#37: Question Authority

Yesterday you brought home some of your schoolwork, and after reviewing it I paused at an extra credit question that was in your science test.

“Which is heavier (has more mass): one pound of feathers or one pound of marbles?”

Of course,  my first reaction was that the question conflates weight and mass. (One of the few things my physics degree is good for.) But disregarding that and making assumptions that the two masses were subject to the same gravitational acceleration, your answer was on the nose. ” TRICK QUESTION!” you wrote. “One pound of anything weighs the same as one pound of something else.”

Perfect answer!

Too bad the teacher thought it was wrong. “Marbles have more mass” she writes in the margin, underlining the words “feathers” and “marbles” in the question. As if to say, “Duh!”

But you were absolutely correct.

We reviewed the test together, where you shared that you had THOUGHT you had gotten it right, but was confused why it was marked wrong. I could see the gears in your head working through the possibilities, so I just went ahead and said it. “Yeah, she got it wrong. You got the correct answer. Sometimes adults get it wrong.”

I remember when I found out that my teachers were fallible. It was twice in the same week in the 6th grade.  After watching a particularly engaging episode of Superfriends (in which Wonder Woman was able to triangulate some sort of radio signal  by measuring the strength of that signal from two different locations),  I excitedly asked my math teacher about it. (You know the “triangle” in triangulation).  She told me in no certain terms that it wasn’t a thing. Then I went to my science teacher  (who I found out later complained to my dad that I asked too many questions) and she told me the same thing. (No web searches available at that time for me to figure out that it was, indeed, a thing. )

That same week, we had to do a book report for the reading teacher. I used the phrase “generous to a fault”, because I had read it somewhere and understood the context. When I read it out loud to the class, she told me that she had never heard that phrase before. I tried to explain what I had thought it meant, but she insisted it wasn’t a thing. (Well, it is a thing.)

I’m glad I learned that relatively early on in my education, and I’m glad you did too. Teaching is a damn tough job, and the expectations on them are so much higher than I was a child. But it’s an important developmental milestone to stop blindly believing that what you’re being taught is the absolute truth,  That’s not to say you shouldn’t accept information if it runs counter to what’s already in there, but thinking CRITICALLY about what what’s in front of you is a vital step toward independence in the world.

And what’s true for teachers is true for any type of authority you’ll face. Your future bosses. The government. And yes, even us.

We already try to operate at home under the general provision that while your mama and I are in charge, we’re not always right.  We try not to parent by fiat (although when you’re younger and your understanding was incomplete, we might have had to resort to that). But now that you’re able to understand, instead of being autocratic, we try to be authoritative. The difference between the two is night and day, even though they’re often considered synonymous. Autocratic is “Do what I say because I say it”, and authoritative is “Do what I say because you can trust me.” One is based largely in fear, the other in love.

Some families we know may recoil from this because order and obedience is central to their family dogma.  But I find it’s the fragile ego that can’t admit their mistakes, and the energy to maintain that facade of infallibility can be blinding and consuming. It’s an illusion because it is an impossible standard to adhere to. It may be why my teachers couldn’t admit that there were things beyond their knowledge that their student may know, or why your teacher still hasn’t answered my email about your test a week later.

On the contrary, because your mama and  I try to apologize when we get things wrong  – and admit when we got it wrong – it allows you to trust us a little more. If anything,  I think sharing our fallibility increases our authority. I wouldn’t have thought less of my teachers if they said, “Hrm, I haven’t heard of that. Let’s check it out!” or if your teacher came back and said, “Got that one wrong! We’re going to spend some time in class to go over it.”

We try to never be afraid of your questions, even if they are challenging. But don’t ask us about the exact bio-mechanics (“how exactly do the daddy genes get inside the mama?”) of the “birds and the bees” JUST yet, okay?