At the outset let me say that the title does not have a spelling error! As you read on, you will understand.
“Adam: When do we go back to school?
Jutta (mother): The day after tomorrow
Adam: When is that?
Natasha (Sister): Two sleeps!” R.D. Laing
Piaget and I
It was the early eighties and I was passionate about Piaget, so every chance I got, I would spend time asking science questions to young children. In the classroom, any student showing the remotest interest in his work would be enticed into a project. Fortunately for many, they were able to withstand my excitement, but some succumbed. So, both in my personal life as well as the classroom, I overdosed on Piaget. I remember being teased about it sometimes. When, in an exam, someone would misspell his name, it would drive me nuts, so I would circle Pigget (the best mistake I have read) with a huge red mark; when the unfamiliar name was not pronounced correctly, I would roll my eyes and slow down my speech to ensure that I was heard clearly. When I look back, I realize how absolutely childish this passion was, and how sorry I am to have imposed this on so many. But it was love, and I guess I can be forgiven!
If it was a child in the family (mine arrived a bit later), I would spend hours trying to get their perspectives on things. If it was a project, I would spend hours scouring the responses for juicy details. In these experiments with children, many conversations have stayed, but I will limit my enthusiasm. I can feel some vestiges of that excitement that was once very strong.
Rahul, where do babies come from?
The title of the project was “Children’s ideas about birth and death” and the interviews with young children were arranged around questions about birth and death. We found that adults were sometimes wary about the topic, so we only had access to those children whose parents agreed. It was, thus, a select group. From the children, once we gained access, we opened our interviews with simple questions about whether they had seen a baby or an older person. Children were, as always, delightful once they believed that you were worth talking to. They delighted us with their thoughts. Of course, some shy ones stayed with monosyllables, but we were sure their minds were racing, it’s just that they didn’t want to talk with us at that time. One of the questions we planned was: “Where do babies come from?” I don’t remember the child’s name so let’s call him Rahul. The narrative, however, is etched in mind. I have used it so often over the years. Translated here from Hindi:
Student (S): Rahul, have you seen any babies?
Rahul (R): Yes (I think there was a recent birth in the family)
S: (After some talk about babies, their appearance, activities) Where do these babies come from, Rahul?
R: (Looking rather surprised): You don’t know?
S: Hmmm……I want you to tell me (I remember he checked twice about whether the student knew or not, strange didi, he must have thought)
R: (In a matter of fact sing song tone that indicated it was obvious) Hospital.
R: (Adopting the same sing-song tone): Yeee—-eeess!
This is the point at which you can either drop it, thinking that the child has “answered correctly” and your task is complete. The premise on which scores of studies are completed and published, or you can persist as Piaget advised. Of course, S persisted.
S: How do they get to the hospital, Rahul?
R: (Repeat of the exasperated look) Doctor brings them.
The student resolved to ask one more. That’s when all hell broke loose.
S: Where does the doctor get the babies from?
R: (Intensely absorbed in his thoughts he rattled off) Accha, so, the doctor goes to the market and there he goes to buy……
S: (Now excited) ….BABIES? The Doctor buys babies?
R: No didi! He goes from shop to shop. From one he buys teeth, from another eyes, from another bones and blood (and so on), and collects everything. Then he comes back to the hospital and puts all this together and puts it the mother’s stomach. That’s where babies come from! (Quite satisfied with his detailed answer).
The student, meanwhile, was reeling under the shock of the images that Rahul must have had to conjure up to fulfil the task of making babies!
“There is a black aeroplane”
P was one of the most articulate children I have known. As a young child, she would narrate her imaginary tales to anyone was willing to listen. Once when I was visiting her at home, I watched her carefully and decided this was a perfect opportunity for me to inform myself about what went on in her mind. Here is one conversation from that time. I’m jumping right into the main topic.
I: So P, can you tell where this wind is coming from? (As I blow into her palm. Her expression: Of course I know)
P: From your stomach!
I: How did it get there?
P: Well, from the legs of course!
I: Legs? Really? And how did it get into my feet?
P: From the ground, through the chappals and up to the stomach!
(I was charged, this was going well)
I: And do you see those leaves moving? (I draw her attention to the trees outside the window)
P: Same! (Her theory was perfect, once she believed something, she would apply it confidently) From the ground (like steam, she gestured) up the trunk, to the branches and to the leaves. (Not to be restricted by my questions, she continues) …..and that’s where the birds get their wind from. They come sit on the branches, pull up the wind, fly around. And when they’re tired, the come and sit again on the tree for more. (Her curly black hair bouncing around her animated face).
I: (I was beside myself with joy) And night? Where does night come from?
P: Oh! (Now she gets all mysterious and suspenseful in her tone) A black aeroplane comes. And in that there are black clouds. People with black clothes holding black mugs pour the black clouds onto the city! (AHA! I was hooked, and she loved how impressionable I was, I think)
I: And day? How does that happen?
P: (Soft dramatic tones) There is a white aeroplane, in which there are people with white clothes and white mugs…..
