Thursday, July 17, 2008

FSP, Jr.

As a professor/parent, I have found that a typical assumption is that the offspring of professors will be somehow unusual. If a child happens to be the offspring of two professors, and if both of those professor-parents are Scientists, there is an even greater chance that people will assume the child is "freaky smart", unsocialized, and/or destined (doomed?) to be a Science Professor.

For example, I have heard various myths and rumors about my daughter:

- She spoke in complete paragraphs at [insert absurdly young age]. This was not the case. She started saying single words at a rather typical age, then started putting two or three words together, eventually working her way up to short sentences, and so on, just like most kids do. Her first complex sentence was "Let's go home to warm cats".

- She read The New York Times when she was 3 years old. This one makes me laugh. She has always loved books -- reading and being read to -- but I can assure you that The New York Times was not on her syllabus at age 3 (or 5 or 8).

And so on.

She is smart and articulate, perhaps fueling the rumors of precocious reading and speaking, but mostly I think that people assume that our daughter started speaking early and reading Paul Krugman's op-ed columns because this fits their idea of professorial offspring.

Many of us make these assumptions. Recently my husband remarked how strange it is that one of our daughter's friends is not interested in computers even though her father is a computer scientist. I said: Why should a daughter have the exact same interests as her father (or mother)? [If that were always true, my daughter would not have a favorite Beatle]

I have struggled with my own preconceptions about professor offspring. On a few occasions when professor-colleagues have told me about their young-adult kids who are failing chemistry in college or living in their garage while working in a restaurant, my first reaction is surprise. How can the daughter of such a brilliant scientist fail chemistry? How can the son of such a brilliant scientist not even go to college? But of course it is possible. Our kids are not us, and this is a good thing.

There are days when my daughter has to come to the office with me, but on these occasions, we keep a low profile. I vividly recall incidents when the wife of one of my Science professors in college would bring her two young sons to campus and even into some of the laboratory sessions. She delighted in showing that her 7-year old knew more about Science than some of the undergraduates in the class.

Needless to say, she and her offspring were rather well loathed. I don't think I am in danger of perpetuating this type of behavior. However proud I am of my smart and interesting daughter, I have not been even the slightest bit tempted to humiliate any of my students.

Years ago, my daughter had a serious talk with me and gently broke the news to me about her career plans. She said "Mommy, I am interested in science and I am glad that you are a scientist, but I do not want to be a scientist." I said that of course this was fine with me and I just wanted her to be happy and find something that interested her and of course I didn't expect her to like the same things as her dad and me blah blah blah, but I asked her, just out of curiosity, why she had decided at such an early age that science was not for her. She said "I am more interested in people than in science things."

Her thoughts have evolved somewhat over the years as she has realized that some scientists do research involving people, but I think it very unlikely that she will be a scientist. I hope that she will always know something about science and be interested in it, but of course it is fine with me if she isn't a scientist, as long as she instead becomes President of the United States.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I asked her, just out of curiosity, why she had decided at such an early age that science was not for her. She said 'I am more interested in people than in science things.'"

I, also a daughter of a professor, did not feel this way until I reached my current esteemed rank of Graduate Student. I think your daughter *is* precocious.

In all seriousness, the children of intelligent, hard-working people generally do start off with some advantages in life (both genetic and environmental), including having pretty good role models. And sometimes, being "freaky smart" and/or unsocialized can be heritable (for instance, have a look at research into Asperger's syndrome). It may be annoying, but isn't really surprising, that people have generalized their casual observations of correlations between parents and children into a concrete belief: that it is a Law of Nature that "the offspring of professors will somehow be unusual".

Maybe your daughter (and I) will come around to science again in the end. Who knows? In the meantime, we can both be glad that we are not pastor's kids!

PhysioProf said...

Are you going to explain to your daughter that becoming President of the United States is much less about being interested in people than it is about being able to lie to people incessantly day in and day out, telling them what they want to hear, and lying to them about what the world has in store for them, as well as pretending to cater to the whims of the most depraved social/political bottom-feeders in our nation--the heirs to slavery and Jim Crow.

Anonymous said...

This is one I grapple with. My kids are definitely interested in science, but who wants to be like their parents. I worry they may chose a different line just to be unlike us and make a big career mistake. Besides I am not the best role model for success in science when I'm constantly dealing with the BS that goes on in academia as you described in one of your previous posts. Reminds me of when one of my grad students told me she wanted to have a life, unlike me always working in my office.

Average Professor said...

I grew up in a college town where professor offspring were more of the norm than the exception (though my own parents did not work at the university at all). It never occurred to me that they might be a class apart from any of the rest of the youngsters. And of course many of my colleagues have kids, and it never occurred to me that THEY might be a class apart, either.

But then again, having grown up in that college town and then coincidentally become a college professor . . . when people hear where I'm from, they assume that my parents were also academics, and are always surpised to hear they weren't.

sandy shoes said...

It is fine with me if my daughters don't have become scientists, as long as they don't go into advertising.

anon said...

Given the average age of presidents, I doubt she'll have even a shot at president until she's 50. I'd focus on more early age milestones if I were you. Getting into Yale and becoming a lawyer gets you on your way to president.

In other news, I read a Yahoo news item a year back, that lamented the fact that most kids under ten do not want to be POTUS anymore. Only a generation ago, most kids under ten wanted to be POTUS. This apparently has some important ramifications for society, but me and Yahoo News weren't too clear on what those ramifications were.

anon said...

"Are you going to explain to your daughter that becoming President of the United States is much less about being interested in people than it is about being able to lie to people incessantly day in and day out, telling them what they want to hear, and lying to them about what the world has in store for them, as well as pretending to cater to the whims of the most depraved social/political bottom-feeders in our nation--the heirs to slavery and Jim Crow."

