Our breakfast cereal is narrated by the morning news while the Girl is dripping honey down the front of her pajamas. But then such a mess is nothing compared to usual coverage of overseas protests, international economics, and local traffic reports that have been following a late-night snow on the already icy streets.
It’s only a bit of honey after all, but: “Daddy.” She bleats. “Oh! *gasp* No!” And an exasperated and futile attempt to wipe the spill with fingers even stickier than the mess itself ensues.
“It’s just your pajamas. Wait.” I sigh, pulling a damp cloth from the nearby sink and — smudging-more-than-cleaning — dab the honey from the cartoon visage of some Disney princess emblazoned in fleece fabric. “Wait. Stop touching it.”
“In Syria today,” the news informs us “twelve protesters are confirmed dead after…”
Lately, my mind flutters with a variety of philosophical thoughts related to the parsing of complex language and complex ideas. How much can a kid really understand and how much more can they comprehend? What do they get out of things that they hear? Anecdotally, the art of reading stories aloud and observing the reactions of a little girl I know oh-so-well has revealed to me a definite threshold of understanding: there is a line in the snow — marked by a speed of my talking, the number of syllables in words and sentences and the density and abstraction of the concepts being read — where-after I may as well be reciting everything in pig-Latin for all the comprehension that is going on. But that line is increasingly more vague and more distant.
And we’ve always just listened to the news at breakfast. It’s just what we do. At least, really… just what I do.
“Can I share your toast?” She asks, her question trailing off in that this-isn’t-really-a-question-way that four-year-olds love so much. “You know how I like to share your toast sometimes?”
“You have your own toast.”
“Mine is drippy.” She sighs.
“It’s fine. Eat your own toast.” I notice my voice is finally getting that father-knows-best firmness to it. (It’s only taken four years.)
“…when the euro fell to a new, sixteen-month low against the US dollar…” The radio continues.
“Dad, what does ‘fell’ mean?” The Girl asks without giving the slightest indication that her full attention is no longer completely on her half-eaten toast. Her eyes focus on the bread as she nibbles another bite from a randomly selected corner of the morsel, but she awaits my answer. I know this. It’s happened countless times before. It will happen countless times again.
She’s always asked a lot of questions, but — like that line of comprehension drawn ever so vaguely in the snow — the line of inquisition upon my fatherly knowledge reaches even further: the questions are more and more abstract. I’m less often defining things or places. I’m more often tripping over quickly improvised explanations of ideas or concepts. And as such she absorbs knowledge and ideas — definitions for hundreds of new things — like moisture into a thirsty sponge. There is an icy firmament upon which I’ve been bashed even harder, however.
“You know,” I shrug, making it up as I go along. “It’s like when you are standing or walking… and then you trip… and you fall down. Then you say would ‘I fell.'” I’m met with a blank expression. I pause and reconsider. “I think they were talking about money.” I offer, taking a different tack.
“Oh.” She says. Another nibble of toast disappears into her mouth.
To say that this level of acute comprehension tosses me about somewhat in the blizzard of fatherhood would be a gross understatement. Instead, it hurls me into a glacial freeze of my confidence. It is not what I’d expected. It’s not the “why is the sky blue” kind of question that they teach you about in that imaginary as-seen-on-television daddy-school. Because I know my answer was too simple for her. I know she is getting the context of the ideas she hears — at least most of the time — but I don’t want to make those kinds of assumptions in my own explanations.
I had told her what the word “fall” means and in return I get an “are you a moron, Daddy?” look from a four-year-old who comprehends enough of the context to see that my answer was not satisfactory for the question she was asking. “Fell” obviously had a different meaning just then than the one she already knew.
“…and a collision on thirty-fourth avenue has traffic diverted to one lane in both directions…” The radio announcer proclaims to the upbeat rift of the traffic-report background music.
The Girl asks: “Can we go sledding tonight?”
I wince. We had gone sledding on the past weekend. The effort involved in wrapping ourselves from head-to-toe in winter-proof gear and trekking to the local hill barely worth the six top-to-bottom slides by the Girl before opting to go home. And, it was ten degrees warmer then. Why doesn’t she understand this? I wonder to myself.
“Really? It’s very cold outside.” I reply.
“It’s minus thirty.” She says, then her brow furls ever-so-slightly and she asks: “What does ‘minus’ mean?”
I react like the answer-ninja leaping from behind a snowbank. But… what does ‘minus’ mean? My brain races and flips through a half-dozen too-complicated explanations. I have this notion of mathematical quantity and an abstract concept of negative numbers in my mind. Though it’s not as if I can count out negative thirty coins or spoons and show them — physically manipulate them on the table — to the waiting sponge-mind of my daughter. Instead, I deflect. I look at her suspiciously and then ask. “How did you know that it’s minus thirty outside?”
“I don’t know.” She says, matter-of-factually and then reconsiders shrugging in her too-fast, kid-like imitation of a shrug. “It said.”
“The radio said?” I ask, assuming.
“Yeah.” She replies and takes another tiny bite of her toast.
“When?” I challenge.
“Daddy!” She scrunches her face, gapes a honey-smeared maw in my direction and sighs audibly. I don’t know where exactly she’s picked up this particular expression, but I’m virtually certain it’s the four-year-old equivalent of rolling her eyes in utter exasperation at the density of my aging mind. She pats my arm in mock consolation. “It just said.”
“Alright.” My wounded dad-ego concedes, opting instead to retaliate with a dose of logic before offering the solution to the query. “But, just so you know, ‘minus’ means its cold and ‘minus thirty’ means it’s really cold. So, we’re not going sledding tonight.”
She sets her toast gingerly on the plate, still managing to dribble a few more stray globs of honey onto the edge of the table, and looks me in the eyes with her doe-like gaze. “Can we go sledding tomorrow?“