The fallout from the whole Tower of Babel debacle left man and his children rather befuddled. As the dust settled, humanity severed all connection to those that did not speak and therefore think like themselves, dispersing the human population into nations, cultures, and warring soccer communities. Of course, the children are the hardest hit. Lacking the independence and foresight to band together, children remain a scattered genealogical nation of nomads resplendent in ages, height, and various levels of facial hair, adopting the customs and language of their parents, who – more likely than not – attribute their bairn’s misunderstandings to stupidity or laziness.
In truth, children possess a language all their own, one that has fairly escaped the notice of adults for several centuries. In this case, as in many others, the confusion is mutual, and while much can be said of education and maturity, memory and spite, we might funnel centuries of misunderstandings, punishments, and pouting into two central archetypes: diversion versus responsibility. Children cannot fathom why their elders choose CNN over Bugs and Daffy, and parents cannot come to grips with little Billy’s refusal to clean his room:
“Seriously, how difficult is it to carry your discarded jeans into the laundry or return your Legos to their plastic bins? Come on guys, this is ridiculous.”
In retaliation, a child will shrug and say it wasn’t a priority at the time, cleaning would risk missing Wile E. Coyote on the receiving end of an Acme anvil.
Fortunately enough for my younger siblings and cousins, my maturity level has remained fairly constant since learning how to read Uncle Scrooge comics, age six. It helps that I’ve never actually grown up.
Now my philosophy towards children is that one should never talk down to them, assuming their level of understanding is akin to that of a stone-deaf savage: “ME UNCLE MURPH. YOU BRANDON. BRANDON MUST EAT CE-RE-AL. THE SQUARES ON PLATE. YOU. PLACE. ON. TONGUE. CHEW.”
Nor talk to the child as you would a to a fat lady’s Chihuahua: “Oh wook at the widdle-liddile toesee-woesees. Does that tickle? Dooes dat tickle-wickle? You are a good boy, yes you are. Yes you are. Have cookie-wookie . . .” Frankly I cannot fathom how dogs put up with such nonsense, and children possess four-times the learning capacity. Without the stimuli and addiction of video games (my little brother is learning Japanese on his DS), we’d be a nation of idiots.
In most instances, you’ll realize that children are smarter than you. After babysitting my younger cousins, Paul and Molly, during a recent family vacation near the Outer Banks I discovered that conversation necessitates a vivid imagination and rather flexible self-image, unencumbered by adult-type barriers like self-esteem.
“Murph-y,” Paul says to me, his voice breaking his words into different syllables. “Wha-ta are those?” He points out into the water, now sitting low between the muddy banks coating the Hilton Head Island inlet. Hours earlier the boats and docks sat high upon the water, sea currents flowed freely through the reeds and grasses, swelling the marina like the locks in the Panama Canal. Moments later as if someone pulled a plug, the currents shifted and the cove was drained; grasses reemerged cutting maze-like paths for boats, washing reeds and flotsam out to sea. The water trickling out into the marsh was now flecked with white foam, which Paul pointed out and reminded me of powdered creamer floating insoluble in my morning coffee.
“Sea foam,” I answered, swinging his hand back and forth as we cross the footbridge. The slightly rotted stench of sea and fish waft up from beneath, intoxicating senses far too long separated from the Carolina shore.
“I’m not sure how it’s formed,” I continue. “The churning of the waves combined with compounds in the water perhaps.”
“You use stra-ange words,” Paul giggles. He then roars at a small crab scuttling across the pier. It stops for a moment as if to consider him, and continues on its way.
The innocence of children is a widely held myth that in practice just does not hold water. Those fabled illustrations you see in Mass missals or prayer books of the young cherub dressed in his Sunday’s best, hands clasped tightly in prayer, eyes gazing heavenward illuminated by some holy light are largely creatures of pure imagination, sprouting from the artist’s mind as much as a manticore or unicorn. In most Masses children retain the same attention span as grandfather Dave, who sleeps through most of the service, snoring – loudly – and sputtering “damn bastards” through most of the homily. Many parents cannot convince their little angels to sit still long enough to sleep or snore. During the closing hymn, Paul closes his eyes and mimes the canter, tilting his head from side to side like Ray Charles at the piano.
Without a thought, Paul’s younger sister, Olivia, would have stomped on the crab, and then turned her face towards us with a smile that would have melted the heart of the Grinch. Paul however is not always so fearless. He remains fixed beside me as the crab disappears beneath the pier, joining its fellows among the barnacles.
“Barn-ankles?” Paul asked after I suggested as much. The crustacean having vanished, he strode forward once again bravely. An older couple passed us, smiling behind large sunglasses. The man waved at us.
“How are you, young man?” he asked.
“Okey-dokey, old man,” Paul said, spreading his wide toothless grin. The couple kept on walking, much too fast for even the hastiest apology.
Less than fantastical is a child’s sense of honesty, often harsh, cruel, and uncompromising. Rather hilarious at times as well. I once had the pleasure of sitting through a parent-teacher conference, hosted by a rather pompous math teacher (“I teach only the most exceptional students.”). One of the children sitting just ahead of me bent over to her father’s wilting head and whispered: “Daddy, is that the guy you and Mommy think is a liberal prick?” I masked my laughter with a sudden and violent fit of coughing.
“Paul!” I chided as soon as we were out of earshot. “You shouldn’t call people that they . . . they might get insulted.”
