I heard them arguing all the way up the stairs. The mom sounded consoling but confused. The little boy sounded angry, hurt.
“Why you lie?” he demanded.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she countered, frustrated.
“You not suppose to lie!”
“I didn’t … oh, just drop it, will you?”
“Nothing, okay. Just climb up, we’re late already …”
Two frowning faces, one a smaller version of the other showed up at my door. The little guy took one look at his mother, letting her know that he was not done with this discussion, and announced to me: “My mommy lied!”
She shook her head, sighed.
“Let’s go in and sit down and you’ll tell me about it,” I suggested.
The story unfolded: there was a party planned. A surprise birthday party for the dad, and both the boy and his older sister were in on the plans. All very exciting.
“Actually, initially I didn’t want David to know,” the mother interjected, “I worried that he would not be able to keep it secret … but he found out, and of course he went right ahead and told my husband …”
Little David gave her a withering look. “I didn’t mean to, it slip out,” he noted, vindicated by fate. He then turned to me, righteously riled, “and anyway, my mommy lied!”
“What did I lie about? What did I say?” the mother was clearly tired of this back and forth. She looked at me, “he’s been at it since we left the house. I didn’t lie to him about anything. It’s been really ridiculous.”
“You say I spilling things and I didn’t! I was careful!”
“What did your mom say you spilled, David?” I asked, slightly amused by the exchange and the boy’s insistence, and by a suspicion that was already forming in my mind …
“Beads. She say I spill the beads. I didn’t!”
“The BEANS,” the mother corrected.
“I don’t even LIKE beans,” he snapped and rolled his eyes, and I struggled to keep a straight face.
“It’s an expression, David. To spill the beans, means to tell a secret … maybe your mom was saying that about you telling your dad about the birthday party?”
The little boy glared at me suspiciously–one never knows when adults gang up to take another adult’s side–then looked back and forth from his mom’s vigorous nodding to me. I smiled.
“But why she lie?” his voice was hesitant now. He knew that there was something he had missed.
“She didn’t lie. She used an expression. Remember when we were talking about it ‘raining cats and dogs’ when it actually meant that it was raining really hard? How it was a silly way to say that it was raining hard but it did not mean that dogs and cats were REALLY raining on us? How ‘raining cats and dogs’ is an expression for strong rain?”
“Or when we talked about ‘giving a hand’ meaning helping someone, and how a ‘couch potato’ is someone who sits around too much watching TV and doesn’t go outside and play and move around?”
Another nod then an eyebrow started going up. A dawning. “Like ‘heart of gold’ thing being nice?”
“Oh,” he pondered. Then his lip curled up in distaste. “But why spill beans? Can’t I spill something else? I HATE beans!”
Kids are wizards of pointing out minutia of life that can seem quite arbitrary to us. They note things we missed completely. They seem to ‘insist’ on irrelevant details like the way the plate is organized, who got to open the refrigerator this time, or what touches what. Everything takes far LONGER to do with a little one around …
In good part it may well be because their life moves slower. Time is yet to be shackled onto watches and the ticking of a schedule. They pause mid-sleeve, pondering the way light filters through the cloth, unconcerned with how rushed the morning is. They stare in wonder at a pigeon when the light changed and it is time to cross the street. They have an urgent question or need just when you finally sat down to eat.
And they notice. Everything.
They collect each leaf and pebble. There is no such thing in their vocabulary as a “quick run to the store and back” … not when there’s a big exciting world out there. There is endlessness to explore: Cracks in the pavement. Bits of paper flown by winds. Funny people. Yippy dogs. Horns and beeps and squeaks and windows with wonders and when finally at the store, multitudes of candy at eye-level … How could it be that this was not what you came all the way for? …
They teach us patience, that’s for certain.
They also teach us that time is what we make of it. That stress can catch one breath, and relaxation ride right in upon another. That one can laugh before their tears have dried and emotions coexist and flow without a judgment.
They hold a mirror to the things we have forgotten or have misplaced our truth about or have given up on trying to critically examine.
They listen. Even when they do not seem to.
More than most anything else, they note the mismatch of expression, the ambiguity of tone and matter. The odd things our mouths can say and we do not hear.
In part it is because small children are so literal. They get confused when they listen to the WORDS we say and find it not to match the words’ MEANING. Their reaction (and ensuing cuteness) can have us realize hidden ambiguity. They reflect what we once saw and now are almost blind to: how the world works even though words so often mean things they do not really mean.
