One of the things I look forward to the most as a parent is the time when I’ll be able to engage in a sincere two-way dialogue with my children, in which we give and receive informed opinions at an equal ratio.
However, given that four year olds are chock-filled with opinions despite an almost complete lack of data or a willingness to listen, that time is still a long way off.
The other day, I was driving with Leo and his baby sister, when we had the following exchange:
SALLY: (Crying impatiently)
ME: Don’t cry, Buddy. We’re almost there. (To myself) Hmm…I just called her Buddy. Is it okay to call my daughter “Buddy?”
LEO: No, Daddy! That’s a BOY’S nickname.
SALLY: (Cries some more)
LEO (To Sally): Don’t cry, Woman! We’re almost there.
ME: Well, you got the gender right at least…
For the record, my conflict with calling her Buddy stems from the fact that I’ve used that nickname with my son for five years, and wasn’t sure how it felt transferring it over.
Also for the record, Leo’s response stems from his binge-watching Mad Men over the past few weeks. His feminist views are suffering, but he pours a dynamite Manhattan.
When children are first born, everyone comes to them with questions and attention, giving them the sense that they are the most fascinating person in the world.
As they age, we parents encourage them to do the same to others. This makes them more active members of society, but it’s a double-edged sword. Because sometimes, the things they want to know about others…are things they DEFINITELY should not be asking about.
As I mentioned yesterday, Leo and I spent some time at the dog park this weekend, where he charmed all the adults with his curiosity and friendliness. As we were leaving, we had the following exchange:
LEO: I made a lot if friends today.
ME: Like who?
LEO (Pointing to a woman): Her!
ME: Did you learn her name?
LEO (To her): What’s your name?
LEO: Oh. (Slight pause) Are you married yet?
Needless to say, I rushed him out of there and explained that the next time he asks that question of a lady, he’d better have a follow-up prepared, along with a diamond ring in his pocket.
As time marches on and we gain life experience, each of us in turn comes to realize at some point that truth is somewhat malleable. Even the most honest among us stretches or alters the facts of an anecdote from time to time, if for no other reason than the real story would take too long.
This weekend, I learned that while four-year-olds possess this same skill, they don’t yet understand that this process works best when it happens before the fact, within the confines of your own mind.
Yesterday, we took a family trip to the dog park to let Mendel stretch out his legs. Leo becomes a true extrovert in places like this, running from adult to adult to ask them questions about their dogs, and volunteer information about himself.
At one point, after striking up a conversation with a lady we didn’t (yet) know, we had the following exchange:
LEO (To her): I have a pet FISH!
HER (Gamely): You do? Wow!
LEO: He’s a Betta fish, and his name is Diamond!
HER: That’s awesome!
LEO: He’s…(To me) Daddy…do you think Diamond is seven years old?
ME: Hmmm….well, we don’t know HOW old he is…but seven is probably WAY too old.
LEO: Maybe he’s…three?
ME: That’s POSSIBLE…but I’d guess he’s closer to one.
LEO: He’s one? Maybe today is his birthday?
ME: Well, we don’t know for sure, so it COULD be…
LEO (To her): Diamond is ONE! Today is his BIRTHDAY!!
ME: …and so it shall be.
Unfortunately, as a result of this chat, we were forced to leave the dog park. There are STRICT bylaws at such places that decree that the only spoken words allowed are the guessing of dog breeds, and one-sided conversations with the pet in question…and this outburst of hilarious bullshittery simply couldn’t stand.
When kids are first learning to speak, they make all sorts of hilarious and adorable language mistakes that warm parents’ hearts, and create fodder from which narcissistic fathers can create blogs.
However, once they’ve been verbal for a few years…this phenomenon changes a bit. Don’t get me wrong…they STILL make hilarious and adorable language mistakes…but those errors are based in intelligence rather than ignorance, and become MUCH harder to clear up.
A few months ago, Leo trolled through Netflix and came up with a documentary on a prehistoric animal called “The Terror Bird” (you probably know them better as the Phorusrhacidae). Ever since watching it, Leo has become every bit as fascinated with this creature, as the rest of the world remains utterly ignorant of its existence.
Cut to the present. Leo and I went into the bathroom to brush his teeth the other night, and he became interested in how his teeth had different shapes. This was the exchange that followed:
LEO: Daddy…these teeth look like fangs!
