Volume 28 · Number 4 · Summer 2011
Illustration by Jay Leek/UC Davis
One mixed blessing of sending your kids to college is that eventually they know more than you.
One of the most rewarding aspects of parenting is witnessing the intellectual growth of your children — right up to but not including the point at which they get so smart that they begin correcting you in a loud voice at large public gatherings.
The thinking abilities of children follow a remarkable trajectory. They grow from inscrutable baby blobs into gullible little kids who believe it when you tell them chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Then there's that awkward Goth phase as teens when they seem to think they're part of some barbarian tribe preparing to wage war on the Roman Empire just because they dress like cast members of the Addams Family. And before you know it, they're college students capable of holding intelligent conversations about OPEC or linguistic morphology or Faraday's law of induction.
That's right, parents. The same little kid who needed your help with simple division is now a college calculus student learning how to integrate in spherical polar coordinates. Eureka?
The college years are a time of intellectual fervor, a time when students debate the profound questions that define humanity. What is justice? Is morality relative or absolute? Will there ever be an opening for me in "Introductory Statistics"?
Students enter college thinking they know everything. After the first round of midterms, they acknowledge that maybe there are a few things they still need to learn, hopefully by finals week. As the years go by, students become more sophisticated thinkers who realize that truth isn't just something assimilated in class and regurgitated after parties. They begin to appreciate the perspectives of others, recognizing that some opinions are supported by cogent analysis, while others are just a giant load of hoo-ha. As they develop a more mature understanding of the world around them, they accept that knowledge is uncertain and that learning is an ongoing process. After several years of intensive study, kids emerge from college realizing they know nothing. That's education.
Then they work for a few years and come to realize it's not what you know, it's who you know. That's wisdom. And one day their own children will become smart-mouthed teens who think they know it all. That's justice.
And truth, well, the truth is that no matter how smart or how educated we are as parents, our college students will eventually outgrow us intellectually. Perhaps not in every field of study, but certainly when it comes to iPad apps.
I still recall the first time my family deferred to me on a question of politics. This was back when I was a college student, and my grandmother from Alabama was visiting us in California for the holidays. Grandma was known for her religious zeal and her great pecan pie. She had little education, however, and her knowledge of history was limited to a lingering resentment over the burning of Atlanta and General Sherman's March to the Sea. At a holiday dinner during which my family was discussing new political developments in China, Grandma asked, "Did Nixon really resign because he was born in China?"
Nobody could throw a wrench into the conversation like Grandma.
As the resident social sciences major, I was the one who set Grandma straight. In correcting her ignorance, however, I hurt her feelings. She felt disrespected. Looking back, maybe I shouldn't have ended the tutorial with, "Boo-yah, Grandma."
The point is, however, that while some family members are delighted to have their college students surpass them intellectually, others don't like being schooled by some young whippersnapper. Parents may feel proud about their college student's educational achievements and ability to think analytically about difficult problems. They might even brag about how smart their children are and use them as walking encyclopedias. But it can upset their sense of the family hierarchy to be contradicted by their kid, who by the way, didn't even know there was a difference between "cannonballs" and "cannibals" until age 13.
I dunno. I think if you say those two words out loud, they're really remarkably similar.
Regarding the intellectual growth of our children, however, I guess I've had a while to grow accustomed to the new family rankings. Seems like my ability to help the kids with their math homework ended way back when they were in sixth grade. I never expected to top out so soon.
Both of our college-age sons are interested in biotechnology, which as far as I know is a field that involves molecules and cells and possibly Doppler radar. When the two guys get together to discuss polymerase chain reactions and gel electrophoresis and such, it sounds a lot to me like the secret language of twins. They don't mind simplifying explanations so I can grasp basic concepts. Sometimes this makes me feel like Grandma, seeking clarification on Nixon's resignation.
A couple summers ago I came home from work in the afternoon and found the guys had just gotten off the phone with a company that sells chemical products. They were trying to buy a little gallium, a liquid metal, for an experimental solar cell made with chlorophyll. Hmmm. Our middle son had already used all of my fingernail polish remover to extract the chlorophyll from spinach in our garage. When the two told me what they had been up to, I didn't know whether to call the police or the U.S. Department of Energy. Turned out the company wouldn't sell chemicals to individuals, so I didn't have to decide.
As the befuddled mother, it was clear I couldn't evaluate the experiment based on its technical merits. As the proud parent, I've been around long enough to know that two guys in a garage just might come up with a pretty darn good idea. And I, for one, welcome our new offspring overlords.
Robin DeRieux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.