Published: Friday, May 3, 2013

Food for Thought

Little Heads, Big Ideas

It's a snow penguin, obviously.

It’s a snow penguin, obviously.

People are often heard to comment on how children seem “much smarter” nowadays, and it’s undoubtedly true that some of what comes out of small (smart) mouths can sometimes take one’s breath away. Not necessarily in a good way, either! I think a lot of it can be explained by the exposure that the average middle-class child of today gets to electronic media – if not computers and DVDs, then at least the 24 hour accessibility of television channels, and very often, cable TV. Under the circumstances, it would be strange if the bombardment of ideas and images inflicted on their developing brains did not lead to some unexpected conversational consequences.

But while I’m not a big fan of ‘echorey pakami” or excessive precociousness myself, I am continually amazed by the logic children often demonstrate in favour of their argument (whatever that argument may be at any given point of time), by the humour that they can demonstrate surprisingly early in life, and by the sensitivity, intelligence and simplicity with which they express their often-complex ideas. I suspect that none of that is new. There have always been kids who have thought harder, felt more deeply, and absorbed what was going on around them more quickly. After all, there’s a reason why our parents used to be careful what they said around us, because they knew that “little pitchers” had big ears. And they still do, as any parent can tell you!

But let’s start off with the charming capacity kids have to take what you say literally – and then respond to the bit that they consider worthy of their notice. Like my friend Afia’s little boy Suleiman – who, upon being reminded to put on his slippers because his nose was running – quickly grabbed his nose with his fingers and said, “It’s okay, Mama. I’ve caught it!” Please note that the rule about wearing slippers featured nowhere in his response…

Sometimes the logic on offer can be unbearably sweet. As my friend Mary Anne discovered when her daughter Kavya found out that she was feeling tired as she prepared to make dinner. The five-year-old had a brainwave, and offered her mother no less than 14 kisses on the forehead to give her energy. As Mary Anne said, if only that worked! Though come to think of it, I suspect it probably did. After she had finished delivering her forehead kisses, Kavya asked Mary Anne if any other parts of her body “were lonely” and needed some TLC too.

There was a different kind of logic on offer another evening, when Mary Anne’s partner Kevin was getting the children their dinner. They had asked to have some chips with their food, and their father agreed provided they agreed to eat all their peas. The two kids responded quite differently to this assertion. Kavya, at five, wisely said it would be easier if she ate the peas first, so she chose to wait and take her chips after she had finished the peas. Anand, aged three, said “I want my chips now.”

One occasion when he had to be patient!

One occasion when he had to be patient!

Kevin made Anand promise that he would eat all the peas afterwards, and Anand said that he would. After the chips were placed in front of him, the little boy shoved them all in his mouth at one go. As soon as he could talk again, he said to Kevin, “Daddy, rules can change”! Luckily, Kevin did have a Plan B to persuade his son to eat the peas, but as he pointed out, it couldn’t have been a good sign that he had to plan so hard to out manoeuvre a three-year-old.

In a conversation with my friend’s eight year old a few weeks ago, I was faced with some fairly irrefutable logic myself. Joya began by saying, with some feeling and a significant degree of emphasis, “I’ve missed you, Farah Khala!” Knowing myself to have been remiss on this front, I responded guiltily, “Yes, I’m sorry. It’s been a while since I saw you.” She looked at me, outraged. “A while?! It’s been almost years!”

Attempting a firm tone to dismiss any drama, I said, “Well, I did see you in November, so it’s probably more like 3 months…” Joya was singularly unimpressed. “I know,” she said, “That’s why I said, almost years!” I should add that Joya made an almost equally reasonable deduction after being asked if she knew the name of the illness for which she had been in hospital a few months ago. Replying with utter confidence, she said, “Yes, I do. It’s paediatrics.”

And there are of course those occasional amazing kids that just take your breath away. Like my friend Mira’s eight year old son, Faiz, who reads a lot and comes back every now and then to find out what an unfamiliar word means, either from his parents or from the dictionary. A recent query to his mother was over what the word ‘genocide’ meant.

The next day, Mira overheard the following conversation between Faiz and his six year old sister, Anya.

Faiz: “Anya, genocide is no laughing matter. It’s when one country is killing another country.”

Anya laughed.

Faiz: “Anya! It isn’t funny, you ungrateful lout!”

Too right, Faiz, it really isn’t funny! Good for you for figuring that out so early in life. You’ll go far. And so, I suspect, will your sister – even if she does sometimes make you angry by laughing at you so inappropriately.

And speaking of going far, another child who has never left me in any doubt of how far she will go in life is eight-year-old Ilana. Her imagination is as formidable as her intellect, and both shine through in the most mundane of interactions. Like this one. Opening a bag of microwave popcorn the other day, Ilana said to her mother, “Look, Mama, it’s talking in steam.”

“Of course it does,” she continued, without missing a beat “Steam is popcorn’s native language”! And ‘smart’ is clearly some kids’ native language…