Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Number sense

Apparently, there is a famous experiment that demonstrates our innate (lack of) number sense. You take a two year old and a bunch of pennies. I suppose it can be a bunch of quarters too, but pennies are comfortable for little fingers to pick up. So you spread the pennies on a table and you sit the two year old nearby. And then you ask the two year old whether they could please hand you a penny. And they usually do, and it is usually one penny. Then you ask them whether you could please have two pennies. Sure, says a two year old. And happily hands you a handful of pennies. See, they don't really get two yet. They understand one, and the rest is not one.

This can be a two year old who can count in order way past two, by the way. Because we say the words to them, and they repeat after us. But conceptually, they are not yet what is referred to as a two-knower. It takes repetition, a lot of repetition, for them to get the concept of two. You'd think that at that point they would also get the concept of three, right? Well, if you did, you'd be wrong. A two-knower is not necessarily a three-knower. And it takes, again, a lot of repetition to turn a former into a latter.

I tell you this because the Cub, I recently discovered, is still teetering on the edge of three-knowing. We have this spacial reasoning game that we gave him for his birthday. He loves it, and over the last many months has made his way through most challenges in the booklet. Sometimes, it's me who's helping him with it, sometimes JD, and sometimes Monkey. And she can actually keep to the role of helper, letting him figure it out and only asking him leading questions if he gets stuck. The whole thing is ridiculously sweet, really. But anyway. He made his way through all but the highest, Master, level by now. And at Master level it becomes important to pay attention to how long pieces are. The Cub could, from the drawing, call a one-long piece, and a two-long piece. But the three-long one? He said it was "mmmmm... ten!" long. But he can show you three fingers no problem. So, not a confident three-knower yet.

Which helps explain a bit of Cub-hilarity. He loves dinosaurs. He's four, so that makes perfect sense. He also knows that when dinos were around, there were no people (this makes him feel better, by the way, and I can see his point, because have you seen some of those 'saurs?), and he knows that dinosaurs died out. And that it was a while after that that first people appeared. And all that warms my science educator heart and contains only trace amounts of laughter-inducing materials. The hilarity reliably ensues, however, if you ask the Cub when all of this went down. You know, the dying out of dinosaurs and the rest. I have only heard him answer that one of two ways-- he either says "seven years ago" or "six years ago." Most often, it's six. Because he is not a reliable three-knower, six must seem to him as reasonable an answer as a billion.

He understands dinosaurs dying out as a cataclysmic event, a tectonic shift. And it occurred to me one fine day not so long ago, that on the scale of one family, our family, he's kinda right. Our cataclysm, our tectonic shift, our meteorite impact, that happened six years ago. Six years ago today.

And in a sense, it is about to happen again. Tonight. Because I am an enormous chicken, and because we are human and tend to pain-avoidance. See, I always thought that any subsequent children we'd have would grow up knowing about A, that it wouldn't be scary because it would be normal. And I started out like that with the Cub, talking to him about A when he was a baby, taking him to the cemetery with me. One of those visits, when the Cub was a toddler but no older than 18 months, he was standing by the grave and I said something like "that's where your brother is," and you could see by his face that he was processing that anew, and then he looked scared, and he started to cry. I calmed him down, but never took him back again, and we've never talked to him about A since. See? Chicken.

Last year, on the birth day, the Cub was three and a half, and was a bit confused by candles (Monkey still insists) and cookies and such. But I was pregnant then, and I didn't want him to be anxious through the rest of that, seeing as he was three and seeing as finds enough to be anxious about already. So we distracted him and he let it go. He won't tomorrow. And so tonight, with no margin left, we will talk.

We saw the date from a mile away, well, from a couple of months back, but it'd always felt like we had more time. This year yahrzeit (anniversary on the Hebrew calendar) fell on last Wednesday. I thought for sure we'd talk then. But we didn't, lighting the candle with Monkey after the Cub'd gone to sleep. I thought he'd ask about the candle burning in the middle of the kitchen island the next day. But he didn't, and so, again, we didn't talk. We had my nephew (we will call him Bear around here, because, you know, his parents often do), for part of the weekend, and we were just busy for part of it. Lame, lame excuses. Otherwise known as life.

But now we are out of time and out of excuses, and even Monkey will be home tonight. And we will talk, ensuing cataclysm and all. Wish us luck.