Want a few examples?
A father talked about his mother looking after the children when he and his wife had to both be away. “She has a heart of gold,” he gushed. His preschooler daughter piped up and added, “no daddy, you forgot. Nana’s TEETH are gold …”
A mother had forgotten something she needed to ask me. “I’ve had it at the back of my head all day,” she sighed, frustrated. Her three-year-old scrambled up onto the couch and took a look, exclaiming, “No mamma, it is nothing there!”
“It is all politics and money,” another parent moped when a kindergarten admission did not go the way she’d hoped, “there’s absolutely nothing new under the sun!” Her almost kindergartener son looked at her sideways. “That not true, Mommy,” he said, rather accusingly. “I have new Spiderman shoes! You forgetting my new Spiderman shoes?!!”
Then there are the cats and dogs that do not really rain; the invisible pins and needles one can be on (and no wonder one’s child refuses to sit where the parent sat a moment prior!!); the feet in mouths (“You can’t do that no more, Daddy. You’re too old. You can’t reach like baby Deena!”); the bleeding hearts (think on that …); the pants on fire…
Language is a treasure trove of meaning, and learning symbolic language is a big task. It calls for the ability to hold two lines of listening: one for the words, another for the context. Children get very good at that around age 5 or so, though they get thoroughly confused before they realize that “listen to what I say” is far from straight forward.
Kids practice logic. They spend a good bit of their time making connections, figuring out how things work and what brings on what. If you pour too quickly, you spill everything. If you push your brother, mom gets cross. If you don’t stop whining, you may lose a privilege. If you mix milk with chocolate syrup magic happens and you get chocolate milk!
They get right fast at figuring out what makes what, and a never-ending list of ‘why’s helps them figure things out. They realize there are desired outcomes and less favorable ones, some adults that are easier to get things from, that there is misfortune and consequence. They get uncannily creative at hopeful attribution of fault …
They map their world into cause and effect. Into how things happen. Who does what.
And sometimes they make connections that are not quite as we would have put them. … Like the little girl with the (newly) pregnant mom, who asked quite loudly and in public: “Daddy, how did God put a baby inside mommy and didn’t tell her about it until she peed on the stick?”
“Can people be like light?” The question comes from a bright-eyed five-year-old (who in my view lights the room wherever she goes …).
“What do you think?” (my almost standard response to children’s questions–lets me know what they already have in mind …)
“I don’t know,” frown, scowl, “that’s why I’m asking YOU!”
(Oops, strategy backfired. Okay, I guess I deserved that)
“Why are you asking?” I am treading carefully here, asking again in a different way, but I am really interested in knowing what the question is about.
“My Nana told me I’m her light,” the girl’s young forehead creases in concentration. “She said, ‘you the light of my life!'”
“Aw … it’s a great expression! And a very sweet thing for her to say. I can totally see why.” Children of her age group often begin to notice that there are some things people say that do not quite make sense: the words don’t add up, and they realize that there has to be another meaning, something else that’s being conveyed by the words but is not the words themselves (e.g. “she has a sharp tongue” or “he has no heart” or “raining cats and dogs” …). Sometimes they can infer the meaning, sometimes they are lost or have some sense they are not sure about. I love it when they ask. “What do you think she meant?”
Girl shoots me a “there she goes again with her Speech Pathologist questions again” look, but she relents. She’s patient with me. “That she loves me?”
“Yep … and what else do you think it can mean that you are the light of her life?” I wait.
Eyebrows up, lips scrunched in thought, “… and … that she’s really happy to have me or happy to see me maybe?”
“Yes! Both. Very much so. Also that you are important to her, and that you bring her joy, and that you make her feel better by simply being you. All of that.”
The child smiles. Beams, more like.
We go on with the session. Suddenly she stops again and asks (it is very often that things percolate a while before another level of query bubbles up to the surface): “Can someone be a light for other people?”
“Do you mean for more than one person?” I want to make sure I understand.
“Absolutely. I think you can be a light in many people’s lives.”
Pause, thought, creased forehead. Smile. “Oh, like, if you turn the light on then it is light for everyone?”
My turn to nod. My turn to smile. Super smart cookie, that one.
“Cool!” Eyes wide. Now that she’s got it, she runs with it. “I wish … I wish I could be a light for every every EVERY ONE in the whole wide world! A big light that goes all over around! You think I can?”
She may not know it, but I think she already is one …