Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.
Economist VILFREDO PARETO, referring to the errors of Kepler
In 1847, around the time Pareto was conceived, an obstetrician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that pregnant women in his hospital were much more likely to die if their babies were delivered by doctors than by midwives. He then noticed that doctors whose patients died had usually come straight from autopsies. Semmelweis asked the doctors to humor him by washing their hands before delivering a baby. Maternal mortality in the hospital dropped below two percent.
It took another generation for the medical establishment to accept germ theory as fact — but once they did, the average human lifespan in Europe nearly doubled overnight.
Fast forward to the early 21st century, where we’ve overlearned the message. Thanks to air filters, airtight homes, and antibacterial everything, our environments have been so thoroughly scrubbed that our systems are losing the ability to deal with the germs and irritants that abound in the world outside our doors.
Among other things, the result has been a spike in serious childhood allergies and infections. According to an NPR story on studies supporting this conclusion, “An emphasis on hygiene means we are no longer exposing children to enough bacteria to help trigger their natural immune systems.”
With the best of intentions, we so thoroughly protect our children from an admittedly bad thing that we do them a disservice.
See where I’m headed?
I think the same idea applies in many areas of parenting — among them the careful scrubbing of all exposure to “nonsense” from our children’s lives. I’ve heard the assertion that “we must never lie to our children” from many nonreligious parents, always intoned in the kind of hushed voice usually reserved for sacred pronouncements.
Actually, I think it’s terribly important to lie to our children.
(N.B. That tongue-in-cheek sentence appeared in the initial draft of Raising Freethinkers until my editor protested that what I advocate isn’t really lying. Spoilsport. So I changed it to this:) Though I don’t advocate outright lying, the playful fib can work wonders for the development of critical thinking.
Many nonreligious parents, in the admirable name of high integrity, set themselves up as infallible authorities. And since (like it or not) we are the first and most potent authority figures in our kids’ lives, turning ourselves into benevolent oracles of truth can teach our kids to passively receive the pronouncements of authority. I would rather, in a low-key and fun fashion, encourage them to constantly take whatever I say and run it through the baloney meter. To that end, I sprinkle our conversations with fruitful errors, bursting with their own corrections.
When my youngest asked, “How far away is the Sun?”, I said, “Twenty feet,” precisely so she would look at me and say, “Dad, you dork!!” When my kids ask what’s for dinner, I say “Monkey lungs, go wash up.” When the fifth grader doing her homework asks what seven times seven is, I say 47, because she should (a) know that on her own by now, and, equally important (b) know the wrong answer when she hears it.
Yes, I make sure they end up with the right answer when it matters, and no, I don’t do this all the time. They’d kill me. But pulling our kids’ legs once in a while is more than just fun and games. For one thing, if every word from my mouth was a reliable pearl of factuality, they would get the unhelpful message that Authority Always Tells the Truth.
Now don’t instantly whip over to the cartoon extreme of Dad lying about whether a car is coming as we cross the street ( “All clear!! Heh heh heh.”) I’m talking about fibs of the harmless-but-useful variety — and yes, I firmly include Santa in that.
Knowing that Dad sometimes talks nonsense can prepare them to expect and challenge the occasional bit of nonsense, intentional or otherwise, from peers, ministers, and presidents. The result in our household is this: When I answer a question, my kids don’t swallow it without a thought. They take a moment to think about whether the answer makes sense. By seeing to it that their childhood includes nonsense, I’m building their immune systems for a lifetime swimming in the stuff.