Monday, May 17, 2010

Is It Live. . . Or Is It Memorized?

This post goes out with a tip of the cap to my friend FADKOG (that's the acronymic form of For a Different Kind of Girl), in honor of her days spent tending the children's section of the bookstore she works at. . .


Jen has always worked very hard at reading to our children. Even today, she will spend as much as an hour reading to 7M and 8M after tucking them into bed. She's read The Chronicles of Narnia multiple times over, cycling through when the next group of our kids hasn't heard them yet.

When 1F was very young, maybe two years old or so, Jen found an old copy, at a rummage sale, of Little Bear's Visit, by Else Holmelund Minarik, and instantly, it became 1F's absolute, utter, very most favoritest book, almost to the exclusion of anything else. One story from that book, called 'The Goblin Story', especially caught her imagination, and she would have Jen read it to her over and over and over. The story involved a little goblin (more like a cute little gnome, but I'm not inclined to quibble over nomenclature) who was walking along one day and heard a noise, which terrified him so that he tried to run away from it, all the while hearing "pit-pat pit-pat pit-pat" following close behind him. I won't spoil the ending for you, but the salient point for our immediate purposes here is that, in 1F's universe, 'The Goblin Story' became known as 'The Pit-Pat Story', so that 1F would come to Jen, book in hand, and ask her, once again, to read 'The Pit-Pat Story'.


After some large, unknown number of such readings, it came to pass one day that Jen's mom came to our house for a visit, and little 1F (who at that point could just as well have been called 'Only-F') toddled over to her grandma with her book, climbed up on Grandma's lap and announced, "I'm going to read you The Pit-Pat Story, Grandma." And she duly opened her book to the proper page. Jen and her mom and I smiled at each other in anticipation of what was to come - no doubt some childish rendering of the story, as best she could remember it, prompted by the pictures on the pages.

1F began, reciting exactly verbatim all the words on the first pair of pages. And then, when she reached the end, she turned the page and recited exactly verbatim all the words on the next pair of pages. By now, Jen's mom was looking up at us like, 'what kind of kid have you got here, who can read at two years old?'

When 1F had finished reciting all those words, she turned the page, and recited the next pair of pages, and so on, until she had recited the entire story, exactly verbatim, including turning the pages at precisely the proper times. Jen and I knew perfectly well that 1F couldn't read - she couldn't even identify all the letters of the alphabet yet. But we were floored by the precision with which she'd memorized the story, right down to the page-turns. That little girl had been paying attention! Jen's mom, though, was a little freaked - it looked, to all the world, like this two-year-old girl had just breezed through 12 pages of first-grade-level reading, and with good expression, to boot! She was stammering in amazement at what she'd just witnessed, when Jen and I had to explain that, impressive as it was, it was merely a prodigious feat of verbal memorization, and not of two-year-old reading. . .


I don't know for sure whether this next story happened before or after the one above, but it runs in a similar vein.

Earnest young parent that I was, I recalled reading something from CS Lewis when I was in college (The Abolition of Man, perhaps?), in which Lewis was giving something like his own 'Philosophy of Education', and he said, almost in passing (though it became firmly lodged in my mind) that toddlers and preschool children are like little memorizing machines ('poll-parrots', I think he called them) - memorizing is what they do best, and what their little brains are wired for.

And so one Sunday, as we were in church, saying the Nicene Creed, as Catholics do in every Mass, it occurred to me that perhaps we could put Lewis' hypothesis to the test, and see if 1F could memorize the Creed, or some of the other 'set prayers' of the Mass, like the Lord's Prayer. So when we got home, I sat down with 1F, and started teaching her to say the Nicene Creed - "I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. . ." And over the next couple months, adding a phrase at a time, we eventually got her to memorize the entire Nicene Creed. And then we taught her the Lord's Prayer. It was very cool.

Well, of course, you don't just memorize the Nicene Creed as a kind of parlor trick - it's meant to be prayed. And so we started having her say it at Mass, along with the rest of the Faithful in attendance. I'd hoist her up and stand her on the back of the pew in front of us, and place my face alongside hers, and we'd say the Creed together. I'd love to tell you that such recitation brought about deep theological comprehension, but I'm pretty sure that didn't come until much later. . .

