Friday, July 9, 2010

The Meaning of Things

I sometimes forget that children are born without knowledge. Everyday, they acquire information through experience. They form impressions, develop understanding and attach meaning based on sensory information, social involvement and direct and indirect teaching. It is an acquisition of knowledge that is constant, rapid and in some ways so subtle, that it is easy to forget that it is going on until you probe deeper to see what is being learned. The process of attaching meaning to things struck me like a stray firecracker last week when we took our daughters to Tucson for the Fourth of July. Given my previous rants about Arizona and my strong feelings about their immigration law, I went with great trepidation. But my husband’s band was performing there and rather than have him drive the 14 hours round trip on his own, we tossed the entire crew in the car and went.

As we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel and observed preparations for the evening fireworks display, my kids talked excitedly about America’s birthday party. Their conversation made me wonder exactly what they thought the celebration was about.

“America’s turning another year older,” is what my seven year old said, lamenting the fact that there was no birthday cake involved in this party.

My older daughter added with the certainty and wisdom that only a nine year old can have when trumping their younger sibling, “It’s a celebration of our country’s independence.”

I asked them who we were trying to be independent from and they both looked at me, confused, knowing they should know the answer, but realizing in that moment that it was a fact they just didn’t have in their heads. Then the wild guessing began.

“Independence from George Washington!” Natalie shouted.

“No, don’t be silly,” Nicole said, dismissing Natalie’s theory for her own. “Europe. Independence from Europe.”

Well, at least she got the continent right. David and I gave them a mini history lesson, which I swear we have given them every year prior on the same day to explain the same holiday. But for some reason the fireworks and pool parties which have come to dominate the celebration made more of an impression in their memory than the story of a bunch of guys in white wigs back in 1776, sitting around a table and signing a document saying that they no longer wanted anything to do with an English king and his increasingly unfair tax codes.

But what the exchange reminded me, other than the need to watch more programming on the history channel, was that kids get meaning from what they see around them and unless we give context to the meaning, they can go on for years, for lifetimes with impressions and ideas which neither inform or serve them well.

We were at a movie screening recently and a father with his two young children in tow, was trying to get into the event early to get the best seats, even though his wife, who had the screening passes to get them inside, was still parking the car. After being told that he needed the passes to enter, the father became angry and started swearing at the usher, eventually bullying his way in after using a few unprintable words. It was bad enough that his own children had to witness his behavior, but I didn’t appreciate mine being subjected to it as well. I know what I thought about pushy dad, but I wondered what meaning they attached to the incident. My older kid, knowing better, but also catching the disapproving mom look on my face, talked about how and why his behavior was bad – the curse words he used, breaking the rules for his own purposes, being impatient and rude. But my younger daughter pointed out that he got what he wanted while we were still waiting outside of the theater. She learned from his bad behavior that if you act up, you get what you want. That was the meaning she walked away with from the experience. She saw the exchange in a completely different light, in a way that makes perfect sense for a young child, but in a way that if I hadn’t corrected her impression, would have been behavior that she would have thought was acceptable and adopted as her own.

Both incidents reminded me of the tremendous responsibility that we have as parents to give background and meaning to what our children experience in the world around them so that they grow up with a deeper knowledge and understanding of things and the ability to be open minded, interpret interactions and ascribe their own moral and ethical compass to them. And if we don’t, I guess we can be like the mom I heard the other day on the news. Trying to explain away her son’s fifteen years of criminal activity, she finally threw up her hands and said, “Well, I did the best I could.” In the end, I guess that’s all any of us can do.

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