I occasionally tend to my infant great-granddaughter, and lately I’m wondering just what small children understand about their world, what they think of it. My degrees are in anthropology, and linguistics classes taught me children speak and understand in ways adults don’t quite get, and they are wary of us.
In addition, encounters throughout the years have convinced me a child sees reality in a more honest and direct way than is commonly expressed in the modern world. Their comments are often startling, embarrassing, crude. With their peers, no subject is taboo.
As an example, I was idling at home one hot summer day, windows open to the breeze. A drift of voices from three young neighborhood boys floated in from the hillside path behind the house. As they passed, the youngest was announcing his disdain about grown-ups: “They’re always yelling — don’t touch this, don’t touch that. Don’t even touch your own butt!” They all guffawed at this, punching each other as they ran away.
A linguistics seminar paper discussing children’s interactions was based on several encounters with two eight-year-old girls whose mothers were friends and the daughters had known each other all their lives. Our first interaction occurred while the mothers chatted over coffee in the kitchen and I was in a living room chair near where the girls were engrossed with their Barbie dolls.
They moved their game out of my hearing; I relocated to a closer chair. They eyed me suspiciously. The girl I knew best then asked loudly, “Why are you following us around?” I explained my graduate project, and said, “Would you mind if I listened to you while you play?” As one, they enthusiastically said, “Yes, we do mind,” as if they were excited. Surprised, I stood up. “Well then, I’ll find some other kids, sorry to bother you,” and turned to go.
They both protested. As I heard, “Oh no, no, we want you to listen to us!” I realized their interpretation of an unfamiliar phrase was exactly the opposite of mine.
My own two children were that same kind of mystery to me, with a disjunct of understanding between us. I was in my early 20s, and absorbed in heightened emotions and dramatic behavior. It didn’t occur to me I could, and should, initiate conversations with them, or even that they were capable of cogent thought. This is despite a now-distinct memory of being about 5, put to bed early, comforting myself with the thought now I could “have a really good think.”
Kids are quick to point out qualities or characteristics they perceive in us, particularly the least pleasant ones. At a motel in central Nevada near a field job, I was returning to my room after work. Down along the concrete walkway, a girl about 7 was standing at an open door, proclaiming loudly to someone inside, “I’m lots smarter than you are!” No angry bellows from the room made me hopeful the adult didn’t retaliate.
Children can also feel tentative, insecure, and seek approval. Once, in a department store, a boy about 9 backed into me. His exasperated father berated him as I steadied the boy’s shoulders. I said, “No, he’s perfectly fine,” and the boy exclaimed, “See, daddy, I’m perfectly fine!”
So what happens? Why do some honest and direct children become people who express dishonesty and fear, compulsively obscuring the truth? What makes us turn that corner, lose our sense of self, and begin to defend ourselves against the uncertainty of the life in which we find ourselves?
Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.