Recently I’ve started research on a new book proposal about developmental psychology and achievement. And, by research, I mean tinkering with my child’s mind.
Nothing invasive, mind you – I would never do that. And besides, it turns out home electroshock therapy kits are crazy expensive. It’s not like back in my day when dad would just grab his Rorschach cards, pop the car hood, grab the jumper cables and call me over.
Anyway, naturally all of my experiments have revealed that my child is a budding genius. Musical prodigy with the tambourine, swimming phenom in the two-foot-deep kiddie pool and a voracious reader at three and a half.
This last one I am especially proud of. Recently, my three-year-old graduated from mostly picture books to mostly writing ones. For those of you without children, it’s a pretty big deal.
Now, I don’t want to brag but I … no, I really just want to brag. What’s that? Your kid is still reading Elmo’s Secret Birthday Party, Part 4? Oh how tedious. Yes, no our little one is reading The Spiderwick Chronicles. Yes, I know, that is very precocious, isn’t it?
Then I smugly strut away wondering when we can start reading Les Miserables or The Iliad. That night, curled up together in our favorite rocking chair, we read volume three of his favorite new book series (we skipped volume one – that’s how clever he is).
As I read, he occasionally stops me with an insightful question.
“Who’s that?” he says. “That’s Jared, he’s kind of the hero of the story,” I say. He nods, thoughtfully.
“Who’s that?” he says. after a while. “That’s his sister Mallory. Also a big deal.” “Hmm,” he seems to say. What a bright kid.
“Why is he angry?” he says when I turn the page. “Because he thinks Mallory wants to take away his book but she’s just afraid,” I say. He nods.
“Why?” he says. “Because her daddy left the family and she’s scared that she’ll lose her other family members if she doesn’t protect them. She actually a very complex character.” He nods, approvingly.
“Who’s that?” He says, halfway down that page. “That’s Jared. The main character. Seriously?” He nods and I keep reading.
“Who’s that?” he says. “Mallory! Three-dimensional character dealing with the loss of a father and the responsibilities of raising her brothers – Jesus kid, are you even paying attention?”
No, of course he isn’t. Most of this book makes no sense to him. During a recent experiment I performed on him (What! Don’t judge me!) I asked him to imagine what his Batman doll was thinking when he reached for the wrong ice cream cone. It’s a clever way to test for theory of mind.
He clearly has a big heart but he can’t really understand that other people have complex views of the world, just like he does. And he really can’t guess what those views might be. That part of his brain just isn’t running yet.
So when I ask him to understand what one character thinks about another and how that makes the other feel about the first, it’s gibberish to him. As are most of the words that don’t involve action or trolls or swords. He’s just cuddling into my lap, listening to my voice and waiting for the next page with a picture so he can ask who the main character is again for the 20th time.
I realize the reason that he didn’t want to read volume one wasn’t because it was pedestrian, it was the palpable lack of goblin pictures. In fact, I just learned that he is simultaneously reading volume five with my wife, with no concern for plot continuity or spoilers. And he’s still not sure who the characters are.
But that’s okay. Because he likes listening and I like reading. So we continue with this game where I pretend that he’s analyzing the motivations of a complicated teenagers and he pretends he’s not just waiting for a drawing of an elf to appear.
At some point, I assume that we will get back to Peppa Pig Does Something Pointless and British or Elmo’s Super Secret Birthday Party, Part 5. But for now, I kind of like pretending.