Now now, physioprof. That particular speech is usually saved for the teenage years. Followed by: 'Considering your current behavior and disregard for your parents and siblings, that job will be right up your alley'.

Aceon said...

My niece (age 10) recently told me she wanted to go into my field of science, which was heartwarming, and probably will last for about a month. It's a nice form of affirmation though, even if its fleeting. Maybe being like your aunt is preferable to being like your parents!

Oh, and as a professor's kid and a preacher's kid, I am afraid I perpetuated the stereotype by being kind a strange child.

Dr. K said...

I once overheard the following conversation between two of my colleagues in electrical engineering:

A: I think my son is going to major is some kind of history.

B: My daughter wants to be a fashion designer.

A: Sigh. The diffusion constant of our children is too large.

Becca said...

So why is science structured around things rather than people?

I mean, I understand why it's nice for some people that science can be predominantly about abstract ideas (I'm not trying to do away with abstract mathematicians!). I just don't see why all of science should have that trend.

In the recent kerfuffle over the NYT "news" story, I couldn't help but feel like the premise of "objects vs. people" = "science vs. humanities" is wrong.

In biomedical science (which is largely done in teams), what if we started looking for people in the top 0.01% of interpersonal ability instead of the top 0.01% of spatial rotation ability? Would we have fewer chiral-orientation-specific patents for drugs, but more development of drugs people actually want and need?

Kids should develop their own identities- ideally without excessive influence (in either direction!) from their parents' choices.
I can understand your daughter's view of how the system is (and she undoubtably has unusual insight into the scientific lifestyle!).
But I always wonder about how the system could be .

JRB said...

In the book "Freakinomics", the authors examine all the things that parents try to do to make their kids smarter (i.e. cultural enrichment activities, museums, reading to the fetus in the womb). The findings from the book are pretty much that parents with high IQs have kids with high IQs, regardless of the 15 million extra ciricular activities you make your kids do.

Anonymous said...

Oh, come now, physioprof, all jobs have their dark sides. Do you tell your kids that being a scientist is all about grubbing for money and scooping your colleagues and making sure that those young whipper-snappers you trained never compete with you?

MScGirl said...

That's all well and good, but 99% of children change their career plans several times. I don't think you can predict where a kid will end up.

Of course, saying that, I'm the child of biologists, and where do I end up? Applied science! Here's the thing - I was pushed into the higher-level science classes and all that, but really, the reason I'm a geologist today is because at some point in high school I decided I didn't want to eek out a precarious existence as a writer.

Mani said...

This isn't pointed at anyone here. Honestly. But, tangentially, I saw something that reminded me of an old chestnut...

"How can the daughter of such a brilliant scientist fail chemistry? How can the son of such a brilliant scientist not even go to college? But of course it is possible. Our kids are not us, and this is a good thing."

This would be more accurate is scientific aptitude were known to be more based in genetic inheritance than anything else.

I am still disappointed (no longer surprised, though) when those raised by intelligent people fail to live up to their upbringing. For the same reason, I am disappointed when my intelligent friends subscribe to any religious beliefs.

The reason is that intellectual acuity is driven by methods of thinking, not schools of thought. The reality is that the majority of our school systems are an absolute joke. People who develop the techniques to garner them the capacity to excel will generally demonstrate that they CAN excel, whether or not they do so in the same manner as their parents.

These are things parents should imbue in their children. Smart parents should, incredible "environmental" obstacles notwithstanding, have smart children. In the absence of such obstacles, the failure to pass on basic methods of reasoning which allow their child to succeed in an increasingly bureaucratic and mediocre intellectual environment could only conceivably be the failure of the parents.

Again, all of this is invalidated if intellectual capacities are by far more governed by innate heritage than experience. However, that seems to not be the case.

Smart parents can have smart children that are still not like them (as with the blogger here). Declining to push a child's intelelctual capacity because "they're not us" isn't only fallacious - it's shameful.

To hyperbolize it: When plausible alternatives exist, there is no reason to permit stupidity. Ever. Least of all with the beings you are responsible for raising to live in this world.

Angie said...

One of my coworkers is an engineer, as is her husband. Their daughter always insisted she would never be an engineer. Taking career aptitude tests as a high school freshman, engineering came up as her best fit. She took the test again and tried not to give the "engineer answers" and ended up being placed even more strongly as an engineer.

Sometimes we just can't escape our nature and nuture! :)

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

POTUS? Really now, FSP. Now she'll have to make straight C's in college and pass the beer-swilling-bbq-buddy test just to live up to your expectations. Some of that (especially the straight C's) is a lot harder than science.

CAE said...

I've had the following conversation about a billion times:

Friend of parents: "What are you studying / going to study at university?"
Me: "Genetics"
FOP: "Really?! But both your parents are language teachers! Maybe you should study the genetics of that! Hahahahahahaha.
Me: Yes. Ha. Indeed.

Beans said...

Parents expectations are always going to be different from a child's dreams or desires. Sadly some parents don't realise this and their "imaginary planned out world for the kids" ends up making the kids lives more difficult.

Should a child have to fight for his/her dreams? I mean, so what if the child will end up regretting certain decisions. At the end of the day they will be his regrets and he won't be holding anyone responsible for what he was unable to do.

Sorry for that mini-outburst. I can understand why parents have their dreams, but they have lived their lives and made the decisions which gave them kids too! They should not try to relive through their children's lives. (There is a difference between a parent forbidding her kid to smoke, and from choosing her future career and making ever decision for her).

I guess some parents are just over protective and can't face the facts that their kids have grown up.

Lisa said...

As an anthropology student, I can assure you that your daughter can have both an avid interest in people and a career in science.

I don't know how often you read over old posts, but I want to thank you for your interesting, thoughtful writing.