My seven-year-old son recently asked if he could set his Legos on fire. He hadn’t outgrown them and he wasn’t fed up with them. In fact, Legos are one of my son’s favorite toys. So why was he asking to burn his playthings? Because he has a Lego fire truck set complete with firemen minifigures and he wanted to watch his crew "put out” a fire.
When he asked if he could have a Lego-sized bonfire, my first instinct was to give a resounding “no.” After all, we don’t play with matches and we don’t burn our toys! Isn’t that the first (and what should be the second) rule of fire safety?
But then I stopped and thought about it. He had come to me and asked my permission – which is exactly the kind of behavior I try to encourage. Also, what was the actual harm in a “controlled burn,” if my husband and I allowed him to do it in the backyard while supervised?
After laying down some grounds rules (the fire had to take place on the concrete patio with a bucket of water nearby), we did let him burn a Lego brick or two. My son and his younger sister, of course, thought this was the “coolest thing ever.”
So that we don’t need to repeat the process, we let him take a cell phone video to capture the moment. While I’m not so sure that burning plastic, even in such minute quantities, is the most environmentally sound choice – for me, it was the most logical parenting choice.
Like all parents, I endeavor to fan the flames of passion in my kids, even when the flame is an actual spark. But helping my kids discover and keep their passions is tricky, especially for someone like me who is often more pragmatic than curious.
Children can come up with some outlandish – and sometimes dangerous – ideas. We adults are known for being killjoys in the name of practicality, responsibility, and safety. Often our overarching considerations are: how much will this cost and how long will it take to clean up, versus how much can my kid learn from this.
Recently, however, I came across some persuasive advice and, consequently, I expect there will be more adventures like the Lego burn in our future. "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance" is a data-driven book which asserts that grit (aka persistence) counts for more than talent.
In the book, author Angela Duckworth cites Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as a paragon of grit. To arrive at that conclusion, Duckworth examined not just Bezos’ current success but also his childhood attempts, and to learn those she interviewed,who else, his mom.
Bezos was an experimenter and tinker from an early age and his mom didn’t just passively permit his curiosity – she fostered it. Bezos' mother, Jackie, told Duckworth that she often took young Bezos to Radio Shack to buy parts for his tinkering, sometimes making multiple trips a day. She didn’t relegate his experiments to some out-of-the-way corner; she let him conduct his experiments front and center with Bezos once tying string to all the kitchen cabinets so that if you opened one cabinet, they all opened.
Jackie said that she paid attention to what her children were interested in and then followed their lead. After Bezos once completed a sophisticated creation, he explained the science behind it to his mom while she was with a friend. When Bezos was out of earshot, the friend asked Jackie if she’d understood everything that her son had said. Jackie responded, “It’s not important that I understand everything. It’s important that I listen.”
The greatest takeaway for us as parents isn’t that we should allow our kitchens to become workshops or science labs or art studios. It’s that we should listen and observe. All of the shuttling back-and-forth to extracurricular activities and weekend sport practices doesn’t amount to much if we don’t really know what fascinates and motivates our children. A curious mind is a terrible thing to waste.