ME: Those teeth are called canines.
LEO: What are they for?
ME: They’re for tearing food.
LEO (Excitedly): Like the Terror Bird?
LEO: Why not?
ME: Um…Well those teeth are for TEARING food, the way you tear meat off of a chicken leg. But those birds are called TERROR birds, and the word TERROR means very scary. So they’re different words, even though they sound the same.
LEO: But Daddy…Terror Birds ARE scary…but they ALSO had to tear meat from bones!
LEO: Then I was right!!
ME: Well…I guess so.
The discussion evolved to a point where he was correct, even if it went far afield of the first issue for debate. And, as a ten-year veteran of marriage, I knew enough to cut my losses and bail out.
But just as I was convincing myself at his preternatural maturity, he yawned, and when I told him he looked pooped, he giggled right up until lights out.
Just another language adventure in the life of a four-year-old.
When you are the parent of a young child, the things they say tend to thrust you onto a roller coaster of conflicting emotions as you sway from pride to shame from one word to the next.
This fall, Leo will be attending a new school. As part of the enrollment process, his teacher came over for a home visit this past weekend. Obviously, my wife and I were anxious that we’d all make a good impression.
For his part, Leo was ECSTATIC to have her over, and did NOT want her to leave. This was the exchange that followed.
LEO (To teacher): Are you going to stay for dinner?
TEACHER: I would love to…but I can’t. I have two kids of my own at home, and I have to make dinner for them.
LEO (To teacher): Are you married?
ME: (Unspoken horror at this question, scrambling to think up where this would come from, in light of the fact that we know families with two dads, two moms, and single parents of both gender)
TEACHER: I am.
LEO (As though relieved): Phew!!
ME: (Desperately trying to figure out what to say to let this woman know we’re not judgmental people)
TEACHER (Unfazed): Is it important to you that I’m married, Leo?
LEO: Yeah! Because otherwise, the police would come, and I don’t want you to go to jail!
TEACHER (Laughing, Confused): What?
ME (Relieved, Suddenly understanding) Oh thank Goodness!!
Here’s the thing: a LONG time ago, I was on single parent duty, and needed to get Leo out of the house. When he claimed he didn’t want to come, I told him that he HAD to, because if I let my him stay unsupervised, the police would come, think I was a bad father, and have me arrested. This half-truth proved very effective, and was the impetus for this dialogue.
Needless to say, I quickly and eagerly explained what had happened. I would MUCH rather be seen as a stupid parent, than a hateful one…
One thing that I love about our language is that it’s so large and extensive. However, the downside to all of this robustness is that context becomes crucially important for comprehension.
The great comedian Demetri Martin has a fantastic joke where he says that the words “I’m Sorry” and “I Apologize” mean exactly the same thing…except at a funeral. The meaning is clear: in certain situations, you have to make sure that what you SAY, doesn’t get in the way of what you’re SAYING.
This rule is doubly true for four-year-olds.
Last night, I decided to surprise Leo with a trip out to get some ice cream. Tragically however, the shop we picked was cash only, and I had spent my last paper money that day on my car. With no time to spare, I was forced to admit defeat, and leave with a sobbing, inconsolable son in tow.
He recovered from his trauma by the time we arrived home, and went next door to chat with our neighbors. When I went to collect him, this was the exchange that followed:
NEIGHBOR: So…Leo tells us you guys TRIED to get some ice cream tonight…but it didn’t happen.
ME (Sheepishly): Yeah. When we got there, it was Cash Only, and I didn’t have any cash.
NEIGHBOR (Suddenly Understanding): AHH! That makes a LOT more sense.
ME: What did HE say?
NEIGHBOR: He said you took him to get ice cream, but you had to come home when you realized you didn’t have any MONEY!
So as it turns out, Leo either doesn’t understand the difference between cash and credit…or the nuance between not being able to PAY for something…and not being able to AFFORD it. Whatever the reason, I now have neighbors who think I’m destitute.
I’ll pay for ice cream, but Leo is going to pay for THIS…
One fascinating aspect of human nature is that, if someone ACTS as though they belong somewhere, we are generally prone to accept that assumption as fact. Hell, we recently found out about a couple that bluffed their way into official White House functions without any invitations, or anyone knowing who the hell they were. What they HAD, was fancy clothes, and an attitude as though they owned the world.
