Conversations with children: Part 2

A friend and potential contributor writes in to us: My 8-year-old son was watching a video of a mixture of toothpaste and a soft drink being used as a cleaning agent and described it to me with much excitement. I wanted to insert a lesson and use the opportunity to slip in an attack on sodas, so I said to him,

I: “Look how acidic a soft drink is!” To which he promptly responds: “Wow, so it will clean our body too” (when we drink it)

I: (Roll my eyes and give up! But not for long, the battle continues)

I’m quite careful with what I buy, for the home, for myself as well as the children and I definitely want to instil this value for money in them. One day, he was insistent about buying a “useless” (from my perspective, a waste) toy at the mall.

I: “No, I won’t buy this. It’s useless.”

He: (After some thought) “Mummy, how much did you buy the kurta for?”

I: 800 (Rupees)

He: “But the toy I wanted was for only 200?

I: “Uhmmmm” (Answering that was tricky, I needed to talk about utility and cost, not sure I did a good job of that one).

Conversations with children are a constant challenge, they keep us alert, alive, and in our place!


In the last week, we gave you some examples of conversations with children ( Inspired by the work of parents who were/are scientists and scientists who are parents, we brought you passages from diaries of parents, recent as well as not. Charles Darwin’s observations of his son Doddy made a significant contribution to the understanding of emotions in humans, and Jean Piaget’s accounts of his children helped him give shape to one of the most detailed theories about the development of human understanding. Other significant diaries have come from William and Clara Stern, Willhelm Preyer and several others. Infant diaries were recognized as an important source of knowledge about the behaviour and development of early life.

It is quite evident that maintaining detailed accounts of conversations with children can be a very rewarding experience. Some instances of well-known people who kept diaries are: On account of the fact that the young baby needs constant attention, care and nourishment, it provides adults with a unique opportunity to spend long hours watching. Not all parents have the luxury or the inclination to do so, but for those who do, watching children grow is a beautiful experience. Their words, their actions and their thoughts are full of mystery and wonder. They bring life into a world that could otherwise feel dull. The extreme outcome of social change depicted in ‘Children of Men’[1] a dystopian thriller based on P. D. James’s novel of the same name, presents a future scenario in which humanity loses its fertility; not entirely unbelievable as anti-natality creeps in on affluent sections of society. Still, on the one side we have fertility clinics and on the other there are population control programmes. By and large, it may not be wrong to say that having children is no longer viewed as an imperative of the life-cycle of an individual and educated couples the world over are pausing to think before producing babies, unlike their counterparts a couple of generations ago. This has resulted in a much needed slowing down of the world’s population. Yet, along with the creaking noise of an overburdened world, we do face a distant possibility of closing in on a risk the consequences dramatized in the film. We can only speculate. At this point, I do agree with Laing when he says that the presence of children in our lives nourishes adults, bring life into the world, literally as well as metaphorically (There would be no Masala Chai, right?). Yet, circumspection in this matter is also critical, the world’s resources come under serious strain.

Once the child arrives, a whole range of processes are set in motion. The young child needs constant care and attention during the early years and this provides a precious opportunity for observations and interviews for those of us who are committed to knowing more about childhood and archiving encounters with children for posterity.

We learn about children only from children

When Laing writes candidly that the archives of conversations with his children Adam and Natasha are personal and private, yet he chooses to publish them. As a scholar who was concerned with disturbed dialogues and the mechanisms of the unstable mind, he argued in 1984, (but it remains relevant even today) that we haven’t really focussed that much on happy conversations, the ordinary exchanges between people. (This is also brought up in Immortality, by Theordore Zeldin[2]) and he (Laing) writes:

“After pondering on it a bit, I have decided not to introduce the conversations with a theoretical essay, nor to footnote them in the many places where I have felt tempted to do so. The best order is to let them stand on their own and let them be read in the first place, with the fewest possible theoretical presuppositions. Such theoretical considerations raised by them in many relevant fields, psychoanalysis, developmental epistemology, communications theory, anthropology, can be taken up later…….I hope that these pages will contribute to making apparent that it is just as useful for adults to be in touch with children as it is for children to be in touch with adults. We learn about children only from children. Our understanding of ourselves is enormously impoverished if we are out of touch with childhood. Adults suffer as much from the deprivation of children in their lives as the other way around. I suspect that children play as important a part in adults’ ‘growth and development’ as we adults do in theirs.”

