Message in a Bottle
What Are Kids Good For, Anyway?

A group of us were sitting, pints in hand, around a worn wooden table at an after-work bull session, when someone asked Susan about her kids. “Oh, don’t get me started,” she said. “They’re driving me crazy.” The question had been an honest one, but it was also a way of poking a stick through the bars of a cage. This mama bear could almost always be counted on to vent freely about the trials of child-rearing. She ran down the latest domestic atrocities and then wound up in her usual way: “I shouldn’t complain so much. There are good things about it.”

"What are they?" Doug was part of the majority group at the table—childless. "Everybody’s always griping about their kids and how little sleep they get and how they never go out and all of that, and then they’ll tell you that it’s a great thing to be a parent anyway, but they never say why." Susan was a little nonplussed and fell back on the you’ll-know-when-you-are-one explanation, but that wasn’t enough for Doug, so he turned to me, the other token member of the over-the-hill gang.

I told him that the main benefits were too schmaltzy to talk about, all that love and tenderness stuff, so he asked for something more concrete. What I came up with off the cuff was how fascinating it is to watch a child develop. What we’re after in any of our relationships, adult or otherwise, is understanding other people, getting to know what and how they think and feel. Having a baby is the only situation outside of a lab experiment where you can spend endless hours watching someone learn about a new environment and figure out how to figure things out.

My illustrative example of those uncanny moments when you get a clear view into a child’s mind, even if it’s just a glimpse, was something that happened one very early morning a few years ago. My son slept in a crib in our room and would habitually wake up well before normal people want to start their day. I’d take him into bed and try to coax his eyes closed again in any way I could, succeeding infrequently and erratically. (The same inconsistent schedule of rewards scientists use to keep rats pulling levers, coincidentally.) This particular morning he was sitting up in the pitch darkness between his mother and me while I recited Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to him. Remarkable feats of memorization are possible when you read the same book a thousand times, as any parent knows. I started off with, “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another …” when he interrupted by saying, “Dog.”

Of course, he was just about a year old and had maybe three or four words in his vocabulary, so there wasn’t much else he could have said, but it was exactly the right thing. At that precise spot in the book there’s a picture of a fork-wielding Max chasing a hapless terrier. The dog is never mentioned in the text and shows up only on that page, so I could tell that my son had associated the words of the story with the drawing and was imagining the scene as I spoke. That might have been the first moment when I knew what he was thinking, even that he was truly thinking at all. Not a big deal for us grownups, but there were frighteningly complex forces at work—to start with, how do words come to represent things and not just sounds, and then what do these flat splashes of color have to do with a three-dimensional creature, and now you’re trying to say there’s a way to tie the sounds to the colors and have it all mean something? It hardly seems possible. When an infant handles a book, he’s recreating the mental journey our ancestors took tens of thousands of years ago as they began to put paint on the walls of caves. Seen through the right lens, watching a child turn pages engenders the same sense of wonder those speleologists must have felt when they stumbled upon the art at Chauvet.

(continued)

James

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