I: (Quite excited, I interrupt) ….and it is full of white clouds….. (She was applying her logic quite perfectly).
P: (Never one to be outsmarted, she said) Nooooooo! They lean over and one by one, they pick up mugfuls of black clouds and pour them back into the plane. (Nodding wisely) That’s how day comes!!!
“Every home has something missing, that’s why we go to school!”
Another conversation relates to this preschooler’s understanding of School. I interviewed him for Samvaad, the monthly magazine of Saraswathi Puri Nursery School, part of the RAK Child Study Centre at our department, where he was enrolled. This is from a recording.
I: A, what is school?
A: School is where….when…..sometimes some peoples don’t do work at home, that’s why we go to school! That is school!
I: Why do you think some people don’t do work at home?
A: Because some peoples don’t have pencils also, no books also…..
I: But we have pencils also and books also, why do you go to school?
A: (Becoming more assertive partly in Hindi now, he reverses the dynamics of the conversation, poses a question for me) Look. Like. We do more work in school or do we do more work at home? Hmm? First you answer that?
I: Aaaammmmm…..I suppose home also, and school also (I reply in Hindi)
A: But the one where you work more, that is school!
I: But look, in your school, you play a lot, right? Why do you play in school then? (Wanting to push this a bit)
A: Like……look. When there is no park around the home, like we have only two small terraces, this much (gestures sizes) and this much….so how will we play?
I: But even from large houses, people send their kids to school, no?
A: Listen! (Now getting a bit exasperated). Even big homes have some things missing, like you may have only pens…….and no books……..
I: Oh okay! Even big homes can have something missing?
A Yes! (Then he quickly checks with me) I’m saying right?
I: Absolutely! I am asking what you think.
A: (Even more confident) That is why we go to school.
“I have little people inside my head”
When he was little, U had a very distinct ‘theory of mind’. He believed that he had little people inside his head that were always working away. I was as fascinated by this idea as he was, and I would sometimes ask him about it. For him, this was very real for several years. Equipped with bits of paper and pens, he said, they write, and the words and sentences that they compose were his thoughts, he believed. At night, when he was asleep, the people rested, only to get busy with scribbling in between, that’s when dreams would emerge. I watched in wonder as he spoke about the little people inside the head that were the source of his thoughts, and emotions. I have to dig into my notes from a long time ago, but there was some conversation about love and happiness and the little people. But anger was expressed differently. In moments of anger, the little people wouldn’t write. “When I get angry, the paper on which the thoughts are written? The little people are tearing up all those sheets”!
“God is in my tummy”
As Pooja and her six year old were driving back home from school, a tiny object caught her attention. In their car, they have a Ganesha idol on the dashboard and she asks “Mummy, is this gold?”
P: Not at all, Why do you ask?
A: Ah, okay. It doesn’t matter.
A: Because god is everywhere.
A: Everywhere, he can see us from anywhere.
P: Okay. And what does he do?
A: Nothing. He tells us what to do.
P: How does he do that?
A: Sometimes he tells us and sometimes not. Sometimes I hear him and sometimes I hear nothing. But you know S (younger sister) can’t hear god. She doesn’t have god in her! (I ask why?) Because she keeps crying for everything. She can’t hear god. She doesn’t.
P: (Turning to the person being talked about to check her views): S, where is god?
S: (Pointing to her tummy) Here! God sits here.
P: God sits in your tummy? S nods in agreement
P: What does he do?
S: Eats all my food (giggling)!
Why? Why? Why? Why?
Our team member Reshu says she is inundated by questions from her three-year-old daughter. “Why…why…..why……She has loads of whys in her speech. She watches us very carefully and quickly reverts back when she hears something that she can question. Recently we were having dinner and she was eating rice from her own plate. After eating a bit she stood up and went away saying ‘My tummy is full’. She soon returned, picked up some rice in her hands and went away again. She seemed to be playing with it. When I asked her what she was doing, saying “Don’t take the rice into your hands.” She replied: “Why? That’s how you are eating”!
“Sometimes she says very shocking things, like one day when she was playing under the dining table (which acts like a house to her and her dolls), her grandfather asked: ‘Can I also join you?’ ‘No!’ (she replied promptly) ‘You are too fat to fit in my house’! Her grandfather was initially shocked by her response, but as is common, he shared this with everyone over the next few days.
At another time, she and her three year old cousin were talking. Both these girls are so self-sufficient when they are together, they don’t need anyone or anything else. ‘Look, my dress is soooo pretty, look at this toy my mother has bought for me, mine is nice, yours isn’t…will you share yours with me?’ and so on.
Next day when they meet ‘If you don’t share this with me, I will do potty on you!’ My sister and I were in splits. We wondered where these children got their ideas from. On the way to the park, one day, S was chatting up with an older woman whom we meet regularly and who loves to talk to S. The woman always plays with her asking for her shoes or clothes or toys saying with exaggerated emphasis ‘O this is sooo nice, will you give it to me? I don’t have any’. S always responds by saying ‘This is too small for you, this is small, you are big. You won’t fit in it’!
