Last week my biology classes conducted experiments in diffusion. Before you yawn, you need to know that first they removed the shells from eggs by soaking them in vinegar (at home – I learned this the hard way), and then they brought them to school to immerse them in a new liquid.
As they opened their egg containers in the lab, the students began to plug their noses and complain about the smell: “I think I might throw up – can we prop the door open?” I’ll admit it was a little smelly; the combination of vinegar, that sulfuric egg smell, and all the liquids they’d brought in – think bleach, maple syrup, sesame oil, grape juice, soy sauce, and various juices and sodas – created quite an aromatic cocktail.
But here’s the point – it didn’t smell that bad to me. Not because I like those kinds of odors, but because my sniffer doesn’t work as well as theirs do. There is a physiological issue at work here that many parents don’t realize: kids have more acute senses of smell and taste than adults do.
They actually have more taste buds on their tongues, which means strong-tasting foods can be sharp and unpleasant to them. Because taste and smell are so closely related, this is also why odors that we merely notice (fish, smoke, expensive cheese) cause them to exclaim – sometimes rudely, in our opinion – “What’s that smell?!?” It’s why we might not like cottage cheese or black licorice (or lutefisk) when we’re young, but may learn to like it as adults.
Adults need to be aware that these complaints are usually genuine – it really is “that bad” for the kids! If nothing can be done to change the situation, it might be a good opportunity to teach tolerance (with empathy) – “I know, it really does! But hang in there; it’ll go away soon,” and courtesy – “When something smells bad, you shouldn’t make loud comments, because you might hurt someone’s feelings. If you must say something, keep it neutral, like, ‘Wow, that’s strong!'”
(This is also a good phrase for parents to use with biology teachers.)