“The Boy Who Played With Fusion”

September 3rd, 2013

Popular Science’s Tom Clynes has an excellent profile of Taylor Wilson, a high schooler who built a fusion reactor:

Almost from the beginning, it was clear that the older of the Wilsons’ two sons would be a difficult child to keep on the ground. It started with his first, and most pedestrian, interest: construction. As a toddler in Texarkana, the family’s hometown, Taylor wanted nothing to do with toys. He played with real traffic cones, real barricades. At age four, he donned a fluorescent orange vest and hard hat and stood in front of the house, directing traffic. For his fifth birthday, he said, he wanted a crane. But when his parents brought him to a toy store, the boy saw it as an act of provocation. “No,” he yelled, stomping his foot. “I want a real one.”
This is about the time any other father might have put his own foot down. But Kenneth called a friend who owns a construction company, and on Taylor’s birthday a six-ton crane pulled up to the party. The kids sat on the operator’s lap and took turns at the controls, guiding the boom as it swung above the rooftops on Northern Hills Drive.

To the assembled parents, dressed in hard hats, the Wilsons’ parenting style must have appeared curiously indulgent. In a few years, as Taylor began to get into some supremely dangerous stuff, it would seem perilously laissez-faire. But their approach to child rearing is, in fact, uncommonly intentional. “We want to help our children figure out who they are,” Kenneth says, “and then do everything we can to help them nurture that.”

The story’s worth reading for many reasons, and there are many parts of it worth discussing, but I found the above section to be particularly important. Rather than discourage Wilson’s fascination with what are incredibly dangerous things (including mixing—and setting off in the backyard for family and neighbors—explosives), or see it as something dangerous to him and others, they tried to nurture it. His parents have certainly been indulgent, but they also helped their child to learn enough—and cultivate the right group of supporters around him—to do something very few people of any age are capable of doing.

Some might think that this anecdote doesn’t have much relevance for most parents and most schools with kids who are not as gifted as Wilson (clearly) is. But I think that’s bullshit. Children have a remarkable amount of curiosity. Kids want to learn things about the world around them—in that sense, Wilson is no different from any other kid. What’s different in this case is that his parents, and the number of professors and researchers he contacted, embraced his curiosity and helped give him the tools to explore things he was interested in.

Not every kid needs to achieve something as remarkable as Wilson has. But what I think this shows us is that we are holding children back at home and in schools by not embracing their fascinations and harnessing it toward learning. If a child is fascinated by dinosaurs, is that not a perfect entry-path toward learning about biology, evolution and ecosystems, and even the solar system by way of the extinction of dinosaurs? If a child loves airplanes, isn’t that a great opportunity to learn about aeronautics, and the value of thinking through different designs and testing their effectiveness? And on and on. Children shouldn’t be forced to learn about such things, but parents and teachers can embrace their enthusiasm for certain things and provide them with the resources, tools and—most importantly—the encouragement to explore them further.