advocates I am now acquainted with as people with a dark blue sense of humor.
I keep joking with friends: “If you’re going to raise an astrophysicist, better to raise an astrophysicist who can make jokes about his balls.”
Or maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s my science mommy prayer.
This post is a contribution to the #scimom collection, an experimental conjunction of mom and science bloggers.