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Thinking literally

While I was writing last week’s column about my early days in school, I remembered a little neighbor boy we had while we lived in Iowa City. The youngest of three children, he missed his older siblings when school started each September. As happens with younger children, he had heard a lot about that somewhat mysterious and definitely wondrous place called school, and couldn’t wait for his turn. He had been told repeatedly that he could go to school when he was 5. So naturally, from his point of view, on the day of his fifth birthday, near the end of March, he expected to begin his academic career and was inconsolable when told that he would have to wait until the next fall when school started anew. Nobody had explained that little detail to him, however, and I can’t blame him for being somewhat bitter and perhaps mistrusting of the things adults told him from then on.
Kids are pretty keen observers of what we adults do, and they learn a lot from simply watching us. Sometimes they get it wrong and the results can be puzzling, weird or just plain funny. One of my grandsons was so eager to learn to read that he decided to make up his own written language. He developed a set of symbols that he used to write down stories that he made up. Apparently his simple alphabet was good enough for him, because he could read his stories back from the written pages in his little spiral notebook. I was impressed when he read me a fairly long story he had written about a sheriff and a bad guy, turning the pages as he went, some of which contained pictures he had drawn to illustrate his story. When he came to the end, reading about the capture and incarceration of the criminal, he proudly showed me the final drawing. It was a carefully rendered depiction of a barred jail cell, the sheriff in uniform and badge with his arms in the air, and a scruffy looking culprit in mid-air above the cell. I was puzzled for only a moment (I did teach children’s art classes, remember) as he read the final line of the tale, “and the sheriff took the bad guy straight to town and threw him in jail.” Kids pick up idiomatic expressions from us and use them themselves, but they often take them literally and can come up with some strange interpretations of the things that we say.
When we use expressions like, “it’s a piece of cake,” when it’s really a roll of wallpaper, or remark that something, “goes without saying,” and then proceed to say it, it’s no wonder that children don’t understand so many of the things we tell them, and that they are prone to repeat such expressions at inappropriate times. I remember when, as a child listening to an adult conversation, I was often moved to contribute my own thoughts about a topic. On occasion, my remarks were in the form of something I’d heard adults say at other times– things I’d apparently misunderstood or misinterpreted. While I no longer remember just what it was that I said, I can clearly remember my hurt and embarrassment when the adults laughed uproariously at my words. Of course, I hadn’t a clue as to what was so funny and the experience only served to make me shy about getting involved with adult conversations.
I remember the day that my 4-year-old son brought me a bucket filled with most of the little green apples from the apple tree in our back yard. He was glowing with pride as he announced, “I picked these so we can keep them in the house and they can get big and juicy and the worms can’t get them.” He remembered my saying that the apples from the previous year had been unusable because we hadn’t sprayed at just the right time. What I hadn’t explained was the fact that apples need to stay attached to the tree in order to get big and juicy– a basic fact that we adults know and young children don’t.
In the early days of television, Art Linkletter had the TV version of what had been a long-running radio program called “House Party” that sometimes included some of the unintentionally amusing things that children say. He later published a small book of those remarks titled “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” While those remarks were funny to adults, they weren’t necessarily funny to the kids who said them in all seriousness. Many of the things in the book are funny because of the contexts in which they are used– and many are the result of kids misunderstanding things that they’ve heard the adults in their lives say. I’d be interested in seeing a collection of those things that we grownups say that are misinterpreted by our literal-minded children. Of course it would be titled, “Adults Say the Darnedest Things.”