The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 04 Mar 2024

Children and adults see in very different ways

I was often struck with this thought when my kids were smaller. We would be looking at some object, let's say a bollard.

The kid sees the actual bollard, as it actually appears, and in detail! She sees its shape and texture, how the paint is chipped and mildewed, whether it is straight or crooked.

I don't usually see any of those things. I see the bollard abstractly, more as an idea of a “bollard” than as an actual physical object. But instead I see what it is for, and what it is made of, and how it was made and why, and by whom, all sorts of things that are completely invisible to the child.

The kid might mention that someone was standing by the crooked bollard, and I'd be mystified. I wouldn't have realized there was a crooked bollard. If I imagined the bollards in my head, I would have imagined them all straight and identical. But kids notice stuff like that.

Instead, I might have mentioned that someone was standing by the new bollard, because I remembered a couple of years back when one of them was falling apart and Rich demolished it and put in a new one. The kid can't see any of that stuff.

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Sat, 19 Mar 2016

Sympathetic magic for four-year-olds

When Katara was about four, she was very distressed by the idea that green bugs were going to invade our house, I think though the mail slot in the front door. The obvious thing to do here was to tell her that there are no green bugs coming through the mail slot and she should shut up and go to sleep, but it seems clear to me that this was never going to work.

(It surprises me how few adults understand that this won't work. When Marcie admits at a cocktail party that she is afraid that people are staring at her in disgust, wondering why her pores are so big, many adults—but by no means all—know that it will not help her to reply “nobody is looking at your pores, you lunatic,” however true that may be. But even most of these enlightened adults will not hesitate to say the equivalent thing to a four-year-old afraid of mysterious green bugs. Adults and children are not so different in their irrational fears; they are just afraid of different kinds of monsters.)

Anyway, I tried to think what to say instead, and I had a happy idea. I told Katara that we would cast a magic spell to keep out the bugs. Red, I observed, was the opposite of green, and the green bugs would be powerfully repelled if we placed a bright red object just inside the front door where they would be sure to see it. Unwilling to pass the red object, they would turn back and leave us alone. Katara found this theory convincing, and so we laid sheets of red construction paper in the entryway under the mail slot.

Every night before bed for several weeks we laid out the red paper, and took it up again in the morning. This was not very troublesome, and certainly it less troublesome than arguing about green bugs every night with a tired four-year-old. For the first few nights, she was still a little worried about the bugs, but I confidently reminded her that the red paper would prevent them from coming in, and she was satisfied. The first few nights we may also have put red paper inside the door of her bedroom, just to be sure. Some nights she would forget and I would remind her that we had to put out the red paper before bedtime; then she would know that I took the threat seriously. Other nights I would forget and I would thank her for reminding me. After a few months of this we both started to forget, and the phase passed. I suppose the green bugs gave up eventually and moved on to a less well-defended house.

Several years later, Katara's younger sister Toph had a similar concern: she was afraid the house would be attacked by zombies. This time I already knew what to do. We discussed zombies, and how zombies are created by voodoo magic; therefore they are susceptible to voodoo, and I told Toph we would use voodoo to repel the zombies. I had her draw a picture of the zombies attacking the house, as detailed and elaborate as possible. Then we took black paper and cut it into black bars, and pasted the bars over Toph's drawing, so that the zombies were in a cage. The cage on the picture would immobilize the real zombies, I explained, just as one can stick pins into a voodoo doll of one's enemy to harm the real enemy. We hung the picture in the entryway, and Toph proudly remarked on how we had stopped the zombies whenever we went in or out.

Rationality has its limits. It avails nothing against green bugs or murderous zombies. Magical enemies must be fought with magic.

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Tue, 01 Jan 2008

Santa Claus
A few years ago I was talking to a woman I worked with, who told me that she told her kids that Santa Claus was real, "because how could you not?". She thought she would have been depriving her kids by not telling them the story. And maybe she would have been; I honestly don't know. I don't remember what it was like to believe literally in Santa Claus or how I felt when I learned the truth.

