While I love this blog, I now pretty much only write on my other two blogs: BirdingBlogs.com and 10,000 Birds - I would love to see you there!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Why don't biologist parents have biologist children?

I find it a great irony that most biologists dedicate their lives to developing a love for biology and trying to spread the good word and help others see the value of their beloved science. but yet, they tend to fail miserably when it comes to their own children. Biologist parents very rarely produce biologist progeny.

I have spent a good deal of time wondering about this and I am starting to think that it might be because biologist parents really really want their kids to enjoy their passions and so drum it in to them to such an extent that the younger generation just gets sick of it and runs away from the demands of the parents. the other reason could be that youths (as with adults) are most inspired by a challenge and if the youth is always in the shadow of the all-knowing adult then the challenge and desire will soon leave them.

I suspect that something similar happens with birders and that the way to encourage the sprightlier members of our society to join in our habit (sport seems like too strong a word) is not to try to teach them about it, but to find ways to use their knowledge-sucking reservoirs of brains to get them to teach us stuff about birds. Maybe to point out behaviours, or calls, or habitat selection, or to figure out what new species could be seen at a birding venue (either a new one or one visited often).

As a kid, I spent hours and hours pouring over bird books, memorizing names and pictures and generally just trying to soak up as much information as possible. My friend played Tetris and Space Invaders and, later, "Californian Games". I also did some of this, but I could never get addicted to TV games or computer games, because birds were always way too fascinating. But the thing is that it was not only because there was a whole world of information I had discovered, it was because it was a challenge to me. getting to Level 3 is one kind of challenge, but birding just seemed to me to offer a much more multi-fasceted and richer challenge because I needed to know how the birds looked, what they sounded like, where to look for them, what types of birds I could find in a particular habitat etc.
And I think crucially, my parents were also beginner birders. They had oodles of enthusiasm but they always made it seem like my brother and I were the experts and that we would be able to figure out anything. Their encouragement was subtle and behind the scenes. They never begged us to go birding with them, they asked if we would come along to help them. they asked what species we could expect to see there. and when we were there, they asked us to help them find and identify the birds so that we could make a bigger family list.

But something else I can see, looking back, is that my younger brother is now only interested in birds (as opposed to being stupid mad about them) and I think this had something to do with me being older and louder (read: domineering). Birding was not as much a challenge for him because there was always someone else trying to be right or trying to be better (sorry Barry). I suppose this is fairly typical sibling rivalry, but if we, as adults and parents maintain a position of greater knowledge or experience when birding with children, we are almost certainly going to help dampen their flame of interest.

Eddie Callaway and the others of the Birdfreak team are heavily involved in youth birding and as far as I can tell, a good number of the team members are youngsters. Check out their post on the Delaware Dunlins Youth Birding Club and how they have a whole group of youths keen on birds. They also put together a pdf file on birding with youngsters and teenagers, both available on their blog, and both well worth reading if you are interesting in birding with the younger folk.

I think my next post will be about how the Hungarians have gotten so many young people involved in birding.


kshea said...


Great post, it really resonates with me as I have two young children under the age of 3 years. Before she died Rachel Carson started a book titled "A Sense of Wonder" which talks about the first time as children we experience nature. These instances have profound effects on our awareness of the natural world.

I've found that in biology we strive to identify both the biotic and abiotic, and in doing so lessen their aesthetic value. All I can offer as to why biologists don't have children who follow suit is that perhaps having a parent who can explain away everything in nature might take the fun out of discovery.

Or perhaps it's because as a biologist they're too busy studying nature to either reproduce or spend quality time with their children to instill in them a sense of importance for the natural world.

In any case, I enjoyed reading this, keep up the good work.

(sorry I haven't been able to comment as much recently, the kids have kept me busy)


Birdfreak.com [Eddie] said...

Superb post. I went through a phase playing mostly video games but the birds brought back my sanity. There is a huge world out there to discover that is much more fascinating than what can be confined to what a programmer decides to include in a game.

Part of the bigger problem, and Last Child in the Woods does a great job discussing this, is that kids aren't allowed to be kids anymore. The woods are too "dangerous", even riding a bike in the neighborhood seems too dangerous. If we could solve this problem, I could see a huge change in the number of younger people caring for the environment.

kshea said...


