The other night, after her bath, Petra and I were cuddling. She said that her skin felt cold, and I told her that it was because the water was evaporating off of her skin, and that’s an endothermic reaction–the water is using the warmth of her body to help it evaporate. I also told her that there are exothermic reactions, like wood burning (we had just done a backyard fire), which put off heat. “Can you think of another exothermic reaction that isn’t something burning?” I asked her.
She thought for a moment. “Our bodies!” she said. “Because they make heat. But not lizards’.”
I was pretty wowed by Petra’s ability to make that connection. When I was thinking about it later, I realized that, with a handful of tiny exceptions (mostly related to electricity), Petra knows more science at 4 than I did at 14. This is perhaps as much a commentary on the poor quality of STEM education in 1990s West Virginia as it is on Petra’s precocity.
The truth is, I don’t think my kids are exceptionally smart. I think that many kids now know much more about any variety of subjects than I did by the end of middle school. I’m frequently amazed by the stuff my kids’ friends (and friends’ kids) come up with. James (age 6) recently identified a timber rattler when he was in the yard alone with his two younger brothers, and knew exactly what to do, leading them calmly the long way around the house to take them to safety. Ella (not-quite-three) switches between English and Mandarin with ease, being raised in a bilingual household, and has the presence of mind to be aware that her Mandarin is much better than ours–so she often says something and then immediately translates for herself. Noah (6) is incredibly perceptive about the balance of power in a situation–he knows who has it and who is using it wisely. Sam (8) knew significantly more about space travel a year ago than I will probably ever know in my life, and is quite the owl expert. Lillian and Elisabeth (both 9) can identify many plants that are strangers to me.
Some of these kids are homeschooled, some go to private schools, some attend public schools. And they all know far more than I did at their respective ages about a range of topics, and, in some cases, more than I know now. Does that mean that every kid I encounter is a little genius?
I suspect it has more to do with the way we can acquire and consume information now. When I was a kid, if I had a question my parents couldn’t answer, they would either make up some crazy answer (Dad) or say they didn’t know (Mom). You could, theoretically, look something up at the library, but it might be a week or two between my big question and our next library trip. It was also unlikely that the library would have an up-to-date book on a specific weirdo question.
Now, I literally have the sum total of human knowledge in my back pocket. If my kids have a question I don’t know the answer to, we can find out in seconds. Within the past few weeks, these impromptu research sessions have answered many questions, including, “What sounds do giraffes make?” and “How does the lava lamp work?” If you hear Petra glibly mention “Archimedes’ principle,” it’s not because we have been doing an intensive unit study on ancient Greek scientists. Further, she doesn’t fully understand the principle. For her, it’s a word that means “the thing that makes the lava lamp move because the wax expands and contracts.” But she’ll get older and hear it in other contexts, and already have the basic idea to build from.
If we want more information, we go to our library’s website, and if they don’t have a book on the subject at our local branch, we can almost always find something in the regional catalog, order it, and have it in our hands within two days. This was, as the kids say, “not a thing,” when I was four.
I think the result is that the question gets answered while it’s still pressing, and they can immediately use that new information to make connections with what they already know. It doesn’t have time to cool off and become less exciting, and I think this lets them develop knowledge much faster, moving from one question to the next, with much more rapidity than children in previous generations.
Even their entertainment choices can meet their developmental needs in ways that they just couldn’t in the 1980s. We have, at our disposal, all manner of streaming media, and when my kids take turns selecting what they’ll watch for their half-hour of TV time, they are often responding to some unspoken, internal, need. Maybe that internal need is to watch that old Pokemon show ad nauseum, but equally often, it’s a request for Wild Kratts or Peg + Cat, because they want to know more about animals or math. They talk about what they learn from these shows at length. When I was a kid, we watched what was on, whatever that was, regardless of its relationship to our particular curiosity of the moment.
The internet helps us find people. When Silas wanted to learn more about China, it helped me figure out who I knew who might know someone who was from China (and we made a few good friends in the process).
Silas, as I’ve perhaps mentioned before, has an incredible ability to remember, verbatim, much of what he hears. This is definitely due in part to his obsession with audio books. In the olden days, he would have already burned through every age-appropriate audio book in our library, and those things are crazy expensive to buy. Now, I download books from Librivox for him, and he listens to his heart’s content. This also is why his vocabulary can sometimes verge on old-timey; Librivox books are all in the public domain, so they are mostly pre-1920.
Even in a family that doesn’t have a tradition of valuing education (which my family definitely does–as my grandpa once told me, “Your brain is the only investment you’ll never lose.”), it’s so easy now to indulge a kid’s obsessions that they will inevitably learn something. If a preschooler is constantly badgering his mom with questions about dinosaurs, even if she doesn’t know much about them, it’s only a matter of time before she looks up the answer and hands him her phone to watch a five-minute video. And maybe another one. And eventually, he’s going to start a conversation about it with her. If she was half-way listening to the video while she was doing whatever she needed some space for, she might be able to discuss it with him. The internet democratizes knowledge and rewards childrens’ innate curiosity.
I’m interested to see what happens when these children grow up, the ones who never had to worry about not being able to find information, but instead could have the input they needed to do deep thinking without having to wait for it. All the little geniuses.