Why I Let My Daughter Try To Eat A Rock


My parents raised me to experiment with my world, which explains why, before I turned 13, I'd colored my jeans orange, lit a rocket indoors and played The Science Game with a fork that had been heating on a burner for roughly half an hour.

Result? Insta-blisters.

Other result? Learning that fire makes everything ... hot.

Because my parents figured that kids are hard to break, I spent most of my childhood learning just that. Amazingly, I've never broken myself.

When it came time a few years ago to decide what kind of parents we'd be, my wife and I started making plans based on developmental stages.

Then Daughter 1.0 was born, and we discovered something important.

That's not who we are as parents.

Our kid is a living, changing things, so we'll live and change with her, with parenting books in the room but not in front of us. And unless the lesson will hurt her, we'll let her discover on her own why certain things are silly.

Eating rocks is just such a thing, as I was reminded recently, when Daughter 2.0 tried to eat a rock.

Daughter 2.0 is at that stage, defined as between about 5 months and about when you die, at which you see a new thing and you want to pick it up and explore it. She still explores with her mouth. And her primary concern, at the advanced age of 14 months is usually: Can I eat it?

So yesterday, when we were outside playing, she sat in the dirt, picked up a rock and licked it.

Instead of saying "This does not taste like one of the foods I have approved for ingestion, Daddy Unit," she paused and adopted a quizzical look. She didn't look for me, and I didn't present myself as someone to guide her exploration. I just stood behind her, out of her view, and watched, mostly to make sure she didn't do something bad, like play The Science Game with the rock and her eye.

She licked it again, then bit it, then withdrew it from her mouth.

Again she paused and looked carefully at it. Then she flipped it over and licked it to see if it was perhaps not entirely rockish everywhere.

Finally she flipped it back over to its original side, bit it hard (perhaps testing to see if it was an unusually thick cracker), released it from her mouth, dropped it on the ground and moved on with her life.

Result: That rock is not food.

Other result: She will never have to run that experiment with that rock again, and after a few more rocks test negative for foodliness, she'll be able to conclude her clinical trials, publish A Field Guide To Inedible Rocks and move on to testing grass, twigs and other things that are food, but not for her.

So why did I let my daughter try to eat a rock, and why do I let her do other things I am pretty sure won't work out for her?

A few reasons:

1) Being told you're not allowed to do something is among the most exciting reasons to try it. Underage drinking, anyone? Riding a bicycle without a helmet? Running across the road? We want those things to be clearly stupid, not illicit and exciting.

We want our kids to experience good and bad things in life. If all we do is forbid them from doing anything we know is bad, we cheat them of the experience of learning how to judge for themselves. That's not parenting; it's sequestering. Now both of our kids know that rocks aren't food because both of them have tried to eat rocks. Nobody can cajole them into eating a “forbidden” rock now because nothing about the experience is exciting. We've removed the authority-challenging aspect.

2) She wasn't going to get hurt. The rock was too big for her mouth, and I was there. At worst, she might have been particularly stubborn and shoved it in her mouth, determined to bite it to death, like it was that unusually thick cracker. At that point, she almost surely would have needed my help, and she would have cried and flapped her arms -- her signal that Something is Wrong.

And at that point … she'd have learned the same lesson -- that rocks are not food.

3) Actual bad things are forbidden, and we limit the extent to which our kids can experience their harm. For example, the oven can get really hot -- life-threateningly hot. So the first time one of them wants to play The Oven Game, we'll let them touch the outside, which feels plenty hot to them (though not harmfully so), but ain't no way we're letting 'em inside the oven to experience just how horrible 400 degrees feels. That's not experiential learning -- it's child abuse (at best).

Life is a science experiment. My kids are scientists. If I want them to be able to run their own experiments without me there, I have to make sure they learn how to test their environment.



Patrick Hopkins is father to two, husband to one, worker to two and master to none. In his spare time, he ... hah. HAHAHAHA. His kids are 3.5 and a little past 1. He either sleeps or has sleep-deprived spare time, though he writes so long you'd think he was single and unemployed.

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