Mary Leakey 100th birthday: A son on her adventuresome parenting

Mary Leakey 100th birthday: Her son, Philip Leakey, who learned to walk at a dig site, discusses the scientist's adventuresome parenting style. A bio about Mary Leakey might tell modern moms as much as any parenting advice book.

By , Guest Blogger

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    Mary Leakey 100th birthday: Celebrated with a Google Doodle today, the famed paleontologist did not slow down her work to parent. She brought her three sons to the dig site as babies.
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Today’s helicopter parents might want to explore the parenting techniques of famed paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, whose birth 100 years ago is celebrated today. Instead of hovering over or reining-in her three sons, Ms. Leakey handed them responsibilities early in life and brought them out on dig sites from infancy.

“Mother gave us every freedom to learn by experience as early as I can remember,” says her youngest son, Philip, 64, who now lives in Kenya and responded to questions for this blog via e-mail. “This gave me tremendous self-confidence and taught me responsibility at an early age. As I grew I was able to take on more responsibility and in a way it always put us as children ahead of the pack. It encouraged and enhanced leadership skills.”

Mary Leakey, born Mary Douglas Nicol in London on Feb. 6, 1913, was the daughter of landscape painter, Erskine Nicol, and Cecilia Frere. She was one of the world's most renowned hunters of early human fossils and married her colleague, Louis Leakey. Together and separately they stunned the scientific world with their finds. Mary Leakey died in Nairobi, Dec. 9, 1996, at the age of 83. She smoked stogies and enjoyed seeing her favorite dog “chomp” people who didn’t like anthropologists, according to Scientific American. She is science’s version of Katherine Hepburn, except Leakey was a mom.

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Most reporters will tell you that the crowning triumphs of her career were the 1972 discovery (with her husband) of 1.75-million-year-old remains from Homo habilis at Olduvai Gorge and the 1978 discovery of 3.6-million-year-old footprints at Laetoli, both in Tanzania.

However, as the mother of four boys, I think she pretty much wrote the book on how to best raise boys to be remarkable men. Philip Leakey says he was glad to have the rare opportunity to talk about his mother as a mother and not a scientist.

Mary Leakey’s appears to be a parenting technique that worked wonders for all three of her sons. Philip’s eldest brother Jonathan is a businessman and former palaeoanthropologist who runs Jonathan Leakey Ltd., which supplies East African snake venoms and plants for antivenom manufacturers. Richard Leakey became a politician, paleoanthropologist, and conservationist after entering the family business of paleoanthropology not only in field research and discoveries, but also as the director of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). He is now a member of the department of anthropology faculty at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Philip Leakey and his wife Katy run what might be called a Zulugrass-roots endeavor called The Leakey Collection, a Fair Trade design company based in Kenya. It sells items such as jewelry made by East African women (in their homes, not factories). They cut Zulugrass – which is hollow – into beads that are dyed and hardened. The company states that it “uses commerce as a vehicle to enhance the lives of the Maasai in an environmentally friendly, sustainable way while maintaining cultural and traditional lifestyles".

Mary Leakey didn’t just bring us remarkable scientific discoveries. She also left behind three fine examples of why every day should be take your kids to work day, even if it’s just talking about your job. By including our children in our passions we help them dig deep into their imaginations to unearth their own passions in life.  
     
     Here is a Q&A with Philip Leakey about his mom:

Q: Did you ever go on digs with your parents? If so was there any one that stands out in your mind?

Yes. I grew up on the digs on school holidays. I learned to walk at Olorkesaili, [Kenya,] the hand tool site.

Olduvai is where I have some of my fondest memories and my greatest early learning experiences.

You did not choose your mother’s career path, but a more politically active and civic-minded life. What part of you upbringing influenced you toward that choice?

My father influenced me towards that end, but my mother raised me learning her skills of perception of people.

One publication stated that you and your brothers were raised by a nanny until you were old enough to go adventuring with your parents. Is that correct and if so how did that work?

No that isn’t correct. We were not raised by nannies.

At what age did you first go on a dig?

Mother took me when I was a baby. As I said I learned to walk at Olkorkesaili.

Can you tell a bit about your education and if your mother “home schooled” you and your brothers at all or how she taught you about what they were working on?

Both my parents encouraged us to participate in their work as much as possible from working on the sites to engaging with all the people related to their work through identifying all the specimens. It was a hands-on learning experience throughout the entire process. We were included in all the discussions, the debates and every step of the way.

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