“33 head cows! NO THANK YOU!” exclaimed my son, on our trip to Bear’s Mill, Ohio. I laughed and laughed at how literal kids are, though to be fair he had never heard cattle auction terminology. Even if he had, surrounded by creaky wooden beams and the antique farm equipment tucked away in the shadows, I suppose anything, even a 33-headed cow, seemed possible at the moment.
This simple misunderstanding reminded me of a story a friend told me of his childhood. He had gone to a pharmacy with his mother, and as he was waiting for her to finish, he saw a Selsun Blue shampoo sample box on the counter that said “take one.” Following directions, he took the (empty!) display and kept it. This story tickled me – why on earth would he need an empty display box? Why would he think they were giving them out? It doesn’t matter. He did as the box demanded.
Things are exactly as they appear – kids think in this concrete sort of way until about age 11, I’m told. It makes for some hilarious moments, but it also makes explaining abstract or complex issues pretty difficult at times. God, for example. Empathy and love and death and bad guys that aren’t all bad – all of these leave me struggling for words to explain the world.
Take this week, for example – we traveled to the east coast to see family and to show Jonah some of his country’s history. It was a beautiful thing, hearing his sharp intake of breath when he saw the real Constitution, overhearing him thank the sculpted soldiers at the Korean War Memorial, and scolding kids for being obnoxious at George Washington’s home. Less beautiful was me, fumbling for words as he peppered me with questions about what he’d seen in the news on Syria. Why are we attacking them? Are they our friends? Are they not our friends? Who else is attacking them? Why? What’s happening in Stockholm? On, and on, and on.
I don’t want to hide the truth from him,
but how on earth can I explain the type of cruelty
that is happening there when I can’t fathom it myself?
I’d like him to have five more minutes
of not knowing it exists.
However, as we approach the White House I see this is wishful thinking. As he sees all the barricades, he’s asking me what every single noise is. A strong wind comes along and knocks a piece of temporary fence into the street, and he just about jumps out of his skin. It occurs to me that this is the world our children will be living in. We used to run and bike freely until dusk, and they’re alert to noises and strangers and on the lookout for oddly shaped backpacks. It’s not the absolute horror that children around the world wake up to daily, but it still makes me sad.
So I tell him the best thing I can think of to say. That living in fear is a waste of the time we’re given here. That our relationships can be complicated, and things aren’t always black and white. That you have to remember that everyone is seeing the facts through their own lens and making up their own version of the story.
The next day, I came across a quote that describes these moments in better words than I’ll ever be able to come up with, and it’s one that I’ll share with him when he’s past his concrete thinking phase:
Do you know the story of the Phasianidae?
It’s a bird that experiences all of time in one instant.
And she sings the song of love and anger and fear
and joy and sadness all at once.
And this bird when she meets the love of her life is both happy and sad.
Happy because she sees that for him it is the beginning,
and sad because she knows it is already over.
– Mike Cahill
To me, that’s a pretty good description of what it is to be human. All those feelings are experienced in our lives, sometimes in the same moment, and are made sharper by the presence of their opposite. I hug my son and feel tremendous love, and tremendous sorrow because I know it’s my job to get him ready and let him go. The ability we have as grownups to feel beyond facts can be painful, but without that ability we’d miss out on a lot of beauty.
I think that’s what I love most about the way kids think. Things simply are, or they aren’t. You’re a good guy or a bad guy. It’s a nice vacation from the overthinking we do as adults, and sometimes the simplest answers are the truest ones. Though we don’t have the luxury of this brain-vacation every day, and to do so would be irresponsible, I’m going to enjoy this literal world with my kid for as long as I can, because it’s pretty entertaining.
Jonah: Mom, what do you think the name
of my new soccer team will be?
Me: Well, I don’t know. What would you like it to be?
Jonah: I just sure hope we’re not called The Naked Kids.
Me: Don’t we all, son…don’t we all.