You can learn a surprising amount just by listening to children while they talk. Every other Monday I drove Elena and her friend Jack to soccer practice. Coach Paul controlled thirty kids with a calmness and a sense of humor that I hope for. Me, I had just two of them in the back seat and no whistle.
We’d pull up to Jack’s house. He often brought a snack for him and Elena to share on the way to soccer. After getting him settled in the car seat I’d get back in the car and have barely closed the door when they’d start on that day’s conversation.
Elena fired the opening round in a recent exchange.
“Jack, can you do the splits?”
“No, I have a penis.”
I considered stopping things at this point but let it go. Elena didn’t.
“That has nothing to do with it. I can do the splits.”
“That’s ’cause girls don’t have penises.”
“No, women are just more flexible than boys. Women can do the splits.”
“That’s not why. Coach Kangas is flexible but he can’t do the splits because he has a penis.”
Clearly it was time to move them to a different subject and I did. Kim and Jack’s mother Patti always said that Jack and Elena argued like an old married couple. There were times that they would travel together in silence, but more often than not, they would be trying to top each other’s story or fighting about things that only matter to six year olds.
As we headed for home one day, Elena told Jack that she and Zachary were the only two Jewish kids in her classroom.
“But,” said Jack, “I thought you believed in Jesus.”
“I do,” answered Elena, “I’m Catholic too.” She hadn’t seen the problem with this that Maggie had identified by her age. She was completely comfortable believing in Jesus during those moments that she was being Catholic and not worrying about the issues during those moments that she was being Jewish.
“You’re Catholic?” Jack questioned. “I’m not.”
This puzzled me. His parents are Catholic. They go to a Catholic church. They send him for Catholic religious instruction.
“I’m a Christ – asist.” I’m actually not sure what he said because he didn’t repeat it but it wasn’t Christian. It was ‘Christ’ something where this was pronounced with a long ‘i’.
“What does that mean?” asked Elena.
“Well we believe in Jesus, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy and you don’t. You’re Jewish.”
“I believe in Jesus, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy.”
“You couldn’t. You just couldn’t.”
I interrupted to point out that we were at Jack’s house and they could stop arguing.
“You’re interructing,” Elena said.
“Interrupting,” I agreed.
I’ve been thinking about belief this week in the wake of the funeral. I’ve asked Kim before about kids who are taught about Jesus, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. At some point they discover the truth about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Why doesn’t that shake their faith in Jesus?
Why doesn’t that set them up to wonder at what age they will be told that this too is a set of stories told to them to make their life more orderly and easier as a young person? I’m not arguing whether or not you should believe in Jesus – I think that is a personal decision that is none of my business. I’m asking how these other icons of childhood can fall away without shaking your faith in the other things you were raised to believe in?
That’s why it’s easier to let six year olds argue about why boys can’t do the splits.