My vocabulary here is failing me. "Telling them the story" is not what I want, because the Santa Claus thing is deceptive, and telling stories is not normally deceptive: "fiction" and "lies" mean different things. When I tell Katara the story of the Little Red Hen, there is no presumption that there is an actual, literal Red Hen. Katara might think there is, or not, or might not think about it at all; I don't know which. Ditto Cinderella, or Olivia the Pig, or any other story I tell or read to her. But when people tell their kids about Santa Claus, they present it not as a story, but as a literal truth. They present it in a way that is calculated to make the kids believe there is actually a fat, benevolent, white-bearded immortal, manufacturing toys in a secret arctic workshop. This is no longer mere fiction; it is a lie. So what I want to say is that this lady thought she would be depriving her kids of the magic of Santa Claus by not telling them this lie.

But I really don't want to use the word "lie" here, because it's so pejorative. It makes it sound as though I think badly of this good woman for telling her kids that Santa Claus was real. But I don't, at all. She is generally wise and honest and I respect her. Parents tell their kids all sorts of awful, appalling lies, which upsets me a lot, but this lie is quite benign by comparison, and bothers me not at all.

Let me be perfectly clear: I have nothing, absolutely nothing, against the Santa Claus story. I have an article in progress about how much I hate the way parents routinely lie to their kids, to manipulate them, and this one isn't in the article, because it doesn't even register. It's just for fun, or nearly so.

Santa Claus seems pretty harmless to me. Unlike many of the pernicious lies children are told, Santa Claus is a great story. It would be really wonderful to believe that I would get presents every year because there was a fat guy manufacturing toys at the North Pole. Delightful! And the only thing wrong with it is that it isn't true. Oh well. There are a lot of pretty stories that aren't true.

Anyway, at the time I had this conversation about Santa Claus, Katara was too young to have heard about Santa Claus anyway, and my co-worker asked if I was planning to tell Katara the Santa Claus story.

Now that I've written this article, it occurs to me what she meant to ask, was not whether I was going to tell Katara the story, but whether I was going to tell her that it was true. Having realized that now, my reply seems a lot more obvious in retrospect than it did at the time.

I hadn't thought about it before, but I said I didn't think I would.

"But what are you going to tell her?"

"The truth, I guess."

The truth, though, is pretty wonderful, although less astonishing. You don't get presents because of the fat guy in the red suit, which is a shame, because wouldn't it be fun if it were true? But you do get them anyway, and it's because your family loves you. As consolation prizes go, that one's pretty good.

So we did tell her the truth. Santa Claus is just a story. Katara will have to grow up without that piece of childhood delight. Sorry, Katara. But she'll also grow up knowing that her parents respect her enough to tell her the truth instead of a pretty lie, and maybe that will be enough of a consolation prize to make up for it.

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Mon, 31 Dec 2007

Harriet Tubman
Katara and I had a pretty heavy conversation in the car on the way home from school last week. I should begin by saying that Philadelphia has a lot of murals. More murals than any other city in the world, in fact. The mural arts people like to put up murals on large, otherwise ugly party walls. That is, when you have two buildings that share a wall, and one of them is torn down, leaving a vacant lot with a giant blank wall, the mural arts people see it as a prime location and put a mural there. On the way back from Katara's school we drive through Mantua, which is not one of the rosier Philadelphia neighborhoods, and has a lot of vacant lots, and so a lot of murals. We sometimes count the murals on the way home, and usually pass four or five.

Katara pointed out a mural she liked, and I observed that there was construction on the adjacent vacant lot, which is likely to mean that the mural will be covered up soon by the new building. I mentioned that my favorite Philadelphia mural of all had been on the side of a building that was torn down in 2002.

Katara asked me to tell her about it, so I did. It was the giant mural of Harriet Tubman that used to be on the side of the I. Goldberg building at 9th and Chestnut Streets. It was awesome. There was 40-foot-high painting of Harriet Tubman raising her lantern at night, leading a crowd of people through a dark tunnel (Underground Railroad, obviously) into a beautiful green land beyond, and giant chains that had once barred the tunnel, but which were now shattered.

