Don’t Write Like a Child, For Mercy’s Sake

I have a bone to pick with all you writers who are out there giving advice about writing like a child. Have any of you ever actually met any children? Do you have kids? Have you studied the way their minds work? Because the trite, surface-level advice that keeps popping up in the blogs I read is making me twitch.

Cultivate your inner innocence. Wonder at the world. Think about things with fresh eyes. Be honest. Stop editing yourself. Listen to the way kids talk. Sure, do all that…if you want your kids to sound like every other kid produced by working the problem from the wrong end.

If you want to grow up and write realistic kids, read about developmental psychology. Choose a mental age for your character (doesn’t have to match their physical age–conflict for kids can often stem from being either too precocious or a bit slow for their age), study up on what kids’ brains are doing at that age, and try to adopt those specific mental frameworks as you think about how your kids will address the challenges you’ve laid out for them.

Kids are wondrous strange creatures, it’s true, but it’s not because they’re magical. It’s because they don’t know anything yet and often don’t have the resources to learn things efficiently on their own. When you’re pre-literate, you can’t pop on the internet to google “how to tie shoelaces,” for example. You have to rely on other people, but even posing questions is a challenge because you don’t have the vocabulary to be specific or standard in your inquiries. If you want to immerse yourself in what it’s like to be a kid, find someone to teach you something completely new, preferably something with a highly technical use of vocabulary that you don’t know.

And as for the “kids are honest,” piece…that’s true. But it’s not a kind or morally-sainted honesty. Kids have an “I have underdeveloped social filters” honesty and it’s as often cruel as it is unintentionally sage or touching. If you want to get it right, try to image how you would respond to the situation, person, environment, etc. if you were the most socially inept person on earth and then tone it down as befits the mental age of your kid.

In general, I’m convinced that thinking about taking a child’s POV from a “writing like a kid” angle is not going to get you very far. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take a kid’s POV. But kids are people. They’re people with specific ranges of mental and physical challenges that many adults don’t deal with on a daily basis, but they’re still people. If you lose sight of that fact, your writing will show it, and probably not for the better.



John and I have been talking about kids a lot lately…I’m in my late twenties and many of my friends have babies, and while we haven’t yet decided whether we’re willing to tackle the terrifying realities of parenthood, it’s definitely a topic of conversation.  As we were visiting with my in-laws this weekend, we got talking about our nephew, who is just young enough to be obligingly duped by the family’s colossal efforts to present him with evidence that the Easter bunny is real.

My in-laws reminisced about our Easter shenanigans with a laugh and a sigh, savoring the memory of Train Dude’s innocence even as the acknowledged that it would last for long. John wasn’t buying it: “What’s so great about innocence?” he asked. “Why do we romanticize it when kids are so gullible?”

He has said this before, and I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed in education classes at Harvard. It’s a valid question. Why do we cherish the fact that kids just plain don’t know stuff, and don’t know to question stuff?

My step-father-in-law used the word “vulnerability” to describe part of that–the “not questioning stuff” part. Vulnerable, innocent kids have a lot of trust for certain grown-ups–which implies good things. It says that they haven’t had to deal with anything really difficult, like adults lying to them about things that matter. Grown-ups can be trusted to take care of things. When a kid loses that, it means they’ve started to experience (or noticed friends experiencing) being let down in some way, and that’s sad. So…I guess vulnerability implies that some of the sad stuff is in the “unknown stuff” category.

The other piece, the “not knowing” piece, is just fun. There is nothing, truly nothing, more awesome than sharing something supremely cool with someone who’s never heard of this cool thing. There’s just  so much that kids don’t know, and so much that we can share with them, that we have the opportunity to be amazing in the eyes of this small, still-uneducated person because we’re the people who are bit-by-bit helping him along the path of knowing wonderful stuff…even if some of it (like the Easter Bunny) is imaginary.

And that’s awesome.

Ten Thousand /

This Boiled Frog

I went to a dentist in February for the first time in I don’t even know how many years. It’s ridiculous, really. I’ve had dental insurance for over a year and a half, but I was scared of what they would say to me, so I kept putting it off. When I finally went, the news wasn’t as bad as I expected: only three cavities, and those pretty minor. My wisdom teeth will be coming out next week, but at least they didn’t take one look and say, “Call the surgeon, stat! We’ve got a rotten tooth about to turn into a brain infection here.” The wisdom teeth thing is an unfinished saga, so I’ll save that for another day, but the cavities I had done in short order after my exam and there’s an amusing story in there.

