The ontology and epistemology of childhood

As children, we have so little concrete information about the world, and such a random collection of experience-based learning, that we construct oddly poetic worldviews and beliefs.

Some of these misconstructions of knowledge have their origin in semantic misunderstandings. Having been told repeatedly by our parents that we could be anything when we grew up, I decided at about age 4 that I would be the Pope. (We weren’t a Catholic family, and I had not the faintest idea of the Pope’s role; I just liked the hat.) Given the same sort of encouragement, my sister N. eagerly looked forward to becoming a circus bear.

Other childhood misconstructions are simple mechanisms for coping with common fears. Like many children, I believed a) that the night was filled with horrors, looming unseen in the dark, hungry for my innocent self; b) that keeping my head under the blankets protected me from these monsters. As an extension of this logic, and based on I-know-not what previous evidence, I further hypothesized that c) if I kept my head under the covers and held my breath for exactly sixty seconds, I was safe uncovered for the rest of the night. Although I cannot claim that my hypothesis was proven, it surely gained credibility as, night after night, no monsters attacked.

Ah, childhood beliefs. Some are just plain silly, some are quite touching, and some have the strangely comforting Lynchian quality that pervaded my own childhood.

I had a strange fear that if I closed my eyes in the bathtub, William Shakespeare would come up through the drain and kill me. I knew his name, but I had no idea who he was, so I just naturally assumed he was some sort of bathtub vampire. —– Dan



Won’t somebody think of the children?

In a shocking exposé, a Maine couple announces that schools are scheming to teach young people, actually going so far, in some cases, as to use books:

“They see it as, they say, ‘Hey, it’s a book, let’s expose the kids to it, and see what they learn from it,’ ” said Minnon, who with his wife operate [sic] a greenhouse on Route 202 in Lebanon.

The Minnons, parents of a first-year student at Noble High School, object to his class’s study of The Catcher in the Rye. Not satisfied with the school’s provision to allow their son to study another book, the Minnons are attempting to prevent the entire first-year literature class from studying Salinger’s classic.
(link thanks to Bookslut)

I, robot

I was sitting in the park yesterday evening, silently giggling at the two little boys frolicking in the clearing before my bench, and rereading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate:

In the same way, for children to learn about culture they cannot be mere video cameras that passively record sights and sounds. They must be equipped with mental machinery that can extract the beliefs and values underlying other people’s behavior so that the children themselves can become competent members of the culture.

Even the humblest act of learning — imitating the behavior of a parent or a peer — is more complicated than it looks.

A few sentences later, Pinker quotes AI researcher Rodney Brooks on the difficulties of imitative learning. Brooks gives the example of a robot observing a person struggling to open a jar:

The robot then attempts to imitate the action. [But] which parts of the action to be imitated are important (such as turning the lid counter-clockwise) and which aren’t (such as wiping your brow)? How can the robot abstract the knowledge gained from this experience and apply it to a similar situation?

As I read this passage, the two boys abruptly dropped their game of “Blast-off to Outer Space!” and switched to the ever-popular game of “Like Daddy Does.” The younger of the boys picked up a spindly fallen branch and announced “I’m gonna break it like Daddy does!”

The bigger boy immediately followed suit, falling upon an equally reedlike stick. “Me, me, I’m gonna break it like Daddy does!” Their exaggeratedly tortured expressions were caricatures of exertion as each grasped a tiny stick by the ends, pressed the center to a knee, and, muttering cries of exertion and frustration, happily failed to effect a snap.

It’s whose car?

As I sat reading and waiting for my bus, a weary-looking older woman walked by, one shoulder slumped to accommodate her halfhearted clasp on the tiny, wriggling hand of her tiny, wriggling granddaughter. Suddenly, the little, little girl stopped their laborious progress down the street to start bouncing and pointing at a nondescript minivan. “It’s Santa’s car!” she cried joyously.

What? I thought, sneaking a peak between the pages of my book and the brim of my hat.

What?” Grandmother replied. “Whose car is it, honey?”

“It’s Santa’s car!” the girl pealed again, louder and with absolute confidence. Grandmother, seeking a reality check, caught my eye. We exchanged looks of pure puzzlement, while Granddaughter inspected the unremarkable blue paint. “It’s beautiful,” she intoned, hushed and reverent.

The wearing o’ the black and blue

Where you live, do St. Patrick’s celebrants engage in the pinching? Do you know about the pinching?

In some places, if you are found on St. Patrick’s Day not participating in the wearing the green, you will be pinched, not once but many times — as many times as there are green-clad observers to catch you, all day long.

I learned this to my chagrin in second grade, when we moved from New England (where I have never suffered this particular indignity) to Texas (where it runs quite rampant). Even then, I thought the practice mean-spirited and hegemonic. And I told my wee elementary school classmates that, crying defiantly, “You cannot impose your hegemony on me!” Small wonder they pinched me.

Least-loved children’s games

In my Renaissance art history class, the professor has trained us to play Council of Trent, extrapolating from existing records of the Council’s condemnation of certain artworks to make our own Trentian statements about other works. Not surprisingly, I am very good at being strictly doctrinaire and judgmental.

I spent a happy few days thinking this was was probably the least popular children’s game ever… until I found in one of my research texts a Renaissance account of a little Florentine girl and her friends, whose adorable form of play was to imagine themselves members of a flagellant confraternity.

They’re so cute when they’re that age.