Good Morning December 11, 2016

Good morning on this the eleventh day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I had an interesting exchange with my four year old son today:

Child: I want my [specific toy].

Me: Where did you last have it?

Child: In my hand.

Me: That’s… true.

It’s always funny when children answer questions in a very literal way, and it gets to the heart of what I think is a common misunderstanding of children: the idea that children are irrational. (There is, I think, a true idea that children are irrational in the sense of what changes at the age of reason, which is to say, when they seem to gain the ability to reason in an abstract manner, but that’s not what I mean and isn’t, generally, what people mean either.)

In particular, children aren’t nearly so much irrational as inexperienced. In a theoretical sense, knowledge and what you do with it are two separate things. This is related to the distinction of knowledge coming from experience and wisdom from learning the right lessons from that experience. Children take questions—like my question above—literally not because they can’t conceive of any wider meaning, but because they have no experience which suggests any wider meaning. Most of the things we say in life we mean very literally. “Don’t draw on the table with that crayon” does not have an esoteric meaning. “Do you need to use the potty” does not allude to any large topic with complex considerations. “Do you want a PB&J or Grilled Cheese?” touches on no subtleties. But when I ask my child where he had his toy last, this does bring up some of the complexities of looking for lost items; or at least it is meant to. But the child can only know that by this question being a prelude to trying to conjure in his imagination where the object was.

And as an incidental detail of child raising, it turns out that doing this is in fact a learned skill. I can remember with my oldest child helping him to find things several times by doing the very simple, “where were you when you last had it” and then going and looking there. They learn that skill very quickly, though, since it’s so effective, and it only take a few repetitions before they go look on their own and only ask for help when it’s not where they remember playing with it last.

There’s another interaction I can recall, which shows a similar pattern:

Me: Stop hitting your brother with Optimus Prime!

Child: Puts down optimus prime, picks up Bumblebee, starts hitting brother with Bumblebee.

The child wasn’t trying to get by on a technicality. In the first few months of hitting one’s brother, there are a lot of complex lessons to learn, such as that the objection to optimus prime (which I didn’t explicitly state) is not some special thing about Optimus Prime which I know and the child didn’t and so he just had to trust me, but that Optimus Prime was made of hard plastic, which the child can know himself, and consequently that this same objection holds to Bumblebee, who is also made of hard plastic. By contrast, when the children are hitting each other with balloons, I don’t object, because the balloons are soft and have little mass and can’t hurt anyone. But it takes a lot of data for the child to figure out what’s common to the few things he and his brother may hit each other with and what’s common to the many things he may not. He’s not trying to see what he can get away with, but just utterly lacking the experience of adults in knowing what actually hurts people.

And part of how you know that he lacks this experience is that he makes the exact same mistakes when applied to himself. He does things which hurt himself and is surprised at the result. For example, it seems that children will not believe you about not snapping rubber bands on themselves until they’ve done it hard enough to cry at it. They’re not attempting to lawyer their way through technicalities, but to navigate a big and complex world with a great many twists and turns in it without any data.

This same problem does affect adults interacting with each other, by the way. Except that while with children we expect them to not know what we know—at least somewhat expect it, anyway—it’s all too common for adults to assume that all other adults know what they know, and furthermore to hold it to be a failing if the other adult doesn’t know it. This results in a great deal of miscommunication, since on any complex subject we only say a small fraction of what we mean (for efficiency’s sake) and require the listener to interpret most of our meaning based on shared knowledge and context. Especially on the internet, which throws together people with vastly differing backgrounds, it’s a very good idea to make sure of what someone’s unstated context really is before you assume you know what they mean. Don’t go full Wittgenstein—never go full Wittgenstein—but it is true that a great many philosophical and political disagreements turn out to be misunderstandings. There are enough real disagreements in the world; it’s unhelpful to shrowd them in a haze of miscommunication.

God bless you.

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