Explaining the World to a Four-Year Old: “There are Street Rats on the Seafront”

Today as we were getting in the car to go to nursery, M announced: “there are street rats on the seafront.” I let this go initially, mumbling “mmm… really?” absentmindedly while loading L into the car. As always though, I couldn’t resist engaging M in conversation – I love to tease his half-formed thoughts out and help him to understand his world. Admittedly, so far our little conversations have led onto topics such as WWII, the Berlin Wall, the French/Russian/American Revolutions, slavery, and a politically-correct explanation of what makes a family, to name a few (I have an MA in U.S. History that was supposed to be a PhD; five years in grad school studying the history of gender and race-relations means that I can’t help but try to explain the world to M in a way that challenges pre-conceived stereotypes and cultural constructions, hell, I even used the term “cultural construction” once when he asked why girls like pink!)

“What do you mean there are street rats on the seafront?” I asked. I thought it was a very odd comment but then realised that he had watched 10 minutes of Aladdin while I was getting L ready, and thought I knew where this was going. “You know,” he said, “people who can’t afford a house. Like Aladdin.” Aha. “Oh, you mean like the homeless people we see sometimes who ask for money?” Yes, that was what he meant. “Yes, I suppose they are a little bit like Aladdin,” I said, “he doesn’t have a house either does he?” M said “no, he lives in a cave. See, they are street rats.”

Cue explanation of why yes, technically he is right to make the link between the homeless people on our seafront and Aladdin, in that they are in the same situation of not having a home, and praising him for what is a rather astute observation for a four-year old, whilst at the same time trying to explain why we can’t actually call them street rats (all I need is to be walking past a homeless person and for my four-year-old to announce his street rat theory to the world!)

“But why isn’t it nice to say street rat? The man calls Aladdin a street rat.”

“Yes, I know he does, but he’s not a nice man and he is saying it to be horrible to Aladdin. It is not nice to call someone a street rat; the men who do that are the ones trying to lock Aladdin up aren’t they?”

“Maybe we should lock people up who say that?”

“Um… no, it’s not up to us to lock people up – it is up to the law and the police to lock up bad people, we just try to be kind to people whenever possible, and it should always be possible because it’s not that hard to be kind is it?”

I think he understood. This entire conversation happened whilst we were driving. We had got about halfway to nursery when I tried to sum up by telling him that I love him and that I am glad that he thinks about things and talks about the things he thinks about.
“Why?” He asks.
“Because it is good to think about the world, and you’re a lovely boy.”
“Except when I’m bad.”
(Here we go again)
“You’re not bad M, sometimes you’re an old grump, but that’s ok, it doesn’t mean you are bad, no children are bad. You’re a lovely boy.”

I try to explain his negative emotions and to place them in context for him. So, he is not bad, but he can behave badly. He shouldn’t say he hates things because hate is not a nice thing; kindness and love are much better. Equally, it is okay to be angry and frustrated, and to feel that he doesn’t like something, but it is not okay to go around saying he hates everything because hate is a very strong word.

I try to explain the world to him in a way that makes sense of the things he says and asks about, whilst striking a balance between telling the truth and leaving enough of the truth out that he doesn’t get the sense that the world is a horrible place. It is in this balance that I find joy in our conversations; in microcosm M is the future of our world. I am constantly reminded that the world does not have to be the way that it is. It is our collective actions that make the world the way it is and our actions are driven by our thoughts about what is (and is not) acceptable or possible. In turn, our understanding of what is (and is not) acceptable and possible come from the way that we learn about the world as children and how the adults around us interpret the world for us.

I try to teach M about the world as it is, so that he will not be blindsided as he grows older, but also about the world as it should be, so as he grows up he can be a drop in the ocean: a drop of tolerance, kindness, and hope.

That’s the theory anyway, like every parent I am muddling along as best I can.

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Burnt Supper

British/American, postgraduate, wife, mother, dog-owner

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