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Simcha Fisher: Finding great pearls of wisdom

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Only one of Simcha's kids thinks etymology is cool but all of them think it’s completely normal to follow up a question with a search for the right answer. Photo: Unsplash.com
Only one of Simcha’s kids thinks etymology is cool but all of them think it’s completely normal to follow up a question with a search for the right answer. Photo: Unsplash.com

The other day, as soon as I got home, I looked up “oyster etymology.” It turns out the word “oyster” comes from the Greek “ostrakon,” meaning “a hard shell.” That’s the short version, but it was enough information for me. I previously had no idea, and I really wanted to find out.

I also wanted my kids to see me following through, after a question popped into my head. We had been chatting about oysters on the way home from school. Specifically, we had been chatting about what was making that unusual smell in the car. I admitted there was a seafood sale that I couldn’t resist, so that explained the odor. But what explained the word? I thought it must be Greek, but I wasn’t sure, so I said I would look it up. And I did.

I am a word hound and my husband is a reporter, and at our house, we always look things up. It has been a great gift to me to realise that my kids think this is totally normal, and something worth doing, when a question arises: You wonder something; you go find out. Not everybody does this! Not everybody even thinks to try!

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It was a gift to me because half my kids are now legal adults, and I so often feel that I have failed so miserably in transmitting even the most basic truths to them. It’s not a reflection on them. They’re all actually doing quite well. It’s just that I feel like I’m only just now figuring out, myself, what’s most important, and it’s too late, too late, for me to pass it along.

But this is largely melancholy speaking. It’s September, which is “everything is dying” season here, and it’s hard not to let that sense of desolation creep into everything I perceive. The truth is, nobody can teach someone everything they need to know. That’s not the nature of teaching. It’s not the nature of people. It’s not the nature of knowing. You telling people what they need to know, and them believing you, remembering it, and acting on it is not how good ideas get transmitted, most of the time.

But example is a very good teacher. It’s one thing to say to a kid, “This is the right way to do things,” but it’s quite another to simply do it, almost every single time, as if no other option were thinkable. It’s very good to tell kids what is right and just and wise; but it’s far, far better to simply do it in their presence. Something to think about. This is how we teach, whether we mean to or not: By how we live.

Only one of my kids, as far as I can tell, thinks etymology is cool and exciting. But all of them think it’s completely normal to follow up a question with a search for an answer. This may seem like a small thing, but without it, how is any learning possible? I try to remember to look up not only things like “where does the word ‘oyster’ come from,” but absolutely anything else. I get excited when I don’t know the answer to one of their questions, because it’s a chance to find something out. I want to show them that finding things out is exciting.

More than simply learning the habit of trying to find things out, they are, I hope learning other profoundly useful lessons that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives: It’s normal to question things. There is no area of life that is off bounds for questioning, and if you cannot or must not ask sincere, civil questions about something, then that’s a red flag about the whole set-up, and you should be very wary of accepting it or getting involved. It’s not inherently rude, disrespectful, toxic, hostile or, God help us, un-Christian, to ask questions. That’s as long as your goal is to get information that you actually want (and you’re not doing it, like, in the middle of a funeral or something else wildly inappropriate or insensitive).

The purpose of questioning things is to find out the answer. This is important! I loathe and detest the idea that there is something brave and scintillating about having a perpetually unsatisfied intellect that constantly shifts around looking for more questions without ever pausing to contemplate the answers already given. Questions seek answers; answers are good, and should be accepted and digested. If they lead to more questions, that’s wonderful, but a question is not an end or a good in itself. Some answers are completely satisfying, and it’s intellectually empty to pretend that the journey is more meaningful than the destination.

It’s normal to change your mind about something, even if you and everyone you know has believed something different for a very long time. Sometimes you will find out something you didn’t expect, that disturbs or alarms you, and makes you shift your perspective. Sometimes you will find out something that illuminates unexpected areas of your life. People who never change their mind about anything are actually probably either morons or monsters, so do not be ashamed or abashed about having to change your mind.
You have to consider your source! Kids don’t want to do this, but at the same time they instinctively know it’s true; they just don’t realise they know it. They already think, for instance, that parents don’t understand whole swaths of things, just because they’re old.

So they do accept the idea that some sources are more experienced and credible than others. You can point this out to kids, and ask them to extrapolate—there are other areas of life, like science or religion or history, where some groups are more experienced and credible than others, and you should listen to those groups, rather than to the ones who are willing to opine but don’t know what they’re talking about, or who have some ulterior motive or agenda beyond simply seeking the truth. At very least acknowledge that there is a difference between sources, and when we listen to one and not another, we are making an important intellectual choice.

I could go on. But the main point is this: We can’t teach our kids everything they need to know. We can and should, however, teach them the habit of finding things out for themselves. They may not always reach the conclusion we want them to reach, because they are their own people. It’s only our job to give them the tools and habits and, most importantly, the example of seeking answers honestly, so at least they know how to try.

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