Conversations as valuable material

David and Rosa Katz first published a collection of chats with children in 1999 ‘Conversations with children’[3]. They propose that conversations with children opens up their world to adults, the rich raw material provided in the book is an illustration of the potential utility of such a collection for understanding children’s thoughts. As Piaget argued, children’s minds are organized differently from that of older children and adults, and that is why simply saying to them they are wrong is just meaningless. They tend to see things from their own perspective, and become more aware of other’s points of view a little bit later in childhood. The delightful memories of watching a child nod in response to a voice on the phone is a tiny example of this tendency.

Katz and Katz discuss that the relationships between conversational members needs to be examined. We are aware of the fact that in several cultures, young children are not believed to be conversational partners, and such conversations are not commonplace. Even when these do take place, there is a clear social arrangement between adults and children, the authors highlight.

Listening to children also brings home a delightful entry into the development of language skills. The child’s mind is like a sponge and the highly advanced growth of sounds, sound combinations, meaning and message, in the first few years is highly engaging for an interested adult. They make small mistakes as language develops that bear testimony to the active processing of language by the child. For those of us who have taken the time and effort to record children’s voices, a return to them in later years has been a source of great pleasure and fascination.

What we learned from the previous post

Robert Serpell responds: We were delighted to receive this message from Robert Serpell all the way from the University of Zambia. (

Thank you for another lovely, musing tour of conversations with young children. What strikes me most compellingly is how the focus of the explanations these children offer was socially constructed. The opening move is for the adult to express curiosity about the child’s thoughts in the manner of an authentic request for knowledge. The child may need some reassurance that this is genuine:

“I: Oh okay! Even big homes can have something missing?

A Yes! (Then he quickly checks with me) I’m saying right?

I: Absolutely! I am asking what you think.”

This is not a question of being epistemically correct, but of being socially appropriate.

Piaget’s wonderful insight that children seek to understand the world by constructing an explanation that is coherent within the constraints of a limited logical system (that we adults can relate to because it forms a part of our more complex system) generates the ground-rules for a certain kind of conversation that adults can enjoy with children. One of the rules is that the child is rewarded for transgression of adult expectations:

“one day when she was playing under the dining table (which acts like a house to her and her dolls), her grandfather asked: ‘Can I also join you?’ ‘No!’ (she replied promptly) ‘You are too fat to fit in my house’! Her grandfather was initially shocked by her response, but as is common, he shared this with everyone over the next few days.”

Grandfather opened the door for this “shockingly” disrespectful reply by the child by proposing a self-evident intervention, notifying the child that this was not a genuine request to join the doll-play but a tease.

The autobiographical narrator reminds us that she especially appreciates transgressive statements from the child when they are engaged in a conversation about the origin of wind:

“I: How did it get there?

P: Well, from the legs of course!

I: Legs? Really? And how did it get into my feet?

P: From the ground, through the chappals and up to the stomach!

(I was charged, this was going well)”

This parenthetic comment about the investigating adult’s frame of interpretation is followed by others:

“(I was beside myself with joy)”

“(AHA! I was hooked, and she loved how impressionable I was, I think)”

The climax comes when the adults tries to appropriate the child’s explanatory system and extend to the origin of dawn the child’s explanation of nightfall (“A black aeroplane comes. And in that there are black clouds. People with black clothes holding black mugs pour the black clouds onto the city!” The child begins:

“P: (Soft dramatic tones) There is a white aeroplane, in which there are people with white clothes and white mugs…..

I: (Quite excited, I interrupt) ….and it is full of white clouds….. (She was applying her logic quite perfectly).

P: (Never one to be outsmarted, she said) Nooooooo! They lean over and one by one, they pick up mugfuls of black clouds and pour them back into the plane. (Nodding wisely) That’s how day comes!!!

Acknowledging the child’s authority to explain is presented by Piaget as a methodological step required for revealing the systemic coherence of pre-operational logic. But it is also a key ingredient of this kind of social interaction that encourages the child to be creative.

