Father Knows Best?

This article in today's Washington Post cracked me up. It is a story about all the bs answers that fathers make up when they don't know the answers to their kids questions while visiting museums and other tourist sites in DC. My favorite:

John Adami would probably know exactly what McLean means when she laments a museum's "intimidating mantle of authority." The Denton, Tex., dad was visiting Washington's museum row with his wife and five kids last week and had been fielding questions by the minute.

"It's a humbling experience," Adami said in front of the lunar landing display shortly after making a hash of explaining the Apollo programs. "It makes you question your intelligence after a while."

He turned slightly away from the family. "I've even been making up my own words," he said.

The story about the docent's hotline at the end is pretty funny too.

In honor of Father's Day, I invite all you dads out there to provide your best bs answers that you have given in response to one of your kid's questions like those in the story--but only if you got away with it.

Blue (mail):
Actually, I'm going to post the bs that my father taught me and that I believed for years.

Here, according to my father, as the words to out national anthem:

Oh say can you see
Any red bugs on me?
If you do, take a few,
So they won't land on you!

Of course, the best I ever heard was an old friend of mine whose father told her the world was in black and white before the 1960s....
6.16.2007 4:37pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I was at the San Diego Zoo with the kids in January. it was mating season. One turtle claim up behind another turtle and, well, you know. Not my daughter, but another kid standing next to me asked "Mister, what is that turtle doing." The crowd around got silent waiting for my answer. I responded by saying "Oh, he's scratching her back." Everyone busted out laughing. The kid then asked, "how do you know it's a he or she?" I said, "Go ask your Mom!" and walked away from him smiling.
6.16.2007 4:56pm
JosephSlater (mail):

That "world was black and white before the 1960s" bit comes from Calvin and Hobbes, which is a great treasure-trove of hilariously bad/inaccurate information passed from father to son.
6.16.2007 5:12pm
gerard (mail):
I couldn't find that particular Calvin, but here is a partial transcript along with some other bits of wisdom from his dad: 6174/jokes/calvin-hobbes-science.htm
6.16.2007 5:43pm
gerard (mail):
remove the space before "6174/" in the link

never linked before, don't know how, and gave up trying to comply with the instructions
6.16.2007 5:46pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
I'm not a father, but I doubt I'll fall into this trap. I think parents do their kids a great disservice by pretending to know it all.

I know that my parents both knew a lot, but when they didn't they said so, and turned around to work with me to find the answer. It taught me that I can learn what I don't know. Answers from parents, even if they're right, don't carry the realization that the parents had to learn it themselves. Yes, you might not know as much as Dad does now, but someday you will, and more.

It isn't answers that make good science (or any other branch of knowledge), it's curiosity.
6.16.2007 6:05pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
gerard: as a case in point to my previous comment, the first one on that list:

Calvin: How do they know the load limit on bridges, Dad?
Dad: They drive bigger and bigger trucks over the bridge until it breaks. Then
they weigh the last truck and rebuild the bridge.

I read that one and it made me wonder what the real answer was. So I asked my parents. They didn't know offhand, so they suggested I call my grandfather, who'd been an engineer (first with the Army Corps of Engineers, then laying out a lot of the railroad tracks through Minnesota and North Dakota). And indeed, he had the answer. To this day there's a lot I don't know (even in my chosen field) but I know who to ask, and that there's no shame in consulting the experts.
6.16.2007 6:10pm
Brent Michael Krupp (mail):
In this era of the internet and Google there's just no excuse for making up answers to questions. You can *always* look it up later.
6.16.2007 6:24pm
KevinQ (mail) (www):
John Armstrong,
All that, and you're not going to tell us the real answer?

6.16.2007 6:26pm
Fred Beukema (mail):
I'm a structural engineer, but I'll let John Armstrong go ahead and pass along the answer to the bridge thing. It's less exciting than you may think.

I got angry about father-child misinformation once at a museum. I was on spring break during my first year of grad school, and visited some friends in Chicago. One of them worked at the Field Museum of Natural History, so I went. While in the Egyptian exhibit, a little girl of about 4 years asked her father what was going on in a diorama depicting scenes from the Book of the Dead.

The very clear and concise caption described how the heart of a departed soul, or ka, is weighed against a feather. If the heart is lighter, the ka may proceed into the underworld. If not, the soul is immediately devoured by a crocodile-headed monster, and may never rest.

The father skipped the reading: "They're dancing."
6.16.2007 7:38pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Museums and zoos are the two best places for overhearing misinformation given by parents to kids. "Um, it's a . . . kind of . . . a deer [or monkey]."
6.16.2007 7:45pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Actually, the bit I was remembering is on that website (thanks for the link!). It's actually better than I remembered it:

C: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they
have color film back then?
D: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs ARE in color. It's just the
WORLD was black and white then.

C: Really?
D: Yep. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was
pretty grainy color for a while, too.

C: That's really weird.
D: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.

C: But then why are old PAINTINGS in color?! If the world was black and
white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?
D: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.

