Thursday, February 14, 2013

Stars, sauropods and second-guessing

The little guy’s unflagging obsession with astronomy is closing in on two months of dominating most conversations around our house (at least, most conversations in which the little guy takes part, and believe you me he is not shy about inserting himself into every conversation within earshot), but fortunately it has been an interesting experience, with new facets emerging all the time. Probably the single most impressive development is the capacity for memorization the little guy has shown. He knows a LOT of solar system trivia now. Back in July, when we visited my dad, the little guy had just learned the names of the eight major planets because they did a unit on it in pre-school, and he happily sang the mnemonic song (to the tune of “Ten Little Indians”) for the extended family and was enthusiastically applauded because, hey, he was three. Less than a year later, he can name all 13 planets (including Pluto and the other dwarfs, which I’m sure a lot of adults can’t do), plus tell you which ones are rocky planets and which ones are gas giants and list them all again in increasing order of size, rattle off several of the names of moons of other planets, explain where the word “planet” comes from, identify the locations of the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt … it’s an extensive amount of trivia, and that’s before he starts adding in his own invented planets and their geographical wonders. The other day he regaled me with a guided tour of one of the worlds he discovered that has “purple glass volcanoes”.

And somehow he still has room in his brain for other areas of inquiry, including a burgeoning interest in dinosaurs. Of course, these could not be more archetypal areas of interest for a young boy; there’s no difficulty associated with finding blue footie pajamas covered in triceratopses or rocket ships. But I keep being struck by how those subjects involve such massively epic scopes of scale, which boggle even my supposedly adult mind. T-Rex lived a hundred million years ago! Jupiter is five hundred million miles away! The little guy just has no apparatus whatsoever for those kinds of numbers and abstractions, so they roll right off him. It’s actually very cute, though, when he tries to bring some of this stuff together. Really it’s downright impressive for the mental effort alone, even if he doesn’t arrive at a logical conclusion. I’ll try to walk through one of his proofs: he knows that Pluto was once thought to be a planet and later re-classified as a dwarf planet. He also knows there are other dwarf planets which have “always” been dwarf planets, like Eris. And he also knows that dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago, before there were any humans. So therefore, anything humans might say about “that’s how it’s always been” doesn’t necessarily apply to the dinosaurs. Ergo, when dinosaurs were alive, Eris was still a real planet and hadn’t been demoted yet! QED! You are welcome to try to explain to the little guy how Eris was only discovered in 2005 and its dwarf status is a post-discovery arbitrary label, but you will not get very far.

Meanwhile I will be trying to wrap my own head around the fact that Pluto hasn’t even gone around the sun one full orbit since it was discovered. Crazy stuff! My wife and I have sometimes been watching YouTube videos with the little guy and found our own minds blown repeatedly. One computer-model demonstration of astronomical scale showed various heavenly bodies, with the camera pulling back and the model shrinking as the next, bigger object came into view. Earth is much bigger than Mercury, Jupiter is much bigger than Earth, the Sun is much bigger than Jupiter, that I can handle. But then it started shrinking the sun to show even larger stars, giants and hyper-giants, and I admit it made me weirdly dizzy.

So (for our own sake) we haven’t been pushing too hard for the hardcore scientific videos, although some of them are geared towards kids and are pretty appealing to the little guy. But he prefers the cartoony videos, preferably set to some song or another about the solar system, and I can report that there is a surprisingly deep catalog of those online. Some of them are genuinely clever (and downright ear-wormy) and others are dreadful, but the little guy gets a kick out of them. He’s all but given up being read to at bedtime, preferring to just watch two or three “space videos” on my phone between brushing his teeth and being tucked in, but still, it’s working and I’m disinclined to fight it.

Also speaking of ear-wormy songs about scientific disciplines, yet another highly gratifying aspect of all this has been the little guy’s introduction to They Might Be Giants, who of course started putting out children’s albums some years ago. After Here Come the ABC’s and such, John and John moved on to headier topics in a compilation called Here Comes Science, which appeared in our house at Christmas. Technically, I bought the CD/DVD combo as a gift for the little guy to give to his mother (who is a significantly bigger TMBG fan than the baseline most right-thinking people should start from) but it has fulfilled its purpose as entertainment the whole family can enjoy. The fact that the little guy now often goes around sing-shouting “The SUN is a MASS of incandescent GAS!” pleases me to no end. (All right, technically he often garbles the word “incandescent” but the enthusiasm more than makes up for it.)

So yeah, he’s soaking up factoids and lyrics voraciously, to the point where strangers assume we must be homeschooling him or something. We’re not, it’s almost entirely him following his own bliss, and we’re planning on enrolling him in public school kindergarten in the fall and keeping our fingers crossed that he won’t be too bored. Also that he won’t freak out about the transition from three days a week of daycare to five days a week of mandatory institutionalized education.

In the same vein, my wife and I made the momentous decision to pull his sister out of daycare, and tomorrow is going to be her last day (barring emergency drop-ins and the like; her brother is going to finish out the Montessori year through June, at least). Not that we had the slightest problem with the care the little girl was receiving, but the fact is we have a new plan for my wife’s long-term employment post-Baby#3 to be part-time, and factoring that into the budget means factoring out the satisfactory but not-cheap daycare for our daughter. It makes perfect sense in terms of numbers added up in columns, but of course it’s not without its pitfalls. The little guy has been in daycare for almost the entirety of his four years at this point, and as mentioned he’ll transition to kindergarten in August. Daycare has had certain socializing and civilizing influences on him, and by and large I’d say they were positive. But his sister isn’t going to have the same exact influences. Maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s even better than fine, because my son and daughter are two very different children with different personalities and different needs and maybe the little girl will thrive being home with mom (and the occasional sitter) all the time the same way the little guy thrived away from home. Maybe? But bottom line, she’ll get a different early childhood than her brother, and there’s a big part of me that has a hard time coming to terms with that.

The mere fact that we are having a third child just compounds this (irrational? I hope so) sense that I’m not doing right by my kids because I’m not achieving perfect and immaculate parity among them. The older son will have had things one way, and the daughter another way, and the younger son yet another. I’m aware that things being fair does not always mean that things are identical, or even equivalent. I’m not even sure if absolute fairness is supposed to be the end goal. I suspect that part of me would prefer to have every element of all three of their lives be totally parallel because that would absolve me of having to answer for any decisions as to who got what. You all got the same things across the board, make of it what you will! But of course as soon as I say that out loud it announces its own ridiculousness.

Raising kids is never easy. Keeping them safe and whole and physically healthy and growing is only part of that, and it’s mainly logistics and it does get easier as you have a second, third &c. child. You agonize over which daycare center to use for your firstborn, and you feel sick to your stomach the first few times you drive away from the building leaving your precious bundle behind, but the process is streamlined (if never eliminated) for future siblings. Same goes for figuring out feeding and bathing and diapering and clothing and sleeping and playing. But raising them, instilling values in them and guiding them towards becoming the person they were meant (and hopefully want) to be, that probably shouldn’t be something where the work you put in on the older ones gives you any shortcuts for the younger ones. Even if the little girl did end up in four years of daycare, I’d still need to be aware of and responsive to so many more of her needs than just getting lunch in her and scheduling her naps and preventing her from grievous bodily harm. It’s work, if I’ve learned anything I’ve learned it’s a frigging ton of work, but I know it’s work worth doing.

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