Here’s my point: if the key to getting what you want in life is bullshitting…then four-year-olds seem poised to take over the world.
Like most young kids, Leo is currently baffled by adults’ ages. he knows we’re “older,” but what that means in relation to life in general is just too foreign a concept.
This past weekend, my aunt Jane visited us, and she truly got the full Leo experience. At one point, she made some comment to him about being an “old lady.” This was the exchange that followed:
JANE: Leo…do you think I’m an old lady?
LEO (Without hesitation): Yes.
JANE: How old do you think I am?
LEO (With nary a pause): 100.
JANE (Laughing): What?
ME: Don’t get too offended. Watch this. (To Leo) Hey Leo, how old do you think *I* am?
LEO (Without missing a beat): 12.
At first blush, this might make sense. Obviously my aunt is older than I am, so he just picked two numbers, one smaller than the other, both larger than his age.
But here’s the thing: Not only do we have a neighbor who is ACTUALLY 12 years old (and four-foot nothing, with braces), but I had told him a story EARLIER THAT DAY about myself, WHEN I was 12. Yet his UTTER conviction in how he answered that question made me take pause and wonder what he did and didn’t know.
I wanted to ask him about some other things, but he had to go get ready for his dinner date with the Obamas…
As I have mentioned before, one of the things I love best about young children is that their world is one in which limitations have not yet been set, and so anything they can dream up is utterly possible.
As terrific as this phenomenon is, it comes with a side effect that, for parents at least, might be even better: they think we possess supernatural abilities.
If I walk upstairs at night and admonish Leo to get back into bed, he will be BLOWN AWAY that I could have known he got out and prescribe this knowledge to some kind of ESP, rather than the fact that I heard his feet thudding over my head.
That’s a basic example. This next one made me laugh out loud.
These days, our weekends are more or less constant exercises in trying to dispel Leo’s energy before he kills himself and/or his sister. On Sunday, I took him to a pool to swim it off, but miscalculated the toll that two days of waking up early, running himself ragged, and not eating enough would take on him. Instead of having a great time and burning some extra calories, we spent most of our pool time fighting, and after he pushed me too far, it ended in my carrying a now-screaming four-year-old to the locker room.
Today, Jill kept Leo out of school/camp so he could play with a visiting friend instead. Since I can NOT be home to help with this, I gave him a “man-to-man” talk about what I expected from him in my absence. This was the exchange that followed:
ME: Leo, when I come home, I want to hear that you were good, and listened to Mommy. I do NOT want to find out that you behaved today like you did at the pool yesterday.
LEO (To Jill): I cried at the pool.
JILL: I know. I heard.
LEO (Utterly flabbergasted): From miles away???
Friends…I absolutely think that, in that moment, Leo believed that Jill had supersonic ears.
So if you ever see a kid walking down the street, constantly looking over his shoulders while he whispers to himself…say hi to my son for me. And let me know what he says next…
In living with a soon-to-be five-year-old who grows more articulate every day, I am discovering yet another fascinating paradox about life:
We invest vast amounts of time and effort teaching our children how to speak clearly…and then release them into a world that expects them to DISGUISE their true feelings and intentions on a daily basis.
Luckily, it seems that my son is DEFINITELY on the right track.
This morning, as every morning, I was preparing lunch for his day at school/camp. Since this is the end of the week, the pickings in the fridge were somewhat slimmer than usual, so I decided to include some asparagus from last night’s dinner. Now as it turns out, Leo actually really likes asparagus, so I thought if he knew to expect it in there, he might actually eat it. This was the exchange that followed:
ME: Hey Leo…I was thinking of putting some asparagus in your lunch today. If I did that…would you eat it?
ME: Would you eat it?
LEO: I’ll eat it…IF I have TIME.
LEO: But I MIGHT not.
ME: I hear you loud and clear.
Later on, I reminded him of the vegetables awaiting him later on today, at which point he promised me he’d “take it under advisement” before shaking my hand, kissing my baby daughter on the cheek, and telling me how much he truly appreciated my efforts on behalf of my family, and my country.
According to the Constitution, he’s eligible to run for President in 2044. Keep your eye out, people…