“Why?” he asked, widening his smile into a Cheshire grin. “He was old. What are barn-ankles?”
“Underwater crustaceans or possibly mollusks, I forgot which,” I responded quickly, welcoming the change in subject. “They attach themselves to the bottom of boats and pilings under docks, like suction cups. I believe they feed on tiny little animals that live in the shallow water.”
“You use lots of big words,” my little cousin comments matter-of-factly. He swings my hand in his. “I’m going to call you Mr. Smarty-pants.”
“Oh, um . . . thanks . . . uh bud.”
“No proba-lem, Mr. Smarty-Pants.”
Paul’s sister Molly has other names for me, titles far less flattering. They say that children often ‘see’ or sense auras that emanate from others, subtle feelings or attitudes that remain ignored between less perceptive adults. Several of my cousins can take a crying babe in their arms and sooth it in an instant; others’ presence will inevitably provoke tears.
Michael Critchon in his autobiographical memoir, Travels, discusses the notion and how if properly trained one can develop and see individual chakras or – as I understand it – our emotional and spiritual state. Red for example is often associated with anger or frustration, orange with cleansing, and blue with sensitivity and calm, while sections of the body such as the crown (our center of wisdom) or throat (speech center) indicate the important chakra cores. I’m not so sure how much of this I believe; certainly none of these beliefs are supported scientifically, yet part of me wants to accept the notion that we sense or adapt to one another in non-specific ways. Moreover, children have the ability to perceive the world in a totally unique way; perhaps they are more receptive to feelings or auras. If such is the case, I’m fairly alarmed at how my cousins consider me . . .
“Murph, I’m going to make up a nickname for you . . .” Molly giggles as we sit waiting in the movie theater. Both my younger cousins retain a welcome interest and love for dinosaurs, an obsession I encourage in every way possible (I introduced Paul to Jurassic Park, both the toys and the movie, and both he and Molly have been hooked since). Thus I thought they might enjoy the latest Ice Age movie at one of the local cineplexes, an ancient declining theater with cement floors, 1960s seating, and no pre-show commercials. Arriving fifteen minutes before the show, the kids faced a dim room, a blank screen and little to distract them before the previews.
After two minutes crunching on popcorn, Molly turns in her seat and crouches to stare at me, into my eyes. Suddenly she draws back and announces, “I’m going to call you Mr. Cheesecake-Head.”
Paul seated next to me disagrees. Further down the aisle, my siblings silently dip into their pockets, sucking down hidden treats while the younger kids argue.
“No Molly, he’s Mr. Pumpkin Pie Head,” Paul shouts spitting half-chewed popcorn on my lap, “with candy stuck to his hair . . .”
“ . . . and grilled cheese stuck to his nose,” Molly giggles, her tiny teeth now red from Hawaiian punch, our shared jumbo cup tilted precariously in her lap.
“Uh guys,” I mutter. “What’s with the desserts? All the pastry and candy-imagery? I . . .”
“You’re Mr. Polka-dot Underwear Head with a nose and candy on your head . . .”
“. . . with gummy worms, Molly! Gummy worms instead of hair.” Molly topples in her seat, giggling to death. I grab the jumbo-sized drink before it falls to the floor.
“Hold on guys, that’s much too much like Medusa,” I suggest, trying to change the subject. A noble quest if ultimately ineffective.
“Who’s that?” Molly sings.
“A monster in Greek mythology called a Gorgon who had snakes in her hair,” I begin, writhing my finger behind my head. “They were cursed by Athena, but finally killed by Perseus son of . . .”
“Oo-kay, Mr. Smarty-pants.”
“Smarty-pants, smarty-pants,” Molly giggles, “with cheeseburger brains . . .”
“. . . and flip-flop head . . .”
“ . . . and lollipop ears.”
Paul removes his sandals and points. “This is what your head looks like . . . hmmm,” he says pausing amidst his metaphor to sniff the soles. “They smell like chocolate. Wanna smell?”
“No, no thank you, bud.” Molly has toppled over in her chair, giggling, her eyes wet with tears.
“. . . flip-flop head . . . la la la, lollipop ears. Murphy has lollipop ears . . . so funny.”
She’s still laughing when her body falls from her seat; Paul stomps his foot down on the floor and smells it again, scouring the theater perhaps for the chocolate. Kevin returns his hand to his pockets and smiles. After several frightening moments – Paul’s eyes dart to Kevin’s mouth just as Molly’s feet disappear beneath the seats – the lights dim and the previews start, which settles the kids . . . momentarily until the flick ends. Who knows what terminology they’ll devise after the movie, their imaginations primed and tantalized with talking mammoths and dinosaur babies: Lizard Brain? Mammoth Belly? Dino Doo-Doo Nose? The possibilities . . . those horrible horrible possibilities were endless.
For the moment I settle back and relax, resting my flip-flop-shaped head on the chair and relishing the absence of communication from the seats beside me. Halfway through the movie, Molly jumps into my lap, laying her head next to my lollipop ears, and falls asleep. Paul leans on my shoulder and sucks his thumb. A subtle message but an important one, I suppose. Truth is core to communication; honesty cannot exist in a vacuum. However, in a world saturated with words, speeches, and empty promises, the old clichés ring true. Whatever age or generation our actions, even the most fragile gestures, speak the loudest.