The Commerce Journal

November 16, 2013

Out of the mouths of children

By June Harris
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — A child’s misunderstanding of the adult world often results in statements from youngsters that can be funny, sometimes sweet, and sometimes enlightening.

Those of us who have worked with, and studied, the mental processes of children realize that to kids, the adult world is mysterious and tricky.  In fact, children may tend to think that perhaps they are not intended to make sense of what adults say, but they struggle to put adult-speak into terms they can understand, sometimes with surprising, or at least whimsical, results.

One of the most often quoted child translations of adult-speak has to do with a child who requested that her mother sing a song they sang in church. “The song about the bear.” The mother puzzled over this for a time, then said, “I don’t remember the song about the bear, hon. How does it go?”  “You know, Mom. We sing it in church. ‘Gladly, the Cross-eyed Bear.’”

I’d have considered this to be manufactured as someone’s idea of a joke had I not encountered a very similar instance in my own family.

My mother used to sing as she worked around the house, and often her songs were church hymns. One day, my little brother, 5 or so at the time, asked her if she’d sing the song about the cow.

Mom said she didn’t know any song about a cow.

“Yeah, Mom, we sing it at church.”

“Umm. Well, how does it go?”

He told her, and suddenly she understood that what we had been singing as “pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r...” had become for my farm-raised little brother, “cow, cow, wonder where’s the cow...”

My little brother also once asked my father, “What does a real Yankee look like?”

I suppose in northeast Mississippi that question was more logical than it would seem elsewhere. My father pointed out to him that since my aunt had married a man from Pennsylvania, he could look to his Uncle Jerry as an example of a real Yankee.

I was also startled to realize one day that my own youngest was singing the lyrics to a song for children in our church—lyrics supposed to be “parents kind and dear” as “parents kind of weird”

I refuse to acknowledge any guilt here.

My daughter recently recounted an exchange between her 5-year-old twins.

Piper: Let’s play hospital. I’ll be the doctor.

Elliot: Okay. I’ll be the nervous.

Piper: Elliot, that’s ‘nurse.’

I don’t know; I’ve spent some time in hospitals, and Elliot may have it right.

One family story has now been passed down to three generations of appreciative audiences.

My mother was raised on a farm in Mississippi during the Depression. The local rural population was rather poor, as were most rural residents at the time, and a telephone was a luxury most could not afford. My mother’s family was no exception to the income level, but my grandfather was a constable, so the family had to have a phone so he could be accessible on a regular basis.

As one of the only local families with a phone, my grandparents’ house became something of a message center for the local community. People would call my grandparents and ask for a message to be delivered to some family in the community, and my grandmother would send one of her girls with the information.

One day the phone rang, and my grandmother was asked to deliver to a local family the information that a relative of the family had died. My grandmother took the message, and when her girls learned that one of them would deliver it, my aunt Jo immediately begged to be allowed to take the message. My grandmother hesitated; my aunt Jo was rather young. Still, Jo pleaded, and my grandmother, after rehearsing the message with her, sent her off to the family.

Jo wended her way to the family’s home, and delivered the message that their relative had passed on. As she started to leave, one of the relatives asked, “Jo, did they say what he died of?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jo said. “He died of enthusiasm.”

A pause; then, “Jo, are you sure about that?”

“Yes, ma’am. He died of enthusiasm.”

I don’t know what you think, but I’m pretty sure there are worse ways to go.

Dr. June Harris is a retired educator living in Commerce.