“Daddy, what are those circles?” Caleb asked.
We were reading a library book all about the planet Uranus, and Caleb as usual was interrupting me with questions. My son’s 4-year-old mind has a habit of jumping ahead rather than waiting on explanations the book may or may not offer.
“Those circles are the orbits of the planets,” I told him. “Each one is the path a planet follows as it goes around the Sun. See, Mercury moves in this circle closest to the Sun. Venus moves in this circle. And here goes Earth.” I continued through the rest of the planets, showing how each one follows the path of its circle (actually ellipse) around the Sun.
“But why do they move in those circles?”
I’m discovering that you don’t get very far into an explanation with a child before the inevitable why comes up.
“It’s because of gravity,” I answered.
Dang. I should’ve seen that one coming. “Gravity is what makes things fall down toward the Earth.” I picked up one of Caleb’s stuffed animals and held it out over the floor for a demonstration. “What’s gonna happen if I let the animal go?”
Caleb smiled and his eyes sparkled as he put out his hands, ready to catch it. He knew instinctively what would happen; he didn’t need to put it into words.
“No, we’re not going to catch it, we’re going to do an experiment,” I said. I asked again, “What will happen when I drop it?”
“It’s gonna fall to the ground,” Caleb said. He continued to smile with his eyes fixed on the stuffed animal.
Caleb’s hypothesis was correct. I let the animal go, and it fell to the ground. He jumped down off the bed and picked it up. “I wanna try!”
“What will it do when you drop it?” I asked.
“It’s gonna fall again!” he said. Sure enough, when he let it go, it fell to the ground. Two for two on his predictions.
“So why does it fall?” I asked. “Why do things move toward the ground when you let them go?” Caleb stopped and thought about that. Now I’d turned the tables and given him the why question.
“It’s because of gravity,” I said. “Gravity is a force that pulls everything toward the Earth. The bigger something is, the more gravity it has. Since the Earth is the biggest thing around, everything we see around us falls down toward the Earth.”
I continued, getting back to his original question. “But out in space, the Sun is the biggest thing around. It’s way bigger than anything else in our Solar System. So in space, everything falls toward the Sun. Except all the planets are moving so fast that they don’t fall in, they just keep going around and around the Sun.”
“The planets are moving really fast?” Caleb asked. He loves cars, and racing, and running. Speed is his jam. “Like, this fast?” He moved his hands in rapid circles around each other.
“Even faster than that,” I said. Caleb smiled. Speed and space are fun, and he’d just learned something new.
This Sunday is Father’s Day, and that has me thinking about my role to nurture in my children a love of learning. I know that being a good father involves teaching good things. But even more than that, it involves living in a good way. It means giving my children a good example to follow, because as I’m discovering, they are going to imitate me a whole lot more than they listen to my wise musings on life. So I want to tell them, but also to show them, how important it is to learn, to ask questions, to be curious about the world and enjoy finding out new things. I want to help Caleb conduct experiments on gravity. I want to help his younger sister try things out, watch what happens, and repeat them with delight when the same thing happens again and again.
Fostering a love of learning is something both of my parents did for me, both in their teaching and example. Mom always pushed my brothers and me to do well in school, making sure our homework got done and helping out when it was needed. She taught us that learning was important because she invested so much of herself in our learning.
My dad modeled for us a practical knowledge and curiosity about things. I got from my dad a love of science and math, and a fearlessness in asking big questions and wondering about the world. I remember one night, he and I were riding home from my grandparents’ house, just the two of us. My mom and brothers must’ve been in a different car. Somehow we got to talking about the stars, and the nature of matter, and what a tiny universe of atoms must reside in our own bodies, and if that’s true, what bigger thing our own universe might be a part of.
Now that I’m a father myself, I want to pass along that same love of learning to my own children. On the one hand, it’s just fun–a great way for us to spend time together. On the other hand, it conveys an important way to look at the world. I want my kids to understand that big questions aren’t scary, but enjoyable. They should be asked fearlessly and pursued with curiosity and diligence. That’s a gift my parents gave me. It’s a gift that I, as a father, want to give to my children.
The other gift I want to give is the reassurance that faith and science aren’t enemies, but go together naturally and beautifully. I don’t recall ever thinking otherwise, and I suspect that’s also due to what I saw in my parents. For as long as I can remember, my mom has woken up early every morning to pray. As a teenager, I’d see my dad reading his Bible in bed every night before he fell asleep. They showed me that praying and reading the Bible are important, and that these practices and the attitudes they nurture can stand alongside learning and knowledge just fine. I want to give my children the same message, by my teaching and by my example.
When Caleb and I finished talking about gravity, I sent him to put the Uranus book back on the bookshelf. He set it down, then picked up the book of Bible stories we read from every night before. We read the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, always one of his favorites. Then he turned to walk into the living room, to get Amy to come in and say his prayers with him.
“Caleb,” I said before he got out the door. “What makes things fall to the ground?”
He smiled. “Gravity.”
What a wonderful early Father’s Day present.
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