Getting a good education from our children

March 12, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

Of all the pronouncements I've ever read about family life, this is my favorite: The value of marriage, someone once pointed out, is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults.

Why am I so drawn to this observation? Because, in my case at least, it's dead on the money.

Which is to say: 20-some years ago, my children took on an undisciplined, wet-behind-the-ears candidate for adulthood and worked hard to successfully shape her into something resembling a grown-up.

And, I might add, a more interesting grown-up than she ever would have been without their unflagging input.

Here, for example, are a few of the things I've learned from my sons: Who Murray Gell-Mann is (a physicist); where Ashiya is located (outside of Osaka); what a 5.8 means to a rock climber (degree of difficulty); how to eat sea urchin (carefully); and what to do when skiing in avalanche terrain (wear your new electronic avalanche transmitter/locater.)

Were it not for my sons, I likely would know very little -- if anything -- about Mr. Gell-Mann or the geography of Japan or the etiquette of avalanche events.

Such topics, to be perfectly frank, do not fall naturally into my spheres of interest.

Or, to be more precise, they didn't until I had children.

Before children, my interests tended toward such things as: vacations, ambition, money, clothes, parties and better hair.

In other words, before children I was interested in things that had to do with: Me. Who I was. What I wanted. Where I was headed in life. What people thought of me. What I thought of me.

Strange, I know, but at the time it seemed a broad spectrum of interests.

Then my sons were born and I saw how narrow my line of vision had been. With their help, a new era began in my life. Call it: The Education of Me.

From my sons I have learned more than a little about insect collecting, harmonica playing, fishing, archery, rock climbing, physics, skiing, emergency mountain rescue, purchasing a cat in Japan, how a laser works, what a first ascent is, where to find the best bar in Key West and how to make your own backpack.

Parents, no doubt, have always learned from their children. But the world of our children seems much larger than that of previous generations, offering us even more opportunities to learn from them.

It's not unusual today for our children to work and live half-way across the world. Hardly a month goes by without bringing news that this son's friend is working in Africa or that son's classmate is living in Tibet.

A college alumni magazine features wedding photos of Rob, living now in Hong Kong, and recently married to a Chinese woman. Or of Katie, living in Prague, and engaged to a Polish mathematics teacher.

The most recent issue featured a picture of one of my own sons, attending the wedding in Kyoto of a classmate to a Japanese woman.

Our children lead lives we only dreamed of. The world is their stage. Still in their 20s, my sons' resumes are already more interesting than mine.

They know more than I did at their age, too. And they are willing, no, eager, to teach me what they know.

And, in one of the rare instances where our needs dovetailed, I am willing, no, eager, to learn from them.

Sometimes I'm surprised at just how much my sons have broadened my field of vision. In a bookstore not too long ago I found myself buying two books: "Fear of Physics" and "Modern Japan."

In Paris last year I found myself seeking out a physics lab I'd heard a son talk about.

And in Oxford I made a special trip to the Ashmolean Museum to see some rare Japanese prints of ancient Toyko. Which, by the way, was called Edo, not Toyko, in those days.

The world of our children is much larger, as I said, than ours ever was. And I used to worry that I was being left behind. I worried about losing touch. It took me a long time to get used to the idea that my sons and I no longer live in the same time zone.

It took even longer to deal with the idea that every time I talk to the younger son, it's already tomorrow. For him, anyway.

But then the talk starts and the ideas go back and forth and I'm asking questions and they're answering and, happily, the connection is stronger than ever.

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