Maybe three or four days after having my cavities drilled and filled, I woke up to discover that the tip of my tongue had gone numb, almost as if I had burned it. It wasn’t painful, exactly but certainly disconcerting.

I think I’ve been a bit stressed of late. I mean, I know I’ve been stressed. I more or less abandoned a blog that I’ve been intrepidly plugging away at in spite of a low readership for more than two years, and believe it or not, I love obsessing about my life and attempting to spin the details into stories that will garner a chuckle or two from my grandmother and mother-in-law. I’ve hardly touched my guitar in three months, and I haven’t even pulled my ukulele out of the case in six. My sourdough is more sour than usual because I haven’t been working with it on a regular basis. All of these things I love, I’ve put aside because one person can only do so much, and I just haven’t had the will or the energy.

I had forgotten, however, just how different stress feels from not-stress. Stress is one of those things that changes your quality of life in slow, subtle ways, like putting a frog in a pot of comfortable water and putting it on to boil at a low heat. You don’t notice the incremental changes in your well-being until they’ve transformed you from a banjo-strumming green nudist into Doc Hopper’s French-fried dinner.

Last week I had the first real vacation I’ve had in a long time. My program schedule is tied to the school schedule, so of  course I get Monday holidays and in-service days off, and I have more vacations in a year than most  people would know what to do with, but in all that alleged time off, I have had Stuff To do for Other People (questionably  by appropriately acronymized, STOP). Not unpleasant stuff, really, and not so much from anyone person that their desire to borrow my time could be questioned, but enough from enough people that my vacations have felt claustrophobic. When I have had time, it’s been so cold and dreary that I didn’t want to go anywhere, which led to a claustrophobic vacation of my own making that did not do its job. If you never vacate your apartment, it’s not really a vacation, is it?

But last week, the weather was warm and inviting. The grass was green. My obligations to others were so minimal as to be all but nonexistent. I didn’t even have the pressures of my book hanging over my head because I just finished a major rewrite and the book is now locked away until July so I can get some distance and perspective on it. I literally had nothing to do except walk in the park, read, pick away at some short stories I had relegated to the back burner, and generally relish the sense of being unfettered for a week. I didn’t even make myself exercise, beyond those gorgeous park walks, or do housework. I just plain chilled until I was on that pleasant edge of boredom where you haven’t yet crossed into despair at your own uselessness. It was marvelous. Monday morning came, and for the first time since September, I woke up before my alarm feeling rested and not miserable at getting up at such an unholy hour.

Driving home on Monday, I noticed something. My left eye was twitching. I frowned and considered the past week. The eye twitching thing has been intermittent most of my life, and in the last year or so it’s become much more regular. During my vacation, however, the eye twitching hadn’t made a single appearance. Yesterday, as I was driving to a meeting, I noticed that the tip of my tongue was feeling a bit numb and sore. This too, has become a regular occurrence over the past three months, but I had chalked it up to some weird reaction my mouth was having to the new topography of my teeth-after-three-fillings. Again, however, during my vacation my tongue felt good and normal and whole.

Apparently, stress is also a wolf lurking at the edge’s of the campfire’s light, ready to pounce on that pot of boiling frog the second the illumination of rest starts to fade. One day back at work, and my nervous ticks that I hadn’t even registered as nervous ticks before were back in full force.

All I can say to this is (1) it’s a shame I’m not really able to tell the short and squeaky sources of my stress what they’re doing to me, for fear of giving them long-term anxiety issues and (2) I am really looking forward to June 21st. Part-time employment may not be a permanently sustainable situation, but I am going to rock it while I can.

The Tick Whisperer

At my first in-person interview for my camp job, my soon-to-be-bosses asked me if I was okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. “Oh sure,” I said. “No problem.” Cue laugh track.

As my husband and my sister Cho will gladly tell you, if there is a crawly thing of any sort in my personal space, it takes me about one-tenth of a second to be up on the furniture screeching for somebody else to kill it quickly. I am not actually okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. Not that I meant to lie in the interview, but you know how interviews can be. Sometimes you’re so eager for a job that you start playing the yes-man and don’t realize until it’s too late to backtrack what you just said about yourself.

