Saturday, September 15, 2007

Early Childhood Memories

Young children don't think the way adults do. Sometimes it's easy to forget that. Talking to kids in terms that adults understand - especially when it comes to numbers - can have unfortunate outcomes.

When I was about three or four years old, I had made a mess in our basement. All of my cars, trucks and tractors were scattered all over the basement floor. My father was upset about the mess and wanted me to clean it up. I had a very nice toybox that my great-grandfather had made. (I still have it in my office.) It would have been a simple matter of picking up the toys and putting them in the toybox and probably would have taken no more than ten minutes.

My father was angry and yelled, "David, you have one hour to clean up this mess! When I come back down here, I will stomp on any toys that are left on the floor!" And he turned and walked up the stairs.

I was mortified! At this young age, I could barely count to ten and I had no idea what an hour was. I thought that it was impossible to pick up all my toys in only one of those hour things. So like most children frustrated by an impossible task, I sat on the stairs and cried.

My father came back downstairs an hour later and saw that I had not picked up any of my toys. He lectured me briefly as I cried. Then, as promised, he walked around the room stomping on every one of my toys, breaking each one, one at a time. These were toys that he bought with his hard earned money. Money was tight and I am sure it pained him to keep his promise both from a financial perspective and because of the pain it would cause me. One by one, my toys disappeared in to rubble.

The most difficult toy for dad to dispose of was my John Deere tractor. My father and grandfather worked at Deere at the time and our blood was green and yellow. The family was proud to be associated with Deere & Co. and grandpa even had a gold-plated tractor hanging on the wall in his basement. I wish we still had that.

Several years later, my father gave me a nice new toy tractor and told me that he thought I was old enough to take care of it. We both remembered that horrible day when all my toys were crushed.

The lesson to be learned from this is to be careful in how you speak to your children. They don't have a full grasp of the language and abstract concepts like time and numbers can be baffling. At my young age, I knew that "one" was singular - there wasn't much to one of anything. I didn't understand the concept of an hour or how much could be done in an hour.

I believe that if my father had told me that I would have sixty minutes to complete the task, things might have turned out very differently. Although I couldn't count to sixty at the time, I remember thinking that kids who were ten were much, much older and my twenty-seven year old mother was quite old. Sixty minutes would have sounded like quite a bit of time to me. I probably would have played for a while before picking up my toys and this story would never have been remembered. So, be careful how you talk to your kids.

As a side note, I still have the John Deere toys that my parents gave me after this house cleaning.

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