August is a great month on the post calvin because we get a set of new regular writers. Please welcome Carolyn!

I have never been so closely scrutinized for every word that comes out of my mouth as I have been this summer, nannying for a family with three children ages seven, eleven, and twelve.

My kids never directly disobey my words. Instead, they scour everything I say for loopholes and cling to my off-the-cuff suggestions as though they are sworn promises. “We can probably get ice cream tomorrow,” I said without thinking last week, trying to cheer the kids up since they couldn’t have any that day. That was when I learned that you don’t speak casually about ice cream with kids. Ice cream is deadly serious business.

But what strikes me most about this is that kids seem to have an innate sense that a person’s words today should be consistent with her words tomorrow. They remember what they are told, sometimes with frightening accuracy, and they look for patterns—integrity across time.

“That’s not what you told [sibling]!” “But you said last week!” “Mom said!”

My kids don’t have a lot of power in the world. Mom’s word (and, from nine to five on weekdays, Carolyn’s word) is the key to everything they want and need, as well as the way anything can be taken from them. Our words are their currency.

Before I realized this, I often cashed out before considering the consequences—Exhibit A being when I progressively gave in to each child’s request for a different kind of sugar on their pancakes one morning. Kid logic, of course, is ruled by the almighty principle of fairness, and once one request is granted to Child A, some similar allowance will be demanded by Child B and C. Before I even knew what I had said yes to, the kids had technicolor chocolate chip-sprinkle-frosting creations on their plates and all I could do was feebly cut off their supplies as soon as I could manage it. “That’s enough frosting, ok?” “I’m putting away the chocolate chips now.” The latter statement was contested immediately—Claire had taken more chocolate chips than everyone else, and it wouldn’t be fair if I put them away.

Children don’t need to be taught that the words they say to each other are important. Every day I hear out disputes over words. My kids’ arguments with one another are vicious and exacting, and occasionally even evolve into theoretical arguments about the source of meaning. The other day, Claire and Emma’s conversation was moving towards the sharp and sudden drop-off from sibling banter to shouting match when Claire mentioned Emma’s math level (Emma is two grade levels below Claire, even though Emma is older). Emma instantly starting bawling. Claire insisted her words were blameless. She hadn’t meant to hurt Emma’s feelings; she had thought they were both joking around. Emma said it didn’t matter how Claire intended her words; it mattered how they affected her, the recipient of the message. A few back-and-forths from that afternoon could have been the introduction to a philosophy of semantics textbook.

Often when the kids pick apart each other’s statements they are capricious in their judgment. One time when Levi asked for one of Claire’s candies without saying please he was excoriated for this, even though I noticed later that neither one of them ordinarily said “please” when asking for things. An argument about the precise wording of something Levi said three hours ago brought Emma to tears because she interpreted it to mean that Levi doesn’t care about her. Nothing Levi said about how much he loved her would change her mind.

In these situations I’ve often had the impulse to downplay the significance of words, to tell them, “Don’t take it so seriously” or “Can’t you just forget about what he or she said and move on?” I want them to learn that people can change their minds, and that one remark doesn’t have to define a relationship, that “fair” isn’t always “fair,” and that what’s necessary today isn’t always what’s necessary tomorrow.

But at the same time I feel a kind of awe at the way children take words seriously and look for integrity in their (small, for now) worlds. While I hope (for my own sanity) that soon they can progress in their relationships without endlessly returning to the past, I also hope they never lose their intuition that the words you choose today matter tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, too.

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