Conformity: The Greatest Virtue?

science center 019a I used to take the children out all the time. Whenever home got to be too much, too dull, too whatever, we’d fairly spontaneously pack ourselves up and hit the road. We’d go to the zoo, a museum, a park, bowling, or maybe just for a walk in some old-fashioned shopping district. Somehow, though, since David has been home, it just doesn’t happen as much. And it requires too much planning to be a spontaneous we-need-a-day-off adventure. Who’d have thought a single adult male could change household dynamics so much?

science center 020a My sister sweetly sent us a membership to the Kentucky Science Center as a Christmas gift. It’s a fun place for the children to play and explore (though I did notice yesterday that it’s gotten much less amusing for the older girls!) And it’s indoors, so when it’s freezing cold out (like yesterday or today) or raining, a mama still has a place to go with her restless children, where they can burn off some energy and even learn a little something.

The thing I really want to talk about today, though, is Tommy. Tommy has become quite the curiosity to me in the past week, as I’ve become aware of certain behaviors, certain patterns of thinking which are completely unlike anything I’ve seen from the other children.

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One of the new things they had at the science center was a build-your-own ball ramp: tall launching points, hills, ramps, turns, and loop-d-loops. The children all quickly determined that the object was to get the ball into a target attached to the end of their constructions, and they built long and elaborate pathways. Unfortunately, the more elaborate the pathway, the more likely the ball would slow down too much to make the last jump into the target. Oftentimes, it didn’t even make it halfway.

Tommy and Rosie built a path together, then launched a ball. It didn’t have enough speed after the first loop-d-loop to make it through the second. Tommy removed the second loop, over Rosie’s protests, and they launched a second ball. Through the loop and over the first hill, but too slow to make it over the second. So Tommy took that one out, too. Rosie still tried to stop him, but Tom insisted, and they launched another ball. Through the loop, over the hill, and off the ramp… Hooray! Right into the target!

Then, having mastered that station, Tommy stood up and walked off to go play with something else.

In the meanwhile, even the big kids had not yet managed to adjust their ramps suitably. It took Tommy only a few minutes to figure out how it worked and achieve success.

So what is it that has caused Tommy to think so differently from everyone else? Honestly, I think it’s a byproduct of being the youngest child in a large and busy family. He was born, too, after we moved to the farm, and I just haven’t had time to sit down and tell him how things are.

Consider an assignment from last week. After a silly conversation about the number zero, and all the things we had zero of, he was asked to color the apple tree with zero apples. He looked in his crayon box, then looked up at me and said, “I don’t have a gray crayon for the stem.”

I considered that for a moment before offering, “Some people color tree trunks brown.” He didn’t have a brown crayon, either, so we found a new box and colored the trunk gray after all.

But the thing is, tree trunks are, by and large, gray. I honestly never noticed that before, and I wondered who, so long ago in my childhood, had told me that tree trunks were brown, why I never questioned it, and why my other children are still happily coloring tree trunks brown. Well, probably because, when they were very small, I told them tree trunks were brown. And they never questioned it, either.

But nobody ever told Tommy that, so he is well aware that they are actually gray. He knows, because he can see it with his own eyes.

And why do we always color the apples red? Apples come in green, yellow, and pink, as well. “And brown,” Tommy piped up as he colored. “The smooshy ones are brown.” So they are!

Later that day, at dinner, he wondered what would happen if he put lemon juice into his milk. “It’ll curdle,” I told him.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“It’ll get chunky. The milk solids will separate from the whey, like when we make cheese. I’ll show you tomorrow.”

In the morning, I warmed a half gallon of milk to near boiling and poured in a quarter cup of lemon juice. The curds rose to the top and we skimmed them off, salted them, and had a delicious snack. Later, when his dad came in for lunch, I reported, “Tommy learned what happens when you add lemon juice to milk today.”

“Well, not really,” Tommy retorted. “You cooked it.”

I stared at him for another long moment. “You’re right,” I finally admitted. “I changed the experiment, and if I hadn’t heated the milk, it wouldn’t have separated like that.”

I am seeing that he is very observant, but also that he has excellent critical thinking and problem solving skills. And all because I haven’t had the time to sit down with him and tell him how things are.

The big question I have now is: Where do we go from here?

I have inadvertently, unintentionally, maybe even inevitably, given my older the children the gift given to me by my public school education: a certain conformity of thought. After all, in a public school environment, conformity is the greatest virtue. I like to think I am above that – who wouldn’t? – but Tommy is showing me clearly that I am not.

It might be too late for the older girls, but Jonny and Rosie might be salvageable. Surely, Penelope can be saved. And I think I’d be a fool to mess with Tommy, who quite probably has more to teach me than I have to teach him.

So where does our educational journey go from here?

A most curious problem for a most curious child.

4 Comment

  1. Sounds like he has what my family calls the “engineering mind”. Critical thinking, problem solving, realist; it all goes together. Our son is the same and while he excels in Math and Science, trying to get him to use his creative side is a bit of a challenge. Example: When he has a writing assignment, he writes everything straight and to the point. He sees no reason to add “filler” information when a few short sentences gets his point across, never-mind that the teacher has asked for a 2 page paper. He’s gotten better about it now that he is in Jr High and understands what the teachers are looking for.

    Best of luck!

    1. There is absolutely nothing wrong with brevity. It could be used quite effectively in news journalism, but unfortunately it usually isn’t :).

  2. Teach the boy to read and you won’t need to worry much about him. Thank goodness they have so many interesting factual books for kids nowadays. Even fun ones about math.

  3. I like the way your son thinks. My son is similar. He can look at something and know exactly how it was probably put together, but to make sure he is correct, he takes everything apart and then rebuilds it. Of course this is a bit irritating as it means there is usually something all over our dining table waiting to be put back together, but it keeps Anthony busy for hours and has the side benefit of relaxing him. He is 13 and his mind races pretty much all day and if he is not working with his hands he tends to pace around and talk nonstop. This would be a huge problem if he was in school, but he’s not, so I just use his curious nature to trick him into learning things. Yes, I have to trick him into doing school. Oh well. I agree with Michelle about the reading. Once a curious person learns how to read, they will never want to stop learning. My son is constantly reading something to figure out how to do it himself and he doesn’t stop until he’s mastered it. He’s help me see that sitting in front of a boring textbook is the best way to kill his curious nature, so for him, we’ve had to banish them.

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