C: But... but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn't their
paints have been shades of gray back then?
D: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else in the '30s.

C: So why didn't old black and white photos turn color too?
D: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?
6.16.2007 7:48pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
My dad, who was raised Catholic to be extremely uptight about public discussions of sex, had a problem when I got to be about 12. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to know from him.

'No,' I said, 'I think I've got it down.'

'Well,' he said, 'anything else you need to know, you can learn at the poolhall.'

When I got kids of my own, any question they asked, they got as straight an answer as I knew how to give.
6.16.2007 7:50pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
While living in London a some years ago, I took my then-eight-year-old son to see a film at a cinema just off Leicester Square. We made our way up the stairs from the lobby toward the screen. On a landing midway, there was a vending machine.

The machine was offering flavored condoms. Son got the flavors right--not very different from what you find on potato chips in the UK--but couldn't figure out just what it was being sold.

He accepted, for the time being, that they were balloons for adults.
6.16.2007 8:22pm
Tyrone Slothrop (mail) (www):

I bs my kids so relentlessly than they caught on long ago and now do not believe me when I tell them the truth.
6.17.2007 12:02am
Years ago, I was once buying some fishing gear with my brother and his six year old son. Without thinking I held up a bag of white rubbery grubs and said "Wow, you can now fish with sperm." My nephew looked up at me and innocently asked me what was sperm. I told him it was a "noxious chemical like benzine". Sometime I wonder if he remembers.
6.17.2007 12:08am
AppSocRes (mail):
About maximum loads on bridges: I always assumed that they were calculated using standard formulas for truss strengths, finite element methods, etc. Will some structural engineer please clarify, lest I mislead some inquisitive child in the future.
6.17.2007 12:29am
George from T:
My kids asked why we invaded Iraq. I told them there were weapons of mass destruction there. Those suckers still believe it.
6.17.2007 12:32am
hey (mail):
AppSocRes: yeah, tables and calculations, with a big safety factor thrown in. The joke is that your safety factor is inversely correlated to GPA - but we all know that that effect is swamped by the GPA of the people actually installing the thing, so best to be very cautious.

Tribology and other materials science research do pretty much follow Calvin's Dad's routine. It's just that they do it for components and then designers will do it for physical and/or computational models of the specific bridge.

One thing you should always include in your calculations: allow for a labor dispute during construction. A bridge that fell in Montreal September 30/06 failed due to bad methods and materials. There was a strike (and some Mob stuff) during construction, and the bridge wasn't built as designed. 30 years later the bridge falls and people die... gross up that safety factor!
6.17.2007 2:08am
Alaska Jack (mail):
Enjoyed the Calvin &Hobbes references above. I'm sure I'm not the only VC reader who read the post and immediately thought: "Solar Wind."

- AJ
6.17.2007 3:00am
Ernest Gudath (mail):
We were having guests over for dinner and I made a quick trip to the Publix for some anchovy paste and cream cheese for stuffed celery. We were standing in the checkout line:

Lisa: Daddy, what's anchovy paste?

Me: Well, Honey, that's when your anchovies are coming apart and you need something to stick 'em back together with.

Lisa: Oh.

The lady in line ahead of us turned and gave me a look that was absolutely priceless.
6.17.2007 10:49am
Charlie Hallinan (mail):
When my dad got a question to which he didn't know the answer, his usual response was, "Well, I could tell you the answer. But it would do you a whole lot more good if you looked it up for yourself." Not always, but frequently enough, he would then supervise the looking it up for myself. I've found this ploy highly useful in dealing with inquiries from my own offspring.

Early on in law school I realized that if you asked a professor a question about a legal rule you could be virtually certain that he or she didn't really know the answer if the answer you got was "It varies from state to state." I've found this one useful as an alternative for dealing with my kids' questions. If they're young enough, it even works for scientific and technical questions.
6.17.2007 11:21am
Dave N (mail):
One day while driving him somewhere, my son then age 7 or 8 asked out of the blue, "Do you and mommy do sex?"

I almost drove off the road and undoubtedly turned beet red.

He answered for me, "Oh, I guess it's none of my business."
6.17.2007 12:45pm
"Daddy, where do I come from?"
Lengthy answer, birds and bees, bulls and cows, because Mummy loves Daddy.... Why do you ask, son?
"Because Jimmy next door comes from Glasgow."
6.17.2007 1:01pm
stephen (mail):
I have a bad toe from years of sports and my wife told my daughter to ask me why I had a bad toe. I told her a bear stepped on it when I went camping and he tried to eat my food. "You're not afraid of bears??!" "No sweetie, dad isn't afraid of anything." Ok, so two lies.
6.17.2007 2:59pm
Mark Bahner (www):
Hi, I see others have noted some great science exchanges between Calvin and his Dad. Here's a whole page of them. The Q's are Calvin, and the A's are his Dad.

Calvin learns science from his wise Dad

Here are two that I particularly like:

"Q. Why does ice float?
A. Because it's cold. Ice wants to get warm, so it goes to the top of liquids to be nearer to the sun.
Q. Is that true?
A. Look it up and find out.
Q. I should just look up stuff in the first place."