The blessing about this situation is that I’m discovering a capacity for growth in myself. Also, there’s a reason they invented sticks and kids. There’s not really any reason for me to ever touch anything vile. Kids love picking up frogs and crickets–most other bugs can be persuaded to hang out on a stick while we pass it around. On the first day of camp, we actually found and identified a female dog tick. Ticks of any sort are one of the worst for me to deal with: they fill up like a darn balloon with sucked blood, for pete’s sake, and if you’re not careful about removing them you can end up with a head embedded in your body, spreading infection. If that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is. And yet, I found myself coaxing the tick onto a stick so I could show her off to my fascinated little group.

On Monday, as we were getting our shoes on after swimming, my kids all started pointing at me and exclaiming, “Melissa, there’s a bug on you!” It was on my back–that is definitely in my space–and the kids thought it was a tick. The mark of my growth is that the kids experience this:

instead of this:

The bug (which was a shiny gold beetle, not a tick–the kids think all unfamiliar bugs are ticks) lived to tell the tale, believe it or not, because I’m trying to encourage them to respect nature. We’re are guests in the homes of the spiders, the beetles, and the ticks; it is permissible to pick the bugs up and examine them, but only if we do it gently for short periods of time before returning them to the place we found them. We kill nothing, except perhaps for mosquitoes, primarily because if I let them kill anything, they’d kill everything, up to and possibly including each other. Bugs receive mercy outside.

To all you insects and bugs who may be reading this, let me clarify: this rule holds true only in the great outdoors. If you invade my home and bite me or eat my food, I will take no quarter. You will die a horrible death by crushing, most likely at the hand of someone else while I stand at a safe distance and squeal.

Lessons for a New Teacher

My first year as an educator came to an end last week. In a training I attended on Saturday, one of the facilitators asked us to take a moment to consider how we would name our roles in the world of education. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? The idea that still resonated most strongly with me is “were-sheep.” I already wrote about that, though, so you’ll have to read the old post to get caught up.

I’ve learned a lot this year that you don’t learn in the process of spinning extended metaphors, however, and I haven’t had the chance yet to look at some of those lessons to see how they compare to this ideal in my mind. Maybe you can all take a look at what I’ve learned and help me name my role. Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order:

Lesson 1: Kids will not hear you over their own ruckus if you don’t raise your voice from time to time.

Lesson 2: Most of the time it might not be a bad thing for their development if you let them run a little crazy, but if they aren’t trained to respond to you quickly under normal circumstances, they won’t respond in an emergency.

Lesson 3: Hand-clap signals are like magic, for the first week of school. Once kids figure out what they’re for, however, they’re a lot less interested in playing along.

Lesson 4: Kids who are hungry or uncomfortable have a hard time following directions and getting along with others.

Lesson 5: Sometimes giving a kid what they need most is the hardest thing to do, especially when what they need is to sit alone and cry.

Lesson 6: Every kid wants to be the hero.

Lesson 7: You have the power to give kids opportunities to be heroes.

Lesson 8: Kids do not believe that life isn’t fair, but they’ll cheat like hardened criminals.

Lesson 9: Kids are not fragile, unless they belong to someone else and you have legal responsibility for their safety.

Lesson 10: If it’s messy, kids will participate.

Lesson 11: Kids are much more likely to read if you bribe them with ice cream.

Lesson 12: The kids who most cause you to spend time banging your head against the wall are the ones that burrow deepest into your heart.

Lesson 13: They are so worth it. All of them are worth all of it.

Lesson 14: Having kids part-time works for me.

Lesson 15: Parachutes are awesome.

Lesson 16: If you don’t tether kids with inappropriate winter footwear to something out of the reach of deep snowbanks, you will spend half an hour digging a ballet shoe out of frozen snow.

Lesson 17: Kids are way more competent than you give them credit for.

Lesson 18: Kids have way less common sense than you give them credit for.

Lesson 19: Kids have much better memories than you do, so if you make them a promise, write it down. If you forget, you will hear about it for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Lesson 20: What goes up might not actually come back down until the wind blows it off a roof and a custodian finds it halfway across the school grounds.

Lesson 21: You will never find all the beads or marbles. Never.

Lesson 22: Listening is harder than talking. It’s also more useful.

I know I’ve learned many more things, some probably more important than some of what I’ve put up here. I’m fairly certain that I’ve learned more from the kids than I’ve managed to teach to them, and I hope I’ve taught them at least the beginnings of more than 22 useful lessons. Or not…

So what do you think, friends? Does anyone have a good idea about what I should call my role as an educator? I am all ears.