Mom Tips: If you give a boy a browser…

One of my favorite children's books is "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie", by Laura Numeroff. It tells the story of a young mouse, and the adventures that follow after he is given a cookie to eat. It starts simply enough, with the mouse asking for a glass of milk, then a straw. Soon, however, he becomes distracted and is off doing things completely unrelated to eating the original cookie. By the end, however, he circles back to wanting a cookie again.

There are days when my son's approach to online research feels exactly like this. From a simple starting point -- for instance, looking at a soda label and wondering what potassium benzoate is -- he wanders through the Internet in what may seem an aimless series of clicks, collecting information on topics that seem not at all connected.

Do I stop him and remind him to stay on task? That's a difficult decision. Some days, it's necessary -- that paper on Thomas Jefferson really needs to be finished. Other days, however, it's better to let him explore and see what he learns.

So, with apologies to Ms. Numeroff, I offer the following:

If you give a boy a browser, he will look up potassium benzoate.

According to Wikipedia, it is a food preservative, often used in sodas and other acidic items. There are mixed reports on its safety. Its molecular formula is C7H5KO2.

Of course this makes the boy wonder: why is potassium abbreviated as K? According to Jefferson Lab, it's from the Latin word for alkali, kalium. Its many uses include fertilizer, soaps and matches.

Jefferson Lab, of course, is named after Thomas Jefferson. Who, as any fan of 1776 knows, played the violin. But what kind of violin? The boy is off again. At the Monticello website, he learns that Jefferson had at least three violins, and indeed appears to have been an excellent musician. Interestingly, he also discovers that at least some relatives felt he was only a tolerable player, and so the boy reads further to see how historians have put together numerous clues -- second hand accounts, the music Jefferson owned, who he played with -- to infer that the reports that he was a good musician were in fact most accurate.

In an unsurprising train of thought, the boy next decides to read about Richard Henry Lee -- Both Lee and Jefferson were sent by Virginia to the Second Continental Congress. After all, and for reasons unknown, the boy has long been fascinated by Lee. Today he finds a most unexpected comment -- Richard Henry Lee was the fourth president. This must be a mistake -- Madison was the fourth president. Further research is required, definitely.

This search leads to a grumbled "ok, fine, technically true" from the boy. He discovers that under the Articles of Confederation, which were in place before the Constitution, Lee served as president for a year. After clicking through various links, the boy pauses to offer a complaint about words being used in manners unclear to others.

Like decimate. Originally, this word meant to kill one of every ten soldiers. Today, however, it is often used simply to mean that a number of people (or items) were destroyed, most often a percentage well above 10.

The word originated with the Roman army, so that's the boy's next exploration point. After looking at several sites and reading battle tactics, history and social commentary, he stumbles over a site listing myths about Roman life, including the ever-popular one about gladiatorial battles and the emperor's use of a thumbs up/thumbs down method of choosing whether a fighter should die. This is false, the boy declares.

At this point, of course his next visit will be to -- the starting point for the debunking of all popular legends. This site alone, and following up any of its legends, can take up hours on end. Today, however, the boy (unsurprisingly, as he is a teen) gets drawn into the food lore section. And is soon laughing at the image of a ship sinking after its cargo of tapioca absorbs the water used to put out a fire.

Further investigation of strange food ingredient stories leads to the age-old tale that Coca Cola originally contained cocaine.

Which reminds the boy…he had been pouring a glass of soda when this all began. Three hours later, maybe it's time for lunch!

Three hours wasted? Not necessarily. Consider what he's done -- he's covered history, vocabulary, science and music. He's had several lessons on the importance of evaluating the information you're given in order to determine its accuracy and draw your own conclusions on its meaning.

Sometimes it's worth taking the roundabout route rather than heading directly to your final destination.