Parenting Advice From Richard Feynman


This is going to be the first of two blog posts on a subject near and dear to my heart: early science education.

A popular trend in parenting these days are educational videos and toys aimed at unlocking you baby’s/toddler’s inner genius. They’re prolific. We certainly have a few “Baby Einstein” toys that we got as gifts – and they’re good toys.

The existence of this market points to a demand: parents want to raise smart, inquisitive children. But, the task is an overwhelming one. I would argue that, as a country, we’re having a hard time succeeding at it.

I wasn’t good at math

The number one reaction I get from people (by far) when they discover I’m a physicist is, “I always thought that was so interesting, but I was never good at the math”.

This makes me tremendously sad, because it speaks to a deep rooted self-doubt and defeatism that gets hoisted on people at a very young age. And, it’s fundamentally wrong! I will discuss this more in my next post, but it’s important to say now, because we need to know what we have to work against, when we’re raising the next generation great scientists.

Thoughts From Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman is one of the great geniuses of 20th century physics. What makes Feynman unique is that he is also arguably among the best physics communicators of the 20th century, as well. The Feynman lectures are now available online, here. If you are really ambitious and want to conquer the basics of physics, I suggest starting from the beginning and working through these. They’re unparalleled.

In this articles, I’ve posted some segments from the documentary “Richard Feynman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”, available in full, here. In these segments, Feynman reflects on his father’s parenting methods that lead Feynman on the road to becoming a great physicist. I’ll come back to this, but Feynman’s dad was not a physicist or scientist of any sort – he was a military uniform salesman.


Naming things is not the same as understanding them

Math and science cannot be done by wrote

I remember in my own elementary school education being told that there is a “right way” to solve certain problems, and when I found a better or different method, being told I couldn’t do it that way. Math is hard enough without manufactured constraints. Adding an unnecessary distinction of “right” and “wrong” methods is just wrong. Here’s Feynman reflecting on the silliness of math being treated as formulaic:

You don’t need to be skilled in math or science to raise a child who is…

…But you need to be genuine

While I think the Baby Einstein/Mozart products are perfectly respectable children’s toys, I do take issue with one thing about them:

I’m worried at the thought that many parent’s buy Baby Mozart and play it in their kids rooms, as a substitute for listening to Mozart themselves. It sort of goes without saying, but good parenting is about living the values you want your children to have. Intellectual exploration with your kids needs to be a joint effort.

Feynman’s dad was not necessarily scientifically or mathematically gifted. And, yet he was profound and sincere in how he raised young Richard. That’s what should shine through from these video clips. Being scientific means being inquisitive and being willing to struggle with really understanding things. One of the fun things about you children is they get this naturally. In attempting to raise a “Baby Einstein” or “Baby Feynman” you only have to encourage what is already there. And, by being genuinely interested yourself, raising a child is a way to relearn things that you may have missed the first time around, and have fun in the process. I’ve certainly found this to be the case.

In reflecting on my own upbringing, my parents used to joke about the problems they had with high school math, that they didn’t know where I came from. But, as far back as I can remember, they always supported and prioritized my scientific curiosity. My scientific explorations were never alone. I would not be where I am in my career without them. In addition, while mathematics was not their cup of tea, they nonetheless had a wide range of intellectual interests that they passionately pursued. In so doing, they gave me a model for how to pursue my own passions (h/t Mom and Dad).


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