The Emotional Undercurrents That Children Understand
February 23, 2017
When I was seven years old, my family moved from Colorado Springs to Southern California. It was the end of the ’70s and SoCal still had a few citrus groves that had yet to be plowed under by the slow motion shock-wave of humanity that filled the basin of the Inland Empire like a great human bathtub ring. The culture shock I experienced was enormous. I didn’t understand how to act with the kids in my new school, and I suffered for it. They trained me, however, in the brutal way that kids do, and it wasn’t long before I learned to find my strengths, or rather, the weaknesses in those around me so I could climb out of the basement of the social pecking order.
It has taken me a long time to sort out the psychological impact of being thrust into a new cultural milieu at that tender age. For much of my adult life, I have either been running away from my past or running toward something I thought I wanted or needed. Now, firmly entrenched in middle-age, I’ve stopped running. I am comfortable with who I am and where I am in my life.
From this new, more centered place, I can look back at various periods of my development with more curiosity and less cringing, (although I do still cringe occasionally). As I re-examine the child I was, I reflect on what I knew. What did I actually understand about my plight and my predicament at the time? What did I get right?
Children, as we all know, are remarkably resilient. They are flexible and adaptable to new stimuli and situations in a way that adults are not. This is a survival instinct. What children lack in power and personal autonomy, they make up for in fluidity. They learn what works and what doesn’t at an emotional, pre-cognitive level. The baby cries because he is uncomfortable. A parent will do anything to stop that sound, biologically designed to cut us to the quick, and the child understands, intuitively, that crying works.
My youngest son, at eight years old, still sometimes tries to use that old trick to get what he wants, and he’s learning that it doesn’t work so well anymore. He is the same age I was when transplanted by my parents into a new place and culture. He has surprised me, lately; he understands much more about what’s going on in his world than I was ready to believe.
Last night, my son crawled into our bed after my wife and I made the mistake of trying to discuss weekend logistics well past our own bedtime. He snuggled up to me, after my wife went to go sleep on the couch, and observed, “That didn’t go so well…”
What did I understand at that age? How aware of my world was I? How can I use that information to help me understand and communicate with my kids about what they are going through?
I have a vivid memory of that time in my life that I think provides insight into what I knew and illustrates the depth of knowledge and understanding that children possess quite early on. It illustrates the difference between knowing intuitively versus knowing cognitively.
At eight or nine years old, while acclimating to my new surroundings, I recall visits to the house of my mother’s first cousin, Donna. It was a beautiful house. There was always a jar of candy on the coffee table. They had a pool with a spa in the backyard, a ping pong table and a pool table under the roof on the porch, and a putting green with real, short, authentic putting green grass. It was a palace.
Donna and Bob had four teenage sons. They rode motorcycles, played in rock bands, and were the coolest people I had ever known. They mostly tried to escape when my family came to visit. I desired their company much more than they desired mine. I still remember playing a game of hide-and-seek with Don, the youngest, only to hear the sound of a motorcycle starting up in the garage. I emerged from the house in time to see Don riding away.
My parents brought my sister and I to Donna and Bob’s house on a weekly basis for several years. The adults had an established Pinochle game with a running tally. The married couples never played on the same team because it is said that being teammates with your spouse in Pinochle can be hazardous to a marriage.
Our families grew closer together. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Fourth of July. My mother worked as a secretary at the pool business Bob ran. My father and Bob opened a joint business venture, which Bob funded and my father managed. I watched their boys, my idols, race motorcycles in the desert. I learned to skateboard in their driveway.
I vividly remember the night when everything changed. The Pinochle game was quiet. Tense. The adults disappeared into bedrooms to talk in pairs. We left early, without eating dinner. We didn’t go back to Donna and Bob’s house as often after that. I don’t recall if I asked any questions about the sudden change, but if I did, they were never answered.
Dad and Bob’s joint business venture eventually failed. My mother went back to school and became a Drama teacher – a job she was born for – and quit being Bob’s secretary. Bob’s pool business grew exponentially as the Inland Empire flooded with people. He retired young, gave the business to his sons, and took to flying his Cessna as a full time hobby.
I worked for Dave, the eldest, and Danny, the third son, as a pool cleaner one summer during college. Bruce, the second son, developed a brain tumor in his 20s and lived, somewhat diminished, for another 30 years. So life and our relationships continued, but I never forgot the day that they changed.
The last time I saw Bob was at my mother’s funeral in February of 1996. She had died in a freak accident at work – a fall from the stage into the orchestra pit of the school where she taught drama. Bob died when his plane crashed two weeks later.
It wasn’t until 15 years later, in 2011, that I saw Donna again at an impromptu family reunion. Kids, grandkids, relatives, and friends splashed in the pool outside, chatted in deck chairs, or watched TV in the living room. I sat down at a table filled with food across from Donna and my father, both now in their 70s. The chaos of sound and movement at the party afforded us some privacy. I hadn’t thought much about that night, so long ago, when our families diverged, but seeing the two of them sitting there together, after so much water had gone under the bridge, I brought it up. “What happened that night?”
I knew the answer before they told me. Bob had fallen for my mother – she had that effect on people – and he’d declared that he wanted a divorce from Donna. It wasn’t that he didn’t care that it would destroy both families in the process; I think it was more likely that his emotions just didn’t leave him any choice. My mother didn’t feel the same way.
A cloak of silent understanding wrapped around us at that table in the midst of the party. Donna looked at me, the hurt still present in her eyes. “I would never have told you this, but since both your mother and my husband are dead...“
My father nodded silently, somber. “Don’t tell your cousins, they still don’t know.”
How did I know? At age nine or 10 such deep truths about relationships were not available to my thinking mind. But, intuitively I knew – not the details, but the truth of the emotion. I had stored it away in a place where I could use it, learn from it, understand it when I was ready.
Children know. Children understand. They are highly attuned to the emotional currents in their lives. We may try to hide things from our kids – the sordid details of our messy adult lives – but they know. Their survival often depends on their ability to navigate those fraught shoals.
I don’t know if my cousins or my sister ever made these connections. I haven’t talked to them about it, as Donna requested. She has passed on as well at this point. I would tell them if they asked, but it hasn’t come up. What I keep in my mind and in my heart is the knowledge that my own kids, and all the children I’m blessed to know, perceive and understand much more about the world around them than we realize. We had better act accordingly.