Last weekend, in 90-degree weather, my family watched ice melt. It was not for lack of better things to do we live three miles from the beach, and many of our friends and relatives have swimming pools. However, our 4-year-old daughter, Stephanie, would have none of that. She wanted to do an ice-melting experiment.
Following Stephanie's directions, we got four plastic cups and put three ice cubes into each of them. She put one cup in the sunny part of the driveway, another in the shade of our back deck, the third on the kitchen counter, and the last one in the refrigerator. We spent the day checking the cups and keeping track of which ice was melting the fastest. (As you may have guessed, the one in the driveway melted the quickest.)
As soon as every ice cube had miraculously turned into water, Stephanie said, "That's so cool! Let's do it again!"
My husband and I were less than enthralled with this activity. But it wasn't the first weekend we'd spent engaged in one of Stephanie's science projects.
Last autumn, we stood outside and watched leaves fall from trees; in winter, we filled two ice-cube trays with water and put one outside and one inside to see which one would freeze; and on rainy spring days, we observed how dirt turned into mud. Each of these experiments was Stephanie's enthusiastic idea. She sees herself as a scientist, and her daddy and I are her lab assistants.
Now this wouldn't be a bad thing if Jack and I didn't dislike science. But unfortunately we're really awful at it. We joke that we should nip these experiments in the bud right now. "What if she becomes a scientist when she grows up?" we both wonder. "We won't understand a word she says." And we really wouldn't.
In fact, Jack perfected the art of sleeping with his eyes open in high school biology class, while my chemistry-test grades ranged from a high of 54 percent to a low of 18.
Yet somehow we produced a child whose wonder over scientific principles never ceases one who asks me to put an ice cube in my coffee each morning so she can watch it melt. "Look, Mommy," she says, her eyes widening. "The ice melts so much faster in hot coffee than it does in cold water."
Stephanie wonders about everything from lightning to lightning bugs, from gravity to greenhouses. And she wants "real" answers to her questions.
She isn't satisfied with responses that were more than enough for me as a kid: "Things fall to the floor because if they fell to the ceiling, we wouldn't be able to reach them." And "Lightning bugs light up so they can see where they're flying in the dark."
To be honest, I rarely asked about science when I was Stephanie's age. Now I spend hours at the library and on the Internet looking up answers to questions that I have no interest in but she does.
Still, I'll keep looking things up and being Stephanie's assistant in projects that wouldn't even cross my mind if I were making a list of things I'd like to do.
As I count the different kinds of bugs Stephanie finds under a rock in the yard, or search for a book that explains what makes plants grow, I think of all the other things parents do to encourage their children's interests. I've done lots of them myself. An indoor person, I've spent hours running around playgrounds with Stephanie, pushing her on the swing, and taking long walks when I'd rather be inside reading, doing puzzles, or building with blocks.
I think of all the "Barney" episodes I couldn't stand, but watched just because Stephanie adored and learned from the big purple dinosaur. And I know that Jack doesn't relish the show tunes that Stephanie loves, but whenever they are in the car together, you can bet they're singing a song from "Bye, Bye, Birdie," "Oliver," or "The Music Man."
But for now, science is the big thing in our house. We'll probably spend many more days watching ice melt ... until Stephanie is ready to move on to her next project, whatever it may be.
Even if it's something we don't enjoy, we'll encourage her and participate with great enthusiasm. That's what parents do. And we'll keep our fingers crossed that if she ever does become a scientist, she'll bring a translator home with her.