flash and dazzle, life lessons

I haven't blogged much about parenting lately. I suppose that's because the kids are old enough that I have to be careful about what I splash all over the internet. Privacy and all that. It's one thing when your life is all diapers and lack of naptime, but quite another when you're helping to navigate tricky social situations.

But this evening something came up that I really want to write about. It was science night at the kids' school, an event where kids can do a project or research and present their work on a poster, plus there are visiting scientists with fun and yucky demos. UW Entymology students bring mounted bugs and live hissing cockroaches, someone from the Ag department has a lamb heart, cow kidneys and chicken feet to look at and handle (with gloves). Serious ick factor here. I mean, the slimier the better, really. Also, there is a real actual rocket scientist with real actual rocket boosters to look at and touch.(There was no actual rocket launching from the school gym, sadly.)

The student projects...how do I say this tactfully?...they vary widely in scope. Some are quite clever, some have tenuous connections to actual science, a few are obviously mostly done by parents, and there are always a few that are more like art projects than science. I appreciate the intent of the event, which is to encourage kids to ask questions and make observations and find information about things they are curious about. Get kids excited about learning and about science. Of course, everyone gets a ribbon for participating.

Anya did not participate this year, and Daniel wasn't planning on it, but at the last minute his best buddy asked him to do a project together, so they spent an afternoon putting together molecular models and writing up blurbs about them for the poster. He had fun and probably learned something, though I suspect his write-up about propane was mostly copied and pasted from whatever he found on the internet. He spent a good part of the evening sitting by his poster waiting for his ribbon (never got around to him) and waiting people to stop by and ask questions. Very few did, and he was really quite disappointed by it.

I was surprised at his disappointment, actually. He really seemed to take it personally. As far as I could tell, most of the other kids there were mostly interested in eating all the treats (because of course every school event has to have not only prizes for everyone who bothers to show up, but a table full of sugar, too) and playing with cockroaches and gak. So on the walk home, I told him that he had done good work and learned something and got to spend time with his friend, all good things that he should feel good about. Try not to worry about people not stopping at your poster, I told him.

This didn't help. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is tell someone that they shouldn't feel bad about something. You feel what you feel, right? Telling someone their feelings are wrong just makes them feel worse. It's how you handle your feelings that matters.

So then I asked him, Which displays get the most attention? The ones that reflect the best work, or the ones with fancy equipment (microscopes, dry ice, anything with an iPad) or treats (The Science of Popcorn! Chocolate Chip cookie taste testing!) Sure, sometimes good work and flashy posters overlap. You can have solid research and engaging presentation. But not always. It's hard to see a lot of attention and praise go to someone else when you deserve it, too.

This happens in science, I told him.  Lots of brilliant people do years of research and get basically no recognition for it, while others know how to work the publicity and get all kinds of attention. Sometimes the most important work never really gets proper recognition It's unfair, but it's the way of the world.

It's not just science, either. I constantly feel like other people in my line of work get all the attention and that I deserve more and yet self-promotion makes me extremely uncomfortable (the reasons behind these feelings are complicated and personal, so I won't get into that...).  You see it in science, you see it in performing arts. Hell, look at the GOP primary, where a certain someone is the front runner because he's running a campaign based on flashy bigotry and outrageous tweets.

By the time we got home, Daniel seemed to be in better spirits, but there is still something about this whole situation that I find unsettling. First, I'm not sure the school science night is all that beneficial in its current model, but unless I'm willing to start running it (I'm not, my volunteer time and energy is devoted elsewhere) I'll leave that particular issue alone.  Second, and the more troubling part of this, is his disappointment that so few people visited his poster. Why did he take it so personally?  Is he really that self-centered? Is this a symptom of a larger problem, that we humans in the western world crave attention and external validation so badly that every minute spent out of the limelight causes anxiety? That our self-esteem is dictated by the number of likes every time we post a selfie? (Not that D is old enough for a phone or social media account, but that's not far off, I realize.)  That good work is secondary to self-promotion?

It's possible I'm over thinking this, but I do see the way our evening played out as a piece of a much bigger puzzle of how we navigate the modern world, even if it's only in a metaphorical sense. It's like you have to be self-centered, willing to flash and dazzle, in order to stand out in our very crowded culture. I don't like that. It makes me want to curl up in a hole and forget about everyone and everything, but I can't, of course. I have children to raise and meals to cook and job(s) to do.

What do y'all think?


Anonymous said…
I think you are overthinking it. An important part of life is learning to accept disappointments. But the examples you gave to Daniel are excellent. I especially liked the take on politics.

Nora said…
It could be that Daniel is learning about the in crowd and the out crowd, and the toxic cliques that form. Is he aware that some kids are "cooler" or more popular than others? Maybe he was feeling excluded, rather than feeling that his work was ignored.

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