Jane Goodall’s advice—how to raise curious children

Jane Goodall’s advice—how to raise curious children

In full disclosure, I’m not sure whether or not Jane Goodall has ever explicitly provided parenting advice. However, her remarks during a recent talk at a high school here in Alexandria suggest that she feels she was well parented and that that had something to do with what she was able to do in life. I was not in attendance (I was not invited nor did I know she was going to be in town) (I have never met her, but I did once take a picture of myself with her in the background and I will try to find that and post it here, it was kind of a big deal for me) but I happened to read the front page of the local newspaper, the Alexandria Times, which provided a quick review of Dr. Goodall’s remarks. I kept thinking of her words as I sat over the course of about an hour, rocking my 3-year-old son in a desperate bid to get him to nap, while he stuck his fingers in my nose, among other incivilities.

The article’s author Chris Teale writes “Goodall recalled how at just 1-and-a-half years old, she collected a handful of earthworms and soil and took them with her to bed. In an indication of her mother’s support that would last throughout her life, Goodall said she was not disciplined at all. ‘Instead of getting mad at me, she said, “Jane, I think they’ll die; they need to go back into the garden”’ Goodall said. ‘So we carried them carefully back.’”

(Brief aside: I’ve been parenting on the assumption that specific memories don’t kick in until around age 4. I was not aware of the fact that my actual words would be quoted back to me in this manner. Though Jane Goodall is presumably smarter than the average chimp (groan) so maybe not representative of most kids and maybe the dates here are being generalized to mean, say, younger than four.)

Later in the article, Teale writes “She shared how at the age of 4, she stayed with her grandmother for a time and tried to observe hens laying eggs to understand where they came from. For four hours, she sat silently and watched, having learned that disturbing the hens would scare them away. ‘Isn’t that the making of a little scientist?’ she asked. ‘Curiosity, asking questions, not getting a right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up and learning patience. It was all there in that little 4-and-a-half-year-old child, and a different kind of mother might have crushed that scientific curiosity and I might not be standing here now.’”

So, I think what Jane is saying is that when my son has a toy and he takes it apart, instead of putting it on the NO shelf (usually reserved for toys that are used to hit his sister), I should sit down with him and ask him to show me what he learned? Or when my daughter shouts “There’s a rainbow on the ceiling!” I should say “Wow, I wonder how that got there? What do you think?” Instead of explaining that light is a wave and when it hits a new medium the speed of the wave changes and the light is bent (that is me quoting another grown-up who lives in my house, I cannot explain the rainbow but I usually try).

So, during my pre-nap rocking extravaganza, I tried to think of a few principles of parenting based on these two little snippets from Jane’s life and my several years’ experience raising two kids in America. These are in no way endorsed by Dr. Goodall. And my oldest child is 5, so what do I know? But here’s a stab:

Don’t answer all of a child’s questions. Show interest, and ask questions back. And give them some independence and latitude to discover things on their own. They have to be allowed to make mistakes and to not know.

Let kids make a mess. My kids have somewhere picked up the idea that they are not allowed to make a mess. Why is that this great fear? You can clean up a mess but if you are too afraid of spilling, of going outside the lines, of breaking anything, how can you create anything or learn anything? Speaking of breaking anything, we (I’m talking about Americans here) have these houses filled with all of this s**t and if one headphone on a talking car breaks off the child is chastised: Johnny (not his real name), what were you thinking? We have 7 million objects in this house all crammed into a variety of organizational systems and you dared to try to see if those headphones could come off of one. Don’t you know that is not how that is supposed to work – it is supposed to look just like it looked when we took it out of the box, forever! To the dungeon! How could you disrespect this tiny piece of crap? I will crush your spirit. (2a. Let them clean up their own mess. Not based on Jane. Just if they are going to make a mess, they should also learn to clean up that mess. In a nice way.)

Leave time for ‘boredom’. I’m guessing that if little Jane had had an iPad then she wouldn’t have been watching those chickens.Or if she had had to get to soccer practice that morning.I’m sure there’s great research on this, sorry not to be a solid enough journalist (yet!) to provide this here, guessing they cover it in Einstein Didn’t Use Flashcards. Boredom is a wonderful invitation to explore or create something new and most kids I know are being taught that it is somebody or something else’s responsibility to find a ‘cure’ for their boredom. My mom always said “Boredom is a lack of using your own imagination.” Maybe that’s an old-fashioned way of shaming a kid for saying she’s bored, but it sure worked. I would NEVER have admitted to being bored, it was like acknowledging that I was not very imaginative. I hear kids (mine included) saying they are bored like it is someone else’s problem or fault. Let them be bored and then see points 1 and 2 above.

Teach kids to be thoughtful and kind by being thoughtful and kind. Jane’s mom could have said something like this: Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall, how could you bring all of that dirt into this house? And into your bed? Disgusting. Now your sheets will be all covered with slime. You take those worms and you put them in the trash right this minute. Instead, she indicated that she cared about what happened to the worms. It was this concern for the worms that motivated her action. I’m down with that (kudos, Margaret).

At almost all times, children should be dressed in clothing that can get dirty. I heard a teacher say to a little girl who was climbing up some rocks at her school: Susie (not her real name), get down, you’ll get your clothes all dirty. (Cue inner fury! WHAT?!) The clothes do not matter. The learning does. For the love of everything, don’t tell a little girl not to climb on rocks that were put there for climbing! Her body was in no danger, just the fabric meant to protect her so she was comfortable enough to learn to explore, to learn what rocks feel like under your hands. Buy children’s clothing at thrift stores and let them play! Why are we turning our kids into little fashion plates and paying $30 or more for an outfit for a 4-year-old. They should be getting dirty! I’m not sure what this has to do with Jane except that I’m guessing nobody was stressing out about her UGGs getting wet.

Love the kid you have. (I got this one from my mom earlier this week when complaining about the recent behavior of one of my children). Maybe Jane’s mom wasn’t into wildlife. Maybe she wanted a little ballerina. But she let Jane play with worms and chickens because that was who Jane was. To quote Kahlil Gibran “Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.” I should probably put that on my dresser and read it every morning when I wake up. Don’t worry so much about what people will think about what your kid does. Love your kid. Get to know her/him. See what brings them to life. She what makes them laugh. Let more of that be in your life.

Finally, I have to acknowledge that many parents may not be interested in raising little scientists. If the risk of fostering curiosity, respect and kindness is that my kids might end up living with apes and teaching the world things about our closest relatives that we never knew before, I’m honestly a little nervous about it. Maybe it is safer to raise a little investment banker or a little reality TV star. Maybe if we protect them from curiosity and exploration then they can be as happy as we are in our 4 BR, 2.5 BA w a newly renovated kitchen.

But I think the world would be a nicer place for our little munchkins, for munchkins everywhere, if there were more people in the world like Jane Goodall. How nice to think of a world where a child is given space and time to to get to know herself, to find herself capable, and to ask questions of and interact with the world, in her own way, at her own pace. Heck, maybe little Suzy (not her real name) might grow up to help us all understand the world and our place in it a little better.

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