Here is an article I wrote when I was teaching English as a New Language back in the 2000s. It speaks to children’s perceptions and the importance of listening. (published in Crossroads, a teachers‘ newsletter)
When I was young, a man named Art Linkletter hosted a TV show called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” My father, a child psychologist, panned the show, saying it was condescending, and, worse, humiliating to the children, whose sincere answers to Linkletter’s loaded questions provided the humor of the program. When Linkletter received a particularly juicy and revealing reply he would mug into the camera while the live audience roared.
As an English teacher of kindergarten and first grade students, I spend most of my waking hours conversing with very young people. I hear stories that are amazing, delightful, and unfortunately, sometimes frightening or sad.
Years ago, during a morning meeting, a boy announced, “My dad punched a hole in the wall last night. My little sister was crying and we went to bed at eleven o’clock. That’s why my dad couldn’t help me with my homework.”
More recently, a Pakistani student told me that over the weekend his mother was chased into the jungle by a dinosaur. “Me and my brother we going find her. She climbing a tree way way up. She jump down and we catched her. “That’s quite a story,” I say.
In these days of computer graphics, children have an even harder time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. One bright little boy from Mexico is working hard at sorting the input he gets in his world. “Elephants are real, right?” he asks. “Vampires are real; they suck your blood.” There follows an animated discussion about vampire bats who only live in Central America as opposed to the people with the big teeth who turn into bats. For kids growing up today, the line between what is real and what is not must be blurry indeed.
When I was little, about five years old, my favorite toys were my plastic horses. Each one had a name and gender: there was Flicka and Blaze and Snowflake. I remember one evening when my aunt and uncle from New York came for dinner. I showed my uncle that Skyrocket, the piebald stallion, could jump from one end of the living room to the other. My uncle Bob laughed in that indulgent, condescending and infuriating way of adults who consider children an interruption. I was angry and hurt. It didn’t bother me that he didn’t believe me, for I knew it was a fantasy, but I hated being laughed at. I never trusted him again. From that day on, Uncle Bob was relegated to the category of Adults Who Don’t Understand.
Five-year-old children lack a sense of elapsed time. When a beginning English speaker tells me about an event, the chronology can get really confusing. It’s a challenge to decipher some of the stories.
“Miss Alice!” (My name is Ms. Ellis, but I answer to many versions.) “Tomorrow I watch movie Chicken Little.”
“You’re going to see the movie tomorrow?” That’s me rephrasing and checking for comprehension.
“NO!” The child is annoyed. Miss Alice is being obtuse.
“Yesterday you saw Chicken Little?”
“Yes, I see it.” I make a mental note to work on the vocabulary of “yesterday, today, tomorrow.”
One morning Lucia tells me, “Miss Alice, my mom had a fire in her stove. The truck came. The wall was black. We got a new stove.”
I am alarmed, so that evening I call Lucia’s house to see if all is well. Her older sister laughs. “That happened five months ago,” she says.