Parenting 101: Whassat?

“Whassat, daddy?”

I held up one of the items I had dumped out of my spare parts box onto my workbench.

“This?” I asked.

My three-year-old nodded.

“It’s a plug in jack for headphones.”

“Can I see?”

“Sure,” I said.

I handed Michael the box. It was made of scrap wood from the cabinet shop that my college roommate and I had both worked at. Rather than buy long and very expensive extension cords for our headphones, we fabricated our own wiring and boxes so we could listen to the main stereo in our bedrooms without bothering anyone else. The box had a female connection for the headphones and a red power light. The remains of a gray wire stuck out of the back of the box like a cat’s tail.

“Whassat?” Michael asked.

“A light,” I answered.

“Fissit,” he said, chubby fingers thrusting the box toward me.

Thus began Michael’s electrical education. Even though I was in the middle of an important project, fixing our phones, I stopped and worked on the box. I hooked up some alligator clips to a headphone jack, found a 6 volt lantern battery, and soon Michael was pushing the plug in and out making the red light pop on and off. For the next few years, the “switchbox” was one of his favorite toys. Every couple of weeks, he asked me to modify it. I added lights, switches, and other connectors. There were also many questions: What is electricity? Moving electrons. What are electrons? Part of an atom? What are atoms? I’m sure every parent or teacher can generate a list of more. We bought a book, McCullough’s How Things Work, to explain the more abstract concepts a little easier. I also found that Legos make wonderful models of atoms and chemical reactions. And I taught Michael how to solder.

It’s worth pointing out that Michael was fascinated by objects like fans, mechanical swings, and VCRs from the time he was old enough to focus on different objects in his environment. The switchbox became his doorway to understanding how to study and control items in his world. He connected, disconnected, then reconnected the wires. He figured the difference between short circuits and open ones. He learned that resistance in the wires made them get hot. What he learned would eventually carry him half way around the world. Electrons, which are what electricity is, are the fundamental basis of every aspect of our daily life. They keep us from falling through the floor, they allow us to start and stop, and they drive the chemical reactions that allow us to eat food and turn it into energy. And that’s not taking into account all of the aspects of modern life that moving electrons (AKA electricity) give us. Electrons are a big deal.

Before explaining how this little homemade toy carried Michael to Korea, Japan, China, and even Saudi Arabia, I’d like to point out something to parents. I recently read an apology in the Huffington Post for parents not doing their jobs. The essay basically said parents were so busy with work and life that electronic babysitters and benign neglect were their only options when raising children. My response is horse feathers. Or at least something equine related.

Being a parent is a tough job but everyone has options. From birth control to adoption, no has to raise a child if they don’t want to. If you accept the job then you have to go all in or quit making excuses when things don’t go well. What I’ve seen over and over again in working with parents for over thirty years is blatant selfishness. They don’t want to give up their TV shows or football games to spend time with their children. They know more about the Kardashians than they do their own family. Their social media footprint is huge except for in their own house. Excuses are easy. Parenting is hard.

Exhibit A is a parent teacher conference I once had with a single mom. She had just explained to me why she couldn’t find 15 minutes a day to help her daughter with her reading. She told me she was exhausted from work at the end of the day and it was all she could do to come home and make dinner. “But if you don’t do it,” I asked her, “who will?” She said she would try so I helped her work out a schedule in which she spent the first ten minutes on arrival reading to and listening to her daughter read. Then they made dinner together practicing measurement and reading while they did so. In the spring, she thanked me and said that this part of the day had become her favorite and that it reenergized her. Needless to say, her daughter’s schoolwork had improved significantly.

Besides being selfish about time, parents are often selfish about their children’s path in life. Instead of listening to the children and helping them find and develop their own talents, parents push them into what they consider proper. Then they wonder why the kids fail, drop out of school, or burn out and abandon promising careers. Kim and I gave up a lot for our children and not just money. For example, I gave up most of my writing, hobbies, and even some friends to give my time to my children. we didn’t watch a prime time TV show for almost twenty years. And we don’t regret any of it because we have two outstanding sons who are very successful in their fields.

“Whassat?” and “why?” are universal questions for children. Too often parents get irritated instead of answering. Lack of patience or lack of knowledge leads to angry, meaningless, and even wrong answers. The sky is blue because god made it that way. Seriously? I loved it when my sons or my students asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to. Researching the answer became a family or class project. And everyone learned that asking the right question and finding the answer is more important than trying to know everything.

As for Michael, he joined the Navy and became the chief electrician on a nuclear submarine. When he got out, he learned how to use complicated electrical equipment to map oil and gas wells deep underground. He’s getting bored with that, however. His latest ambition is to figure out the hows, whys, and results of electrical signals moving through the brain. It’ll take him awhile to get into that field and he has a lot of obstacles to overcome to get there. But he’ll figure it out. Just like that switchbox years ago.