Friday, July 2, 2010

Every Nook and Cranny

Try hiding presents for birthdays, Christmas, whatever, in your house with kids over 4.  Unless those gifts are behind locked doors, in an attic, or guarded by the soldiers from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, those sharp eyes and prying hands will find what you’ve buried.  Like mice to a solitary crumb behind the sofa, they have uncanny radar for what is hidden.  

Why is that?  There are a few reasons.  The first is that kids have nothing better to do than investigate every square inch of your house, especially if you’ve been able to teach them to amuse themselves.  If you’ve ever lost something, ask your 8-year-old:  she knows where it is.  Another reason is that because of this intimate knowledge of their den, kids recognize any change in their environment, like an expert hunter noticing a single disturbed blade of grass, a Jedi appreciating a disturbance in the Force, or akin to the way old cartoons would show a background scene with one brighter colored toon (which you could be sure was the object about to move). Finally, they can just tell when you’re not telling them the truth.

There’s a good reason for that.  Famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his excellent book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" has a chapter on aphasia (defined as the inability to use or understand language).  In a certain institution where some of these patients lived, they were observed laughing at Ronald Reagan addressing the nation, and they were taken with how nonsensical his expressions were.  They could tell that he was lying or making no sense, unburdened as they were with the need to make sense of innuendos or subtle meanings…and could tell that he, like many politicians, had another agenda, and was somewhat full of crap because his gestures did not make sense.

Kids might have the same reaction.  Part of socialization, part of growing up, is acclimating oneself to culture and societal expectations.  Understanding that tantrums in stores are unacceptable, that adjusting your underwear in public looks funny, that talking about your uncle getting married to his girlfriend in front of the girlfriend (especially if there are no public plans to do so...yet) creates an awkward moment, and that saying that coloring within the lines is “easy” when your little sister has just scaled Mt. Everest to do so makes your little sister feel bad....are all part of enculturation.

Hence, children are good at seeing when your "words" are off, and when your words do not match the feeling beneath them.  We throw our words at kids every day, and they know your words like they know their house.  For example, you might not have to say that Uncle Charlie has pancreatic cancer (a miserable cancer with very low survival rate), but don't tell them he's fine.  They either know it because he looks awful or they know it because your words sound wrong to them.  Tell them he's sick and needs to see a lot of doctors, and that you're worried.  Older kids can take more - younger kids don't need to know any more than that.

Just as you must take care hiding that special present, be careful to tell your kids the truth, or at least a version of the truth.

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