Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How Children are Like Aliens

Everyone's heard the expressions: "Out of the mouths of babes," or "Children say the darndest things." That is - and isn't - what this post is about. Fundamentally, this post is about how children can shake us free of the view of life that we ordinarily take for granted - and thereby give us insight into the Other.

When you're grown up, you know so many things that it's easy forget how few things you knew when you started out. Kids have to be taught to wave hello. To greet others. To say please and thank you. To shake hands. When to speak up and when to be quiet. Yes, a lot of this is about manners and politeness. But some of it is also about basic understandings of how the world works, too. We have to learn where rain comes from, what money is, and what banks are, and what they're for. We also have to learn how to acquire possessions, how to arrange them in our space, and what "clean" means, and what "tidy" means (and whether the two are different!). We have to learn how to use the bathroom - where toilets are kept, how to clean ourselves when we're finished (both above and below). The list goes on and on - but when you consider that a baby has to learn how to focus its eyes, and how to hold an object, you realize that any one particular thing is tiny in the face of the enormous list of things to learn.

It shouldn't be at all surprising that children misunderstand. We should all stand in awe of how much they do understand, how easily and how quickly they learn.

Earlier this year, I was asked to compose a bio for the conventions (BayCon and Westercon) that I attended. Deciding to go for humor, I included the following lines about myself and my beloved babes:

"Juliette taught alien languages for three years, then moved on to completing her M.A. in Linguistics and Ph.D. in Education before encountering an entirely new species – children. After several years in the thick of linguistic struggle she has achieved successful communication which bodes well for their future on our planet."

It's not far off. And children, who often lack understanding about the things we've learned to take for granted, can give us valuable hints into how strangers to our societies - aliens or just travelers - might react to the things they experience.

My dad uses an expression that I've picked up: "That's one approach." I use it any time when I see my kids accomplishing a task in a way that I never considered. Hey, it might not be the way I'd do it, or even the way I'd suggest they do it, but it works. I use it a lot.

So keep your eyes and ears open when children are around, even if they're not your own. Watch for instances of misunderstanding, of unusually keen insight, of language error, of social faux pas, or of accomplishing a task by an unfamiliar means. Each one of these can provide a view into previously unseen alternatives, and prove a source of story ideas, or of details for an alternate world, or of behavioral details for an alien.

It's a treasure chest of ideas, waiting for you to discover it.


  1. This is such fantastic advice, and I can't wait to try it out the next time I see my niece and nephew (and whoever may be running about the cafe next time I write in town). When kids ask 'why', they can wind up exposing the arbitrariness of some of the things we do.

    Also, I love that bio. It strikes the perfect tone!

  2. I'm glad it resonated with you. I almost mentioned the "why" questions while writing the post, but then I got sidetracked onto other things.

    Glad you liked the bio!

  3. Nice observation! It's so hard to take a break from being an adult and try to see through the eyes of children. When I get the chance, I'm amazed at what I take for granted about my daughter's skillset and abilities. Then she'll ask what something means, reminding me of how much more there is for her to learn.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Jonathan! I peeked around your site and it looks like we have some of the same interests (fantasy, anthropology...). I hope you'll stop by again.