I woke up a little before 5:00 this morning remembering a joke from my childhood. Being really bad at remembering jokes and given that this was a very bad joke, I lay awake for a while pondering why this joke, and why now. That thinking led me to some other childhood memories with some curious connections and some thoughts about how we interact with children. When I rose, I sat down and began writing.
Jimmy was three or four when, on a visit to his grandmother’s for Christmas, his uncle called him “Jim.” Confused, he replied “my name is ‘Jimmy.’” Many years later, when Jimmy decided he would rather go by “Jim,” his mom asked about the change. He explained that he had for years preferred “Jim” but figured he would wait until after high school when presumably he would be leaving behind old friends and making new ones. “But when your Uncle Mike called you that when you were little, you were so adamantly opposed to it. I’ve been telling people your whole life not to call you that name because you don’t like it.” Jim remembered well the conversation he had had with his uncle and explained to his mom that, never having been called by the shortened version of his nickname, he simply didn’t understand why his uncle would call him that. To him, calling him Jim was no different than calling him Ted or David, or Peter, when his name, as he understood it, was “Jimmy.”
When Chris was in grammar school, he heard a joke about a rude customer at a fast food joint. He immediately began spreading the joke to friends, most of whom didn’t seem to get it. The punch line, which was sung to mimic a long string of requests from an obnoxious customer, was a request that a customer kiss the employee (where the sun doesn’t shine). Chris was nine or ten years old at the time, and told the joke because he got to sing the rather graphic and disgusting punch line. At his age, the potty nature of the humor made the joke funny. He did not understand why the response was made or the inappropriateness that led to it. Eventually one of his cousins told his aunt and Chris got in trouble for his “potty mouth”.
Several sixth grade boys were in the classroom playing around with the first computer they had ever seen. With no agenda other than to entertain themselves with this new technology, they were taking turns hunting and pecking out a word or two—usually their names or the names of favorite bands, songs, or girls they thought were cute. One of the boys typed in the words “dildo head” because he thought it sounded funny. When the other boys laughed, the teacher came over, looked at the screen, pulled the perceived rogue typist aside, and asked him if he knew what his words meant. Once he assured her that he did, she sent him back to his friends with instructions “not to use that word.”
Three or four years later he finally found out what the word meant.
Children say a lot of curious things that adults would never say. Sometimes the curiosity or innocence of children comes out in wonderful ways, but other times children are responding with great intelligence to things they simply haven’t the knowledge or maturity to understand. How do we, how should we respond to them? It is easy to dismiss them as somehow “less than” and there is some merit to that. They are obviously, as I already suggested, less educated and experienced, but intelligence has little to do with education and experience. How many times have you half listened to a child’s thoughts or questions, and dismissed them with something like “when you get older you’ll understand” or simply not answered or engaged them? I certainly have, and in doing so, I have failed them by not trying to understand what they were trying to say or by missing opportunities to teach them.
Of course it was an uncomfortable position for a teacher to discuss dildos with a sixth grader and I think few would argue that she should have, but she must have been able to tell that the little boy didn’t know the meaning of that word and some eye-to-eye engagement on the issue: “Where did you learn that word?” or “What does that mean?” might have led to a great educational opportunity without ever having to address the actual meaning. Instead of leaving the boy unaware and feeling guilty, he could have learned not to use words he doesn’t understand. Instead, his teacher took the easy way out.
If Chris’ aunt had sat him down and asked why he told that joke or why he thought it was so funny, they could have had a dialog and he could have learned, not only why it was so inappropriate, but why it was funny, and how disrespectful it was.
If either my uncle or my mom had been paying close attention that Christmas, they might have seen the look of confusion on my face and could have started a conversation about my name and opened up a whole new world to me. What a delight for a three year old to realize he has choices! It is unfortunately way too easy to mistake a child’s lack of learning or exposure for a lack of intelligence, but if we look them in the eye and engage them like little people instead of immature people, we might have an opportunity to teach them something and learn something from them.
I remember a substitute teacher in the fifth grade who walked in thee room, looked at the class and in her best singsong romper room voice said “good morning boys and girls.” In that moment, thirty children turned off and at least one of them has never forgotten that moment. Imagine the day that woman could have given us with just a little respect!