It Happened One Night?
By Calvin Trillin
(TIME, May 5) -- Of course, I'm all for the program launched recently by the White House and child-development experts to impress upon parents the importance of talking to their babies, but it does present a problem for those of us whose children are already grown. Although I have a hazy memory of what my kids were like when they were tiny, I can't for the life of me remember what I said to them.
That is particularly true of what we now know were the vital first few months of their lives. A lot of those conversations seem to have taken place in the wee hours of the morning, at a time when I was so sleepy that I wasn't quite certain whether I was really awake or simply having another diaper dream.
When one of our babies woke up before dawn, did I recite The Canterbury Tales to her in a way that stimulated the bejesus out of her brain circuitry, or did I just mutter unintelligibly, "Where the hell did she throw the bottle now?" At this point, it isn't even easy to remember precisely what I said to my kids when they were teenagers. Just last month I got in touch with both of my daughters to make sure we'd remembered to tell them not to join any cults.
It's important to try to remember what I said in those first months. One scientific report quoted at the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning concluded that brain synapses--connections between brain cells--are formed before the age of 3, and that those unformed by then are eliminated. As I interpreted that finding, my daughters could be walking around with less than their fair share of brain synapses simply because I was too tired some nights to manage at least a simple "Hiya, kid. What's new?"
When I finally admitted to one of my daughters that I'd been hoping they hadn't read that particular report, she said, "I don't see what you were worried about, Daddy. With all the eliminated synapses we have, we probably wouldn't have understood it anyway."
"I'll make the jokes in this family," I said. I've always believed that, even when they're grown, it's a good idea to exert parental authority now and then.
I'd brought up the subject of our earliest conversations because it had occurred to me that my children might remember more about those nocturnal encounters than I do. Unlike me, after all, they were wide awake; nobody can make that much noise while asleep. "You don't happen to recall hearing anything in those days about pilgrims wending their way to Canterbury, do you?" I asked.
"Actually, Daddy," she said, "I think you might have used some bad language when you were having trouble with the diaper pins."
It was starting to come back to me. I remembered that, when trying to lull them back to sleep, I hadn't recited The Canterbury Tales; I had sung an old World War II ditty called If I Had It to Do All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You. It had seemed more appropriate at the time.
"Don't worry, Daddy," my daughter said. "We both have enough synapses. We're fine."
She's right. Maybe that bad language was good for the circuitry--sort of a jolt, like jumper cables. The next time they have one of those White House conferences, I might ask to testify.
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