Recently we read one book, Curious George Goes To a Chocolate Factory, in which – spoiler alert! – George goes to a chocolate factory. Being always curious, George makes his way onto the assembly line and hilarity ensues, followed by the factory owner congratulating George for sort of fixing a mess he makes by eating lots of chocolate. You can see why a kid would love this. Anyway, at one point, the story describes George in the gift shop perusing all the different types of candy, including a chocolate bunny. At this point, as I read the book, Curly Fries stopped me.
“How did he catch it?” she asked me.
I was eager to zip through the book and be done with it, so I was a little annoyed she stopped me. “He didn’t catch the bunny, it’s not real.”
She repeated her question.
“It’s not a real bunny,” I explained. “Remember when you got that bunny at Easter that was made of chocolate?”
“That’s what this is. It’s a bunny made of chocolate. It’s not a real bunny, so George didn’t have to catch it.”
“Not George,” she said, “The bunny. How’d the bunny catch it?”
By this point I was frustrated and tired, about to give up on my child ever understanding. “The bunny didn’t catch anything! It’s made of chocolate.”
“You read that the bunny caught George’s eye.”
Which completely stopped me short. Because, indeed, I had read out loud exactly those words: “A chocolate bunny caught George’s eye.” In a strange flash of comprehension I saw the world through the verbal lens of a three-and-a-half-year-old. What a silly thing to say! She completely understood what I’d read; that’s why she stopped me, because it made no sense. Now, my grown-up brain read over the line “A chocolate bunny caught George’s eye” and never for a moment understood that as anything other than “George took particular notice of a chocolate bunny.” But I’ve done thirty-two more years of reading than she has, and I take figures of speech one-hundred percent for granted. I began to imagine what images that sentence would conjure in the mind of a young child who has not yet learned to speak in idioms. So, yeah: I suddenly saw her confusion. What on earth does it look like for a chocolate bunny to catch a monkey’s eye? That’s, you know, kind of a scary image…
I tried to explain to her what it really meant. I told her that no one actually caught anything, but that it just meant that George saw the bunny and was interested in it. She seemed marginally satisfied with this explanation… but only marginally. After all, that’s not what I really said.
My daughter has a pretty good command of the English language. She’s still working on tenses and plurals and all that, but hey, English has a lot of rules and even more exceptions. Where I see her grasp of language flourishing is in how it’s become a part of her mental processing. Words aren’t merely the vehicles of communication for her; they are what she uses to understand the world. Words are concrete pathways to grasping the realities of her lived experience. She understands the words “chocolate” and “bunny,” and she understands that these two words together signify a bunny made of chocolate (because she’s eaten one before). She knows what a “monkey” is, she knows what an “eye” is, she knows monkeys have eyes. She knows what it means to “catch” something, because we play catch with her balls. These words play like pieces of an equation she is balancing in her brain, and when the answer didn’t make sense, she used a word to seek more information: “how.”
On a drive home from school this week, I watched – well, listened to – her work out a different set of reality equations in her head. We passed the site of a car wreck, where a tow truck was hooking up a totaled car. The windshield was covered in a spider-web of cracks and the front bumper and hood had crumpled like cardboard. I said, “Uh oh,” and pointed.
“What is it?” she asked.
“That car was in a crash.”
“I don’t know. But it looks like that car ran into another car and got smashed up. The tow truck is carrying it off because it’s too broken to drive.”
Pause. “If someone crashed their car, it was probably an accident. They didn’t mean to.”
“I bet you’re right. I don’t think many people crash their car on purpose.”
“No.” Pause. “Because if you crash your car, the police might come and put you in time out.”
Pause. “Do the police put a person in time out if it was just an accident and they didn’t mean to?”
“They might, if someone got hurt or they weren’t following the rules.”
“Oh.” Pause. “That car was broken.”
“Yes, it sure was. That’s why they had to call a truck to come remove it, no one will be driving that car anytime soon.”
“Now that person doesn’t have a car.”
Pause. You could almost hear the wheels turning. Then she said, “If we crash our car, then we won’t have it anymore, and we’d have to walk.”
I laughed. “That’s exactly right. And we don’t want to have to walk home, do we?”
“No.” Pause. “That’s why you have to be careful when you drive so you don’t crash. Because we want to keep our car and not walk everywhere.”
I’m hoping she will retain this hard-won insight until she turns fifteen. As she spoke out loud, it was easy to follow the logic and reasoning, each piece of expressed reality connecting to the next. A broken car, someone making a mistake, getting into trouble, not having a car, needing to walk, not wanting to walk, needing to be safe. Specifically impressive to me was when she moved from the hypothetical person not having a car to the idea that we might not have a car. Her experiences of reality – broken things being thrown away, having accidents, needing a car to get around – helped her to reconstruct the consequences of the accident. And all of this was processed out loud.
Language is one of the primary tools for a child to order their experience in the world. In fact, I might suggest that at this age, language is utilized more as an internal meaning-making tool than it is as a communication tool. If she used it to communicate, I wouldn’t spend so much time telling her to “use her words.” I only say that to her when I want understanding; she’s quick to use her words when she is seeking understanding.
Kids talk an awful lot. It’s often a source of exasperation for parents, particularly once they reach the age of the “rolling why”. Next time a child is chewing your ear off and you are longing for a moment of peace, remind yourself that they are doing some significant developmental work. We can probably get away with tuning them out now and then while they work out the world for themselves. But we’re liable to miss some amazing meaning-making.