"Q. How come you know so much?
A. It's all in the book you get when you become a father."
6.17.2007 3:10pm
Joel B. (mail):
I took strange offense to the article. Like it was noticing something unusual, but isn't this part of Fatherhood? The making it up as you go along shooting from the hip, and sounding like you've got everything worked out. My father did it lots, but I loved it, and we all joked about it from time to time, and I do the exact same thing, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
6.17.2007 3:31pm
Mark Bahner (www):

I took strange offense to the article. Like it was noticing something unusual, but isn't this part of Fatherhood? The making it up as you go along shooting from the hip, and sounding like you've got everything worked out.

I'm not a father, but I am an environmental engineer. When I talk to my family (parents and siblings) about environmental matters, I'm pretty careful to let them know when I DON'T know something for certain.

For example, there was the recent Supreme Court decision(s) regarding wetlands (which I see is Rapanos vs U.S.). My specialty is air, not water. And my area is technical, not legal. So I tried to make it very clear that I was giving my impression of what the issues were, and my impression of what the decision was and how it was reached. I made it very clear that if they wanted an accurate account, they should look on the Internet.

It seems to me that that's the best way to deal with kids, too. Especially kids as they get into the 7+ range. (Really little kids ask too many questions, and I can easily understand the desire to just ****make them stop***! :-))

But it's especially true that in the Google/Wikipedia/Internet era, answers are incredibly easy to obtain. And frequently it's possible to obtain both correct and incorrect answers in the Google/Wikipedia/Internet era.

So it seems to me that the best solution as kids get older than kindergarten or first grade is to encourage them to find the answers for themselves, and tell them you're interested in talking about what they find in their searches.
6.17.2007 4:40pm
Mark Bahner (www):
Heh, heh, heh!

Sorry, a bit off-topic, but now that I look for more on Rampanos vs U.S., I see this beauty on a University of Georgia (Savannah River Ecology Laboratory) webpage:

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an absolutely deplorable 5:4 decision recently. The fact that five upheld the ruling and four were against it is evidence that it was not the unanimous will of the people of the country.

"What on Earth was the Supreme Court thinking?"

So there you have it. The Supreme Court's job is to figure out what is the "will of the people of the country."

Can we check the book Calvin's father was given to see if that one is correct? ;-)
6.17.2007 4:53pm
Evan H (mail) (www):
I've never been too bad about making up answers. In fact I usually provide more information than asked for. I remember once when my youngest was about 6 or 7, she asked where babies come from. So I explained all about men and women, and the sperm and the egg, and nine months. Then after a little silence, she said, no that's not right.
6.17.2007 11:25pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I usually lay it on the line.

Did have fun when the youngest, not long after 9/11, asked what we would do if there terrorists in the neighborhood.

"Well, first I'd kill them, since I'm better armed and trained than they are. Then we'd loot their bodies of their own guns and money and anything else. Then I suppose we'd have to drag them into the desert and bury them, or else someone would ask where their guns and money had gone."
6.18.2007 2:47am
Jocelyn (mail):
My very beloved husband does this ALL THE TIME. His B.S. even has a named; we call it "Execu-speak" and you can tell when he is going into Execu-speak mode because he assumes a particular authorative stance and answers very rapidly, then looks around to see if others are buying it. I derive a great deal of amusement from this practice and find nothing wrong with it. It can be very comforting to hear the "right" answer from the person you trust the most in the world. I still remember when I was four and was offended by the fact that Babar the Elephant had a child named Alexander, so my sister (Alexandra) was represented in the books, and it wasn't fair and I very helpfully pointed this out to my father ("Daddy! That's not fair!"). My father, a professor and a linguist and a person of high moral fiber who was honest as the day is long, replied without turning a hair: "Flora means Jocelyn." I was satisfied with that information for years.
6.18.2007 8:17am
K Parker (mail):
Mark Bahner,

Wow, that's amazing.

On the other hand, if we could start with a clean slate, and only have laws where there was perfect unanimity among the citizens, we'd have a whole lot less law, wouldn't we?

Something tells me, though, that the fellow at the Herpatology Center really isn't pining for such a libertarian paradise. At the very least the law (or, rather, extension thereof) he favors certainly wouldn't pass the unanimity test.
6.18.2007 11:11am
nickjuneau24 (mail):
In my hometown there was a basketball tournament sponsered by native americans. I once asked why the natives ran the basketball tournament, and my dad told me that Indians used to fight, but now, instead of fighting, they choose to take out their tribal aggressions through basketball.
6.18.2007 11:13am
Jack Diederich (mail):
My father isn't a blog guy, so I'll answer for him:

When I was 12 I was flipping the light switch on and off to everyone's annoyance. Why? I was trying to figure out how fast electricity travels. My father told me that electricity travels at the speed of light and I left the switch alone.

This was a fine explanation for a 12 year old but later it did cause some problems for an 18 year old Electrical Engineering freshman ..
6.18.2007 12:15pm