It's hard to photograph a mural well. The scale and the space do not translate to photographs. It looked something like this:

Note that the small people at the bottom are actually larger than life-size.

Here's a detail:

One cool thing about it that you can't see in the picture is that the column of stones on Tubman's right is painted so as to disguise an large and ugly air conditioning vent that emerges from the wall and climbs up to the roof. The wall is otherwise flat.

Anyway, I said that my favorite mural had been the Harriet Tubman one, and that it had been torn down before she was born. (As you can see from the picture, the building was located next to a parking lot. The owners of the building ripped it down to expand the parking lot.)

But then Katara asked me to tell her about Harriet Tubman, and that was something of a puzzle, because Katara is only three and a half. But the subject is not intrinsically hard to understand; it's just unpleasant. And I don't believe that it's my job to shield her from the unpleasantness of the world, but it is my job to try to answer her questions, if I can. So I tried.

"Okay, you know how you own stuff, and you can do what you want, because it's yours?"

Sure, she understands that. We have always been very clear in distinguishing between her stuff and our stuff, and in defending her property rights against everyone, including ourselves.

"But you know that you can't own other people, right?"

This was confusing, so I tried an example. "Emily is your friend, and sometimes you ask her to do things, and maybe she does them. But you can't make her do things she doesn't want to do, because she gets to decide for herself what she does."

Sure, of course. Now we're back on track. "Well, a long time ago, some people decided that they owned some other people, called slaves, and that the slaves would have to do whatever their owners said, even if they didn't want to."

Katara was very indignant. I believe she said "That's not nice!" I agreed; I said it was terrible, one of the most terrible things that had ever happened in this country. And then we were over the hump. I said that slaves sometimes tried to run away from the owners, and get away to a place where they could do whatever they wanted, and that Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape.

There you have Harriet Tubman in a nutshell for a three-and-a-half year-old. It was a lot easier than the time she asked me why ships in 1580 had no women aboard.

I did not touch the racial issue at all. When you are explaining something complicated, it is important to keep it in bite-sized chunks, and to deal with them one at a time, and I thought slavery was already a big enough chunk. Katara is going to meet this issue head-on anyway, probably sooner than I would like, because she is biracial.

I explained about the Underground Railroad, and we discussed what a terrible thing slavery must have been. Katara wanted to know what the owners made the slaves do, and there my nerve failed me. I told her that I didn't want to tell her about it because it was so awful and frightening. I had pictures in my head of beatings, and of slaves with their teeth knocked out so that they could be forced to eat, to break hunger strikes, and of rape, and families broken up, and I just couldn't go there. Well, I suppose it is my job to shield her from some the unpleasantness of the world, for a while.

I realize now I could have talked about slaves forced to do farm work, fed bad food, and so on, but I don't think that would really have gotten the point across. And I do think I got the point across: the terrible thing about being a slave is that you have to do what you are told, whether you want to or not. All preschoolers understand that very clearly, whereas for Katara, toil and neglect are rather vague abstractions. So I'm glad I left it where I did.

But then a little later Katara asked some questions about family relations among the slaves, and if slaves had families, and I said yes, that if a mother had a child, then her child belonged to the same owner, and sometimes the owner would take the child away from its mother and sell it to someone else and they would never see each other again. Katara, of course, was appalled by this.

I'm not sure I had a point here, except that Katara is a thoughtful kid, who can be trusted with grown-up issues even at three and a half years old, and I am very proud of her.

That seems like a good place to end the year. Thanks for reading.

[ Addendum 20080201: The mural was repainted in a new location, at 2950 Germantown Avenue! ]

[ Addendum 20160420: The Germantown Avenue mural is by the same artist, Sam Donovan, but is not the same design. The model was Kat Lindsey. Donovan’s web site provides a better picture.  ]

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