Parenting lesson #43: Our reactions matter: the best exhibit ever

Today is world famous anthropologist and U.N. Ambassador of Peace Jane Goodall’s birthday. I can’t think of a better way to honor her than to tell this story.

Before the world came to a standstill, I had twice visited the National Geographic Museum temporary exhibit “Becoming Jane” in Washington, D.C. It is an incredibly well-done biography of Jane Goodall’s life — one that left an impact on me far greater than those of environmental and scientific knowledge.

“Most people laughed at me, but not my mother.”

From the beginning of the exhibit, where you are welcomed with a video message narrated by Jane herself, she mentions her mother’s influence. “I didn’t set out to study chimpanzees. My childhood dream was to go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them. Most people laughed at me, but not my mother. She said, ‘Jane, if you really want something, and you work hard and take advantage of opportunities and never give up, you will find a way.’ And I did.”

I knew from that moment there would be a message for me as a parent in this exhibit. Sure enough, the most impactful story was only a few steps into the room, about Jane’s early childhood life.

Jane went missing for a day.

Right now, I imagine most of us are letting our children play outside more than they usually would, and sometimes unattended. I’ve lost sight of my kids before and had to go looking for them. In a matter of seconds of searching, I go from calm to complete panic: I can hear my rapid heartbeat in my ears, my stomach drops like I’m on a roller coaster, and my mind imagines kidnapping, hyperfocusing on every car that’s moving. For Vanna Morris-Goodall, the same thing happened, except when Jane was five, she went missing all day.

Have you ever lost one of your children for a day? I tried to wrap my brain around what it would be like to spend hours in that panic mode. I simply couldn’t. The amazing news is that (obviously) Jane eventually reappeared. Her mother’s response?

A gentle “Where have you been?”

“I have been in a hen house.” Jane’s interest in studying nature was innate. She couldn’t understand how there was a hole large enough on a chicken for an egg to come out, so she waited hours in the hen house for one to come in and lay an egg. Afterwards, she ran to tell her mother about what she had seen. Her mother – who had been frantically searching for her – listened to her patiently, encouraging Jane’s inquisitiveness. In wisdom somewhat beyond my comprehension, she didn’t scold or punish, but rather encouraged.

These reactions could have changed the trajectory of Jane’s life.

I would love to say my reaction would have been gentle like Vanna’s. But I think, knowing myself, and knowing that when my daughter was five, I also had a 3 1/2-year-old toddler and an infant, I would have been more hysterical. In my stress and under adrenaline, I might have responded with complete irrationality, such as “Oh thank God you’re alright! Now go to your room because you’re not going anywhere out of my sight ever again!” Or quite possibly I would have detailed to her five-year-old mind all the terrible things that could happen if she ran off like that again.

These reactions would have made her feel ashamed for her curious nature and quite possibly changed the entire trajectory of her life. Jane said about the incident, “A different kind of mother might have crushed that scientific curiosity, and maybe I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done.”

I left the exhibit wondering what the world would be like if there were more parents like Jane Goodall’s.

Her mother’s encouragement didn’t end there. When Jane was first granted the chance to study chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 1950s, Jane needed a chaperone, as it was viewed unsafe for a single woman of her age to head to Gombe National Park alone. It was Vanne who dropped everything and went with Jane to live and sleep in a tent for months.

I left the exhibit wondering what the world would be like if there were more parents like Jane Goodall’s.

We have an opportunity to see our children explore their passions in a way traditional school might not.

As many of us sit under veritable house arrest with homeschooling duties we never imagined doing, our reactions matter. I believe each of our children has been given gifts by God for the purpose of glorifying Him with their lives. And even if you don’t believe that, surely you can agree that each of your children has natural talents, interests, struggles and unique personalities. We as parents have an opportunity right now to encourage like Vanne did. We get to see our budding scientists, artists, writers, thespians, athletes, engineers and world changers explore their passions in a way that traditional school never could.

I don’t want to forget the lessons that Vanne and Jane taught me. If things settle down, and travel becomes a possibility, I also highly recommend visiting the “Becoming Jane” exhibit in D.C., which is closed at the moment, but is scheduled at least until September 7th.

And happy birthday, Jane. I’m honored to share this day with you.

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