To preface today’s thoughts on raising the geeks of the next generation, allow me a small aside back to JordanCon 2011, where I was the toastmaster. Now, JordanCon has a history of opening ceremonies that are consistently off-the-wall and zany, but I think I may have surprised everyone at the end of this year’s opening with a serious speech. (Note: this was five minutes after I had Rickroll’d the entire convention.) If you are interested, you can read the speech here, or watch the whole opening ceremonies here.
But, I digress. The reason I bring this up is because I talked about how Robert Jordan had influenced me as a writer, and in particular, how I loved that he asked questions in his stories without giving answers. And, I have to say, I’ve come to realize that this same method is important to the raising of inquisitive, spec-fic children.
See, most of the shows and stories my children watch and read have a very clear-cut morality. There is a good guy that has to learn a lesson and overcome the bad guy, or in the case of older fairy tales, there is a main character that didn’t learn a lesson and suffers for it. I’m looking at you, Gingerbread Man.
These kinds of stories are well and good, don’t get me wrong. I can hardly argue with a story that says you should listen to your parents or not steal, or on the grander scheme, fight for good and oppose evil. These tales have their places in adult fiction just as much as in children’s fiction. But an important component is still missing, and that is fiction that exercises the mind in both adult and child. (To stay on theme, we’ll stick with exercising and expanding the child’s mind.) They’re reading and watching engaging stories, isn’t that enough?
I say no. Because, in the end, those kinds of stories still akin to programming for a machine. They tell the kid what to do, they don’t make them think. Or when they do claim to make the children think, it is in a very analytical, schoolhouse style, like in Blue’s Clues or similar shows where children are asked questions with obvious, singular answers.
What they lack (and that I am now striving to give them) are stories and questions with open-ended answers. And, to be completely ludicrous, I shall give you an example from Spongebob Squarepants.
Yes, the inane and somewhat dystopian story of a sponge living under the sea has an open-ended morality, even if it is cleverly disguised. Witness Plankton. Sure, on the surface he is a rank villain, an evil genius out to enslave Bikini Bottom and enforce his will over the ocean. But, I ask my children, why?
Plankton, if you haven’t watched the show, is also a rather small bottom-dweller. (He is, in fact, his namesake.) He is mocked for his intelligence (in that his ideas are over-grand and complicated) and his size. This leads, naturally, to the trope of the Napoleon Complex. And thus, he has his computer-wife and a series of inane plans to antagonize the title character and his employer, Mr. Krabs.
But, is he evil? Can one not see the why of Plankton’s actions? He is ostracized and pushed out of society, so of course he is going to retaliate. Not that his retaliation is right or just, but it is, in a Machiavellian sense, justified. I brought this up to my five year old, and it elicited the title of today’s post.
When he told me he wass confused, my first instinct was to try and guide him. To tell him what is right and what isn’t. But, honestly, I didn’t want to. I told him to just think about it. I never got a solid answer out of him, but that isn’t bad. There is nothing wrong with having unanswered questions in your heart. If anything, it is that seed of doubt from which compassion and conscience spring. I would rather my child grow up with a doubt about what is right than a surety of it. Because if there is one sure thing that will make a child want to learn and experience more, it is an unanswered question. And, as life is wont to do, for every answer they find, it will come with two more questions. And asking questions, I think, is at the heart of becoming a geek.
Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and Questioner (no, not a Wheel of Time, Questioner, but you still better walk in the Light). He is currently writing and posting an Illustrated Serial Steampunk novel called The Tijervyn Chronicles. And, if you are so inclined, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.