The details of an NPR segment I heard years ago about successful parenting of preschoolers are long lost now in a brain stuffed through the years with whether we’re out of cat food, who regretted that invitation, is the science fair project getting done, and are you sure that brown stain in the ceiling isn’t larger today than it was last week. But one poignant example from the story has never left me: the topic was yet another academic attempt to trace the common home characteristics among successful elementary school students, beyond the old maxim, nevertheless true, about gathering for dinner.  And the pediatric authority being interviewed described a Mack-truck sized factor so simple that as I listened I was nearly brought to tears.  The fact is, she said, successful children have been talked to by their parents.  And an overwhelming number of others haven’t.  She said, “There simply isn’t any substitute for the mother or father who, when dishing up the peas to the baby in the high chair, says, “These are peas! Peas are round! Peas are green!”

Just talk.  In talk we’re saying so many things: we’re saying that our children are on our minds, that in the death-struggle between them and the cat food inventory in our frazzled consciousness, they have won.  We’re saying that they are worth talking to. And of course, we’re also saying all the things we are actually saying about peas, what “round” and “green” means, and spoons and plates and microwaves and when that first wave of desperate hunger has passed, not putting the peas on your head. (Actually, it was usually ravioli, for some reason, and I’m amazed that my daughter’s scalp isn’t still coated with orange grease.)

I wish I had more details from that NPR feature.  I would like to have a podcast of it  on my phone, push “play” and force young parents to listen when they pronounce on what their children couldn’t possibly understand at “this age.”  “He’s only [two, three, four]. I mean, I’ve pointed to babies and said I have one in my tummy, but he doesn’t really understand any of it.”

How do you know what he understands, or doesn’t? And is it not incumbent on you to try to translate into understandable terms something as world-shattering as the sudden arrival of a screaming day-and-night competitor for his mother or father’s attention? Can’t you try to imagine and do everything you might to help him come to an understanding of the rude changes coming in his young life?

But it starts long before the first sibling is on his or her way.  If you see your life as a series of choices, whether wise or foolish, good or bad, unfortunate or fortunate, those are things about which you can talk to your child: “We live here because long ago I [learned to love old houses] [decided I hated snow] [fell in love with an aspiring rock star] [couldn’t stand my mother’s Wednesday-night, pan-fried liver].” Okay, your two-year-old may not know the word “aspiring,” but she has an intimate connection to the concept  “I want,” and it’s a very small leap from “I want” to “I want to be.”  And that’s aspiration.  By the time she’s three, you can even teach her the word.

(One of the sources of amusement and joy in our house was the fact that every erect speaking mammal knew the phrase “deferring gratification,” and what it meant, and the concept was discussed frequently relative to any number of chores and pleasures. Why the philosophy seems to have fallen by the wayside now that we are all adults has more to do with the dissipation that comes from age or the lack of a regular paycheck, but thankfully, that is a different book.)

It seemed we talked about everything. When the house was built. When Abraham Lincoln was president, relative to when the house was built. Who
Abraham Lincoln was, and why he was great. What slavery is. What war is.  What the Civil War was.  (My son’s expression for the Civil War was that it was a “brother war of the North against the South.” We got out the map for that one, and then had to explain that a map was a drawing of where we live, or other people live, pictured from way up above in the sky.)

We talked about seeds, and why we plant them. What would happen after we planted them, if we did certain things or didn’t do them. What kind of seeds they were.  What was supposed to grow from them and what we could do with those things. (Although only one soccer-sized watermelon appeared. That was another discussion.) What rain was. Why it was good, but also why sometimes we didn’t like it.  Why we all had things to do during the day — things we didn’t always want to do, like preschool and work. What would happen if we didn’t do those things: not “I’ll get fired and we’ll be homeless,” or “I’ll go to jail for truancy and you won’t have a mother,” but “We wouldn’t have any money for the baseball game,” and “You wouldn’t learn to count or read.” We talked about the cats, and why Gabriel didn’t like it when we grabbed his stomach and twisted it.  But how nice he was not to scratch us when we did. We talked about friends, and the nice and not-nice things they did, how we could advocate for ourselves while still being fair to them, and when we needed a teacher to intervene. We talked a lot about advocating for ourselves with teachers, too — because we found ourselves in defensive positions with ignorant teachers quite a bit. We talked realistically about life and its challenges. We talked a lot about God, love, beauty, family, history, books, music, movies, sports, and, of course, the stuff that goes in the potty.  (Why do all kids love that so much? Why do all young parents think it belongs on Comedy Central, or, if not, Facebook?)

When you think of a young mind as an empty slate on which all this information is written, creating a very rudimentary Encyclopedia Britannica of life, a foundation of general knowledge on which is built everything else when he or she gets into “real school,” it’s no wonder that the child who knows at least something about peas, the color green, babies, seeds, rain, jobs, maps, sports, fair play, stupid teachers, Abraham Lincoln and poop has a pretty sizable and priceless advantage in life.  And it doesn’t cost a thing.

What adult-sized topics have you talked about successfully with your child? What surprising topics has your child brought up that challenged you to dig deep  before answering?