At home, with her Aunt and Uncle (father’s siblings) she has a love and hate relationship as they love her a lot and also tease her a lot. She handles them by saying she will complain to me and get them beaten up. When they ask her to say things that would amount to teasing the other person, she would run up to me to complain: ‘Mummy look, they are teaching me wrong things!’ She embellishes her speech with many references to the future and how events will unfold.
“We three live alone and everyone else lives together”
Deepa’s daughter is quite clued in to living arrangements and relationships, especially about who all live together. “We have a large extended family on both sides and she meets them quite regularly. One day, she was talking about who lives with whom, and asked: ‘How can someone separate their babies (us) from themselves?’ Although the rest of the family has a good laugh about it, grandmother and granddaughter take this to heart. During her recent vacations, she spent a week with her grandparents without us and her schedule was completely altered. Lots of comings and goings, snacking many times in a day, lots of chats with everyone sitting together in the evenings. One evening she was unusually quiet and my sister-in-law questioned her about it. Her reply was: ‘All of big mama’s (badi mamma) children live with her, why has she sent away my papa?” Clearly, the intense social activity in the joint family was something she was thoroughly enjoying, and saw our home (we live in a nearby city) as having been ‘separated’ from the rest. I find that so many of her questions are related to the extended family. For instance, last Sunday she was helping me with folding clothes and asked: ‘Mama do nanu nani also have the same surname Chawla?’
Me: No, no. They write Gupta.
A: Do we have to change our name after getting married?
Me: “No betu. Not any more, it is not necessary. You can if you want, but not if you don’t want to. You can continue with Chawla if you want.”
A: “Mama, I will not change my name. I will keep A ‘Chawal’ (She smiles, using the name that her friends tease her with, Rice!). Because if I get married to…..(awkward)…….suppose my husband’s name (clearly shy now) is Daksh Rajma, then it becomes my favourite food: Rajma and Chawal!” (Laughs heartily at her joke).
Please, please, please. I beg you!
So many times, children can pick up nuances from us that can be somewhat embarrassing, Punya says.
“At preschool, S watches his teachers very minutely. When we return home, he starts addressing us in the same tone as I imagine his teacher does with him, or even a bit more dramatic. The tone, the polite ‘aap’ is exaggerated and carries an air of authority with an evaluative gaze that I suppose he has also watched in his teacher. The way in which he frames things around is also enchanting. He loves correcting us and emulates some of our words and mannerisms in the most inappropriate contexts. To illustrate, when we are at home with him and he is being adamant about something, like not allowing us to put on his pyjamas while dressing him up, we sometimes resort to an exaggerated plea: ‘Please sweetie pie, I beg you’.
Like a sponge, this drama was emulated at a toy store at the airport, especially when he senses resistance from us. Watching him turn around and address us in this formal ‘Please, please, I beg you’ in public places has been quite embarrassing sometimes, especially when we have people looking at us with disapproval. Picture this, he is not wanting to leave a restaurant to go back home, as a consequence of which he resists and screams as we try to pick him up: ‘Leave me, I’m getting hurt’. Much to our embarrassment!
Recently, for the Annual Day, he was part of a dance recital and practice was on. I was passing by and noticed that he was refusing to follow the steps the teacher was demonstrating. When we got home that evening I asked him: ‘Why are you not dancing? It is such a good dance’. Pat came the reply, ‘Bad hai, accha nahi hai, bad hai’!
Interestingly he uses the word dod to refer to both dog and god………..and the word is used most frequently when he sees us drop something. Of course the same doesn’t apply when he makes a similar mistake! The ‘O’ DOD!’ with dramatic expressions, is reserved for our transgressions.
He is very observant about emotional states. Sometimes, when he notices that I’m tired, usually on a Friday, he comes up and checks ‘Mama you happy? You sad?’ And depending on whether the father is doing things as he would like him to, he uses the labels of happy and sad! Perhaps his favourite activity with opposites is the reason for this one.
Pizzas and the big picture
Sometimes, children to get the big picture quite well as A who is almost ten, shows in her perception about social dynamics. In a recent conversation with her mother, A discusses another child at school. Trying to get her to focus on a larger issue, the mother says to her:
I: It’s okay. Sometimes people are unable to see the big picture
A: What’s ‘big picture’?
I: Looking at the other person’s point of view. That would be a big picture
After mulling over this a bit she responds: That’s why you gave bigger pieces of pizza (bigger than hers) to my friends when they are eating with us?
Adults just don’t get it
Let us end this post with another example from Laing (another favourite scientist like Piaget) from his conversations with Adam and Natasha from 11th June, 1974, in his study”
Natasha: (With abrupt unsolicited finality) There’s no monster in THIS room!
Natasha: No. I looked under the mat (conclusively)
Laing: How could a monster be under a mat??
Natasha: (Looks at him as if he knows nothing)
Until next time. Do send us comments, conversations if you wish and we will be happy to include them in the next post, Part Two of this essay along with a Commentary.
Note the featured image is taken from the Peanuts official website: https://www.peanuts.com/
 Maternal grandmother, grandfather