Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nature/Nurture 01 and Teaching 01: The Lima Bean Effect

The Lima Bean Effect, or Why You Should Like in advance of Actually Liking

When I was a little kid, I ate everything.  I used to think that this was because I was such an obedient child, intensely aware of what my mother didn't like and earnestly eager to please.  My mother had nothing but contempt for picky eaters, or rather for the mothers of picky eaters.  In her view, children naturally loved all foods and only expressed dislikes to manipulate their parents.  Over the years, I've realized she was wrong.  People's taste buds vary, like their hair color or the length of their limbs, even relative to other limbs.  (Some people really do have short arms and long legs, and it's not because their mothers made them run for everything and would never accept a hug.)

The fact is that I and my mother are blessed with good tongues: we are less sensitive to bitter tastes and probably more sensitive to sweetness.  Maybe we are also more tolerant of variations in texture.  My daughter is equally lucky. But she has a friend who won't eat fruit and dislikes almost all vegetables.  I can see rejecting romaine, but strawberries with sugar?  Something hard-wired in this girl’s tasting apparatus must be involved, especially if the only vegetable she'll touch is overcooked frozen broccoli.

But broccoli is not the subject here. Lima beans are. They were the exception that proved that I was not a perfect eater.  I really did not like them.  This was a problem because they were a not-infrequent vegetable offering during my childhood.  My mother knew about nutrition, so we always had fruit to start (fresh grapefruit or canned fruit cup), and then a protein source, a starch, and a vegetable.  It was before Atkins.  Also before great produce was sold in supermarkets and before frozen foods occupied a whole aisle.  Often my mother made a salad:  iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and those awful tomatoes sold in plastic-wrapped groups of 3 that we said were like cardboard, because styrofoam, although it had been invented by then, was not yet a household word.  Any non-salad vegetables came from cans:  canned spinach -- which I actually liked: it had a sour lemony quality and a soft slimy texture that was not like anything else -- or canned green beans or canned zucchini in tomato sauce (which I can still eat with gusto straight from the can).  When she could afford the splurge, my mother bought canned asparagus.  And for variety, she'd pick up a can of lima beans.

What to do about the lima bean problem?  I was a stubborn and hard-thinking child, with a preference for the elegant (in the mathematical sense).  Not for me to dump the beans in my lap when nobody was looking.  And I knew enough to know that confession and a plea for sympathy would have done no good at all.  There was only one solution: I declared that I loved lima beans, and waited to see what happened. 

What happened is that I do love lima beans.  Especially the tiny ones in cans.  But also the little dried ones that go into homemade beef barley soup.  Lima beans are a pleasure.  Thus I learned that sometimes a lie can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Fast forward to the early days of my later-in-life teaching career.  (At age 40 I became an adjunct law professor at Michigan, teaching patent law and sometimes copyright.)  In the first years, I would occasionally have a student who was very attentive, very eager, but basically a pain in the neck: interrupting, showing off separately-acquired knowledge, catching me if I misspoke.  The problem was, of course, that such students were also the smart ones, the ones who were going to go on in the field, the ones I'd be glad I'd had a chance to know before they conquered the world.  I decided to treat them like lima beans.  It worked.  I began to love them. I appreciated that they were keeping me on my toes, that because of them I was not only thinking more clearly and intensely but also enjoying the experience more deeply and doing a better job overall.  After a while, I internalized this process, and in later years I only noticed my students' lima characteristics in retrospect.  But I still remember my early crop of human beans vividly.  I am still in touch with them from time to time. They are the best.

Choosing to like, in advance of actually liking, is a good idea.

(The ideas for this essay were first committed to electrons in 2003; above is a minor revision from a September 2010 rewrite. 6/24/12: typo corrected.)

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