One Sunday, we were sitting in back in the 'Reserved for Families With Squirmy Children' section (we had 2F by then, I'm pretty sure), and when it came time to say the Creed, I hoisted 1F up onto the railing in front of us, and we said the Creed as usual. But the folks seated just in front of us (there's an aisle-way between the 'kids section' and the rest of the pews, so they were maybe 6-8 feet in front of us), hearing 1F's high-pitched, childish voice reciting the Creed word-for-word, turned slowly around and stared at what they took to be this child-prodigy. But I just smiled, and thought that by golly, CS Lewis had been right. . .


  1. This is why I'm never that impressed when a 3 year old goes on TV having memorized the list of presidents!

    I noticed similar memorization abilities with my kids, esp. middle child with autism.

  2. I think it's utterly fascinating what a child's mind can do. For instance, I was the lead in my second grade Christmas play, age 6. My Mother squirreled away a copy of the script and I came upon it a few years back. Although certainly not Shakespeare, I can't imagine my memorizing something of that length now.

  3. The other day, I was wandering around the kitchen, putting away groceries, when I realized I was reciting the text of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar". A rather easy book, to be sure, but it's been years since I sat with my youngest and read that book. Every night. Every. Night.


    That may be the very first, last, and only thing I'll ever be capable of memorizing!

  4. children are indeed quite capable of this sort of thing and it is amazing considering how hard we grownups have to work to get something down that well. even if they don't initially understand it all i think it can still be good because they can lock those words away and if we are faithful to instruct them as to their meaning then it becomes a powerful thing.

    we have a video of our first one who was 2 and a half and reciting a book of nursery rhymes much the way 1F did with little bear.

    and for the record, i LOVE little bear. loved those books when i was small and loved reading them all to my children when they were small.

  5. Cocotte - When I was in 1st/2nd grade, I befriended an older boy on my school bus, and he used to bet other kids for their lunch money that I could recite all the presidents. Too bad I never figured out to ask him for a cut of the take. . .

    And - was Rain Man a particularly poignant film for you?

    Suldog - I know what you mean. . . I think, as we accumulate years, we also accumulate useless information that clutters up brain space that would otherwise be available for memorizing stuff. . .

    I'm also intrigued by pre-literate cultures that wind up appointing guys from each successive generation to memorize and retell the history of the people. . .

    faDKoG - It's funny, but when I started reading to my own kids, I was a little amazed at how much of Dr. Seuss I could just recite from memory, for having read it so much when I was a kid. . .

    Lime - I once heard a story of a mother who read The Iliad, in Greek, to her child in utero (perhaps multiple times?), and then conspired with her high-school teacher to have the class memorize sections of The Iliad in Greek. And her kid was the only one who could do more than a few words. . .

    Funny, too - we still have that Little Bear book (much worse for wear by now), which Jen bought at a rummage sale. I think we bought the whole set once-upon-a-time, but it was paperback, and has long since been reduced to confetti. . .

  6. Ha ha this story reminds me of the in-laws, more specifically the mum-in-law. To this day she'll claim their youngest started reading at about age 2 or so even though the stories she 'read' were all of her favorites.

    BTW- Queenie was potty trained as soon as she learned to walk. Just ask Mum ..... false memories are a wonderful thing!

  7. Well, our child was diagnosed after I think Rain Man came out, so it didn't mean that much to me when I watched it.

    Actually, books and movies about autism sort of annoy me, only for the fact that each person with the disorder is so vastly different. My child is awful with numbers!

  8. Xavier - Hey, good to see you around these parts again! How you been?

    Funny - I have a baby book that a foster mother made for me, before I was adopted (and God bless her for that!), which states that I, too, was potty-trained at nine months of age. Jen (who has a degree in child development) says that claims like that are more indicative that the mother is trained, than the child. . . ;)

    Cocotte - Ah, of course; just like the rest of us, I suppose. . .

  9. AHhh yes, learning the Lord's Prayer, by making sure the kid's heard it at church, at home, etc-

    But for memorizing books, you have missed out big-time, if you've missed "Sheep In A Jeep".

    FADKOG could get it, I'm sure, it must be a classic by now; and I can *still* recite it, word for word. Along with my wife, and eldest son, and second son...

  10. Hi, Sailor!

    Alas, we missed Sheep In a Jeep. But I'm sure it's justly counted a classic. When I checked the Amazon page, tho, it seems that sheep do rather much more than just ride in jeeps. . . ;)