When talking with any sane adult, one can reasonably expect a conversation consisting of a chain of statements stemming from a comparatively small bank of possibilities. One might not know, for example, exactly how one’s colleague will respond to a business proposal, but rest assured he most likely will not burst into song, answer in dog barks, claim to be George Washington, or begin spontaneously counting by 10s. One cannot make such presumptions, however, when speaking with a child. With their fascinating imaginations, literally anything could pop out of their mouths at any point, no matter how tenuous the connection to the conversation at hand.
Child-chatter is difficult enough for people who understand this phenomenon and have experience with it, but for people who maintain a fairly childless existence, it can be a little confusing. The bagboy at the grocery store, for example, had no idea what kind of conversation he had wandered into when he simple made eye contact with my four-year-old daughter and said:
“I’m a big girl, I bend backwards.” (A reference to her latest gymnastics class achievement.)
“Yes, and I’m going to the dance party when I get my wings.” (A reference to the most recently watched Barbie movie.)
“A dance party?”
“They will be rainbow colored and sparkly. You can have wings too, green ones with stripes.” (She hates green; this is false kindness.)
“And we’ll have CAKE because today is my birthday!” (No, it’s not.)
“Oh cool, happy birthday.”
“And I have a dog. His name is Ozzy. He’s blue.” (Nope.)
“And my mommy’s name is Mommy! Her hair is pink.” (Yep.)
“My sister Laney eats her boogers.” (OK, time to go.)
Children never think their own conversations are strange. To them, a train of thought that jumps the rails is the most normal thing in the world. They are so hyper-focused on the wonderful words coming out of their own mouths that they never pay much mind to what the other person is saying anyway. (Some of us never grow out of that.) Consequently, six wildly different topics of conversation can occur simultaneously without any of them noticing. I enjoy sitting back and watching their sober-faced repartee. If I couldn’t hear their words, I’d swear they were a bunch of tiny adults discussing politics or sports, but in reality it is more an absurd combination of random truths like “I don’t like bees” and “If I stare at you long enough it looks like you have one eye.” The listener nods in agreement and leans forward, interested to hear more of this wisdom. Should I dare to release a hint of laughter, they look at me like I am the one who is off my rocker.
Their imaginations color not only the way they talk, but also the way they choose to play together. Once put in a room together, two children who have never met before can fall effortlessly into an elaborate game of make-believe. No need to plan out a script. No need to rehearse. They just instinctively know what is expected of them and are more than willing to oblige. Trouble only occurs when two or more Alpha-children are playing together and an agreement cannot be reached concerning the plot. At that point, things can get messy because, as imaginative as children can be, their beautiful minds simply cannot accept someone else’s twisted concept of how a tea party attended by pirates, astronauts, and ballerina guinea pigs should play out. In their world, dogs and cats can give birth to baby humans, but under absolutely NO circumstances can there be two “best” super heroes or two “most-gorgeous” princesses living within a 20-mile radius of each other.
There are some days—many days, in fact—when I am home alone with the children for endless hours at a time and I begin to feel like the sole sane person in a psychiatric facility. Other times, when they are all immersed in play, I feel like the lone nut. Why am I the only one who can’t see the angry crocodiles swimming around the couch? But as appealing as it might seem to jump in and play along with your children, don’t even try it. No matter how creative you think you might be, or how loose the rules of play may seem, you probably won’t make the cut. My children once made up a pointless, yet long-lasting, game during a long car ride that seemed to consist merely of saying “poopoo” at the end of every sentence. Simple, right?
“I’m sitting next to Tony… POOPOO.” (Laughter.)
“I’m thirsty… POOPOO” (Uproar.)
“We just passed a semi-truck… POOPOO” (Nearly convulsive hysteria.)
With not much else to occupy my time and a sudden awareness of feeling very left out, I presumed I could best them at their own game. I considered my options for a few moments, mentally trying out various phrases that could get the best laugh, before finally piping up: “Hey guys, we’re almost to a rest stop in case anyone needs to go… POOPOO!!”
Ha! I rock!
Ten eyes stared blankly back at me without so much as a pity grin. I finally turned up my music and let them get back to their game.
As silly as their play may seem, it has often saved my sanity. One winter, on a particularly long and tedious day, my kids decided that the only thing in the entire world they wanted to do was to go swimming. They also seemed to decide that they were going to pluck out my last nerve, dash it to the ground, and dance on it until I found some way to make this happen. As our suburban Ohio home is seriously lacking in indoor pools, I resorted to laying out a large blue blanket on my living room floor, cranking up the heat, dressing everyone in swimsuits and water wings, and letting them dive right in. I wasn’t totally convinced that this would satisfy them, but, to my surprise, they “swam” for literally hours, complete with cannon balls, back strokes, and a few fake drownings. It became their favorite game that season, and it spared me an endless number of boredom-induced brawls.
It is strange to me that, in adulthood, having a child-like imagination has become such a foreign concept. At one time or another, all of us were jumping from chair to chair to avoid the hot lava swirling around our dining room table. At what point in life do we stop being able to create a fantasy world out of an old towel and a clothes pin and act out our dreams with reckless abandon? When and why did we ever begin meeting “strangers” on the street rather than potential playmates, and who decided that we can no longer pretend to be movie stars or submarine captains. Those who made it to adulthood with their youthful imaginations still intact are among our most successful and eccentric peers. They are the premiere authors, actors, entrepreneurs, directors, and toy manufacturers, and without them—had they not remembered how to think and play like children—there would be no Harry Potter, Supersoakers, Disneyland or video games. I can only hope that as my children move through life establishing careers and raising families, they never forget how to be a child.
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