My son Marco (4) walked over to the swings at Johnson Park in Palo Alto this past Saturday. He put his hand on one of them and backed off, saying, “It’s wet!” I didn’t say a word. I wanted to see what he would do.
Immediately after that, a mom and her daughter, about the same age as Marco, walked over. The mom saw the same dew on the swings and said, “Oh, no. The swings are wet. I guess you can’t swing today.”
I watched them as they talked about it. The girl was sad. In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, Marco had slipped outside my gaze. A few moments later, he showed up again at a swing with a piece of cardboard in his hand. He had grabbed one from the foot of the cement slide.
“It’s OK. I can sit on this.” He put the cardboard on top of the swing seat, jumped up by himself, and started swinging.
That was an amazing moment for me. Certainly, I was very proud of Marco, but also, it made me think about how parents and kids think differently, and how kids, if given some space to think for themselves, can often be smarter.
This story reminds me of two others. First, there’s the story (an urban legend?) of the 18-wheeler truck that was stuck at an underpass because it was too tall to make it through. Many firemen, policemen, and other adults gathered there, trying to figure out how to get it out. They came up with elaborate schemes to cut off the part of the truck stuck underneath or get a high-powered tow truck to pull it back. Meanwhile, a small child walking around there had a better idea: let the air out of the tires. The tires were just his height, while all the adults were looking right over them.
Then, there’s the story of my father and his friends and the nickel. (See the video where he recounts this himself here.) They had collected junk earlier that day to earn 25 cents to enter a movie (one kid got in and let the others in through the fire escape!). They had an extra nickel, and on the way home, one of the kids was playing with it and dropped it down a sewer grate.
The kids were very, very determined to get that nickel back. They tried and tried to get the grate up, but weren’t able to. Then, they got a better idea. They found sticks lying by the road, and with some string one of the kids had in his pocket, they tied these together. Then, one of the kids got some chewing gum from the curb and put it in his mouth and chewed it to make it sticky. They put the gum at the end of the stick and were able to extract the nickel with the stick-and-gum contraption. Then, they took the nickel, bought a candy bar, and split it between the five of them!
Just imagine what would happen if a kid were walking today with his or her parents and dropped a nickel down a sewer grate. The kid would look down the grate to see the nickel, the parent would immediately say the nickel’s lost, and force the kid, probably crying, to let it go and keep walking.