Dale Forbes said...

there seem to be a lot of ironies in the way our society builds and regulates itself.
I watched a silly movie the other night "You can't mess with the Zohan" in which the lead charater's parents wanted him to stay in the Israeli army because he had a good position there - "take the safe option" they said "stay in the army". It was a good parody of how people's desire for security often involves great compromises - many of which are not acknowledged or consciously appreciated.

in our feeble attempts to protect our wonderful children, we deprive them of truly experiencing the wonders of nature. My parents never cotton-wooled us as children. We still survived. (although I am not sure how my mom survived the stress of all those little scrapes and cuts we always came home with). At any rate, it is clear to me that parents (obviously) want the best for their children and they want them to be happy, but it happiness and success are so often mis-aligned with material wealth and a safe, stable career path, rather than helping youths find their own route to their deepest happiness.

too many well-meaning parents and politicians can do just as much harm to a people as too few and it is fascinating that happiness research has shown that the happiest people in the world live in poor countries and have - relatively - little stuff.

John MacArthur said...

I can add another twist to this puzzle.
My parents were both biologists (one genetics, the other bacteriology) and of course we, as a family, always were exposed to their knowledge about the living world.
But I, as a budding scientist, was endlessly curious about how everything worked. My parents could answer my questions nicely when it came to anything biological, but failed miserably when it came to chemistry or especially physics.
If I was persistent, the best they could do was say "Well, there is the textbook I used in college" and thus I spent a lot of time trying to fathom a college-level textbook.
The rest is obvious: here I am, some 80 years later, a retired (well, not quite) physicist.
My kid brother (Robert - you may have heard of him) had no such troubles: he could learn his physics from me!

John MacArthur
Marlboro, VT

Shady Character said...

Interesting post and interesting responses. I've never really thought about it before, but I believe I was raised by "practical biologists", i.e. farmers. My parents are remarkable in that during their years farming, when I was still a kid at home, they loved and cared for the natural areas and their inhabitants on our farm as well as the cultivated fields. Every living thing was pointed out and named for us and birds got special treatment. A meal would come to a screeching halt when an Indigo Bunting was seen outside. Or my mother would come shouting into the house, "Kids! Get out here! There's a Bald Eagle up by the pond!!" I can't pass a Kestral on a roadside wire without hearing my father say "It's the smallest member of the falcon family." I don't remember ever being taught directly how interesting living things were, but looking back on it now I can see how my parents set an example for me. I wish I'd appreciated it more then, but I'm doing what I can to make up for lost time.

Steve West said...

Great post Dale, and I look forward to reading about Hungarian tactics.

I think there's a lot of truth in what you say, and having two children (boys) of my own I have often thought about the best way of bringing them up (or should it be "guiding them through growing up")with respect, if not love, for nature. I have avoided trying to make my interests an essential part of their lives, with mixed results.
Firstly, they are both in their PS (Play station)stage, although most neighbour's kids are much further into that field than they are. On the positive side we still enjoy excursions together as a family, and on our last excursion my eldest son even asked me to buy him a set of raptor identification cards, which he consulted avidly for the rest of the outing!
At school they both get the highest marks for natural sciences/biology, although they rarely ask me anything.
SUmmarising, perhaps its in the genes, and just needs the right environment in order to fluorish. The real task is knowing what the right environment is!

Dale Forbes said...

Hi Steve,
I think raptors are particularly appealing to young boys (even those with 60 years experience ;-) and it strikes me that your lads might really enjoy going out with a raptor ringer - seeing a Short-toed Eagle in the hand can only impress, and they can also present all sorts of learning and identification challenges.

I have always loved the natural sciences but I was not much of a fan of biology in high school (and the early part of Universtiy) - I hated that doing well in the subject seemed to revolve around memorizing information as opposed to understanding or thinking about systems and processes. My maths teachers in high school got me thinking. And birding was great in the same way - it got me thinking and reasoning, trying to figure out a tricky ID, searching for a particular species...

btw, have you seen BirdFreak's birding with youths guides?

Happy birding

p.s. hopefully I'll be in Cataluña again in the early part of next year

jeannette stgermain said...

Saw you several times at Joan's blog, but now I clicked on your profile and see you're European!

I am Dutch, but have lived in the US for about 20 years - not my/our plan, but now my kids have married Americans, I don't think I'm going to move back to Holland, LOL!

Interesting view you have on your parents way dealing with their children (I'm a psychologist, so I'm always interested in these things).
I'll read some more of your posts in the future (I'm packing to move to another house).