The shared goal of the partners is these playful conversations is to savour the endless possibilities of theorising, rather than to transmit pre-existing cultural understanding to a child novice from a more knowledgeable adult. If the latter goal had been adopted (as expounded in Tharp & Gallimore’s (1988) neo-Vygotskian “instructional conversation”), the adult who started with the question “where do babies come from ?” might have built on the child’s insight that babies are too complex to be available on sale in the market ready-made (“the doctor … goes from shop to shop. From one he buys teeth, from another eyes, from another bones and blood (and so on), and collects everything. Then he comes back to the hospital and puts all this together and puts it the mother’s stomach.”). Drawing on the child’s acknowledgment of ostensible referents such as the neonate’s limbs and the mother’s distended abdomen, the adult might have introduced the child to the elaborate explanation of conception and gestation in biological science. But that would have been a different kind of socially constructed explanation !

I wonder how these different kinds of explanatory conversation are best deployed in pedagogy, and how their legitimacy is rooted in the cultural norms and systems of meaning that parents bring to the socialisation of their children.

Thank you for your comments Robert and we will think about these as we develop more posts for Masala Chai.

Children see things differently: From the previous essay, we learnt that children see things differently from the way they are assumed to and we need to recognize that. Often this leads us to the temptation to “correct” their views. Piaget revealed that younger children often did not always reveal a true connection between a statement and a counter-statement, Katz and Katz write. Often, what they have to say does not even require a response. Although other psychologists have contested the claim of egocentrism (the inability to see another person’s perspective that Piaget studied), there is no denying that children become more aware of other people’s minds as they grow older. There is sufficient evidence to show that even a baby thinks, but they think differently, they think with their bodies, the hands, the movements, the senses. As Maria Montessori writes in ‘The Secret of Childhood’[4], “There is something mystical in the idea that the tiniest baby has its mental life” with a “predisposition to construct a language, a creative aptitude, a potential energy and to struggle for mental existence”. Furthermore, “In the sensitive relations between the child and his environment lies the key to the mysterious recess in which the spiritual embryo achieves the miracles of growth.”

Children use words in different ways: I remember a pre-schooler I interacted with decades ago who simply did not need to answer anything beyond “Because” when he was asked “Why did you….. (…drop this thing, or anything for that matter)?” He had understood that the word was used when an explanation needed to be given, but thought that just saying ‘because’ was enough, for a while at least.

Words and meanings are actively invented by children: From the opening example (Laing) Natasha responds “Two sleeps” to Adam’s question, when is day after tomorrow. This is a demonstration of the fact that children actively reconstruct their understanding and also create meanings when they converse. These creative bursts are a source of great joy for parents to experience because they are very endearing. They bring magic to the moment.

Children are always curious: From the time they wake up to the time they sleep, children’s minds are watchful and alert. Even before language develops, they are able to discern emotions and social messages in interactions, even though it will be a while before they will understand what is going on. Oftentimes, we do not realize what we are saying in the presence of children, and can be shocked by their grasp of words.

Language mistakes are proof of their active creation: Many times, adults believe that children will not learn if we do not teach them. If we understand that most children learn the rules of their native languages before they can even tie their shoelaces, we will be humbled by how quick and how nuanced their knowledge is. Listening to children provides evidence of the uniqueness of the human mind in abundance. The example of the three-year-old talking about having a baby (doll) in her stomach, or the child talking about clouds making the night, come could easily have been dismissed as foolish, erroneous rantings of an ignorant or misinformed child. Sometimes we wonder “Where does the child get all these ideas from?” But it would be a serious mistake to believe that children learn only from others. These conversations display the active imagination of children, they think things up; and this does not imply that they will go through life believing in magic. This is a phase, and all children grow through this sort of understanding, whether we hear it or not is incidental. Even silently, children create imaginary worlds. However, young children need to talk out their thoughts when they play, and only gradually do they become self-conscious if someone is watching them, and then, the thoughts become silent and travel inwards.

Although we may not remember childhood experiences, all later learning is founded on early experiences: A child’s spontaneous experiences with the world around are her learning centre. The gradually expanding world of natural and cultural objects is their classroom. Unfortunately, the spread of early childhood education and schooling has led to the misplaced belief that children only learn at school. If we just stop and see how much a child has already learnt BEFORE school, we would have more respect for children entering nursery, teachers would be more humble and parents less assertive. School should support a child’s learning instead of attempting to ‘repair’ children. Since learning is cumulative, it is counter-productive to approach home-based early learning as conflicting with school learning. Perhaps we need to shift the centre of gravity of the classroom away from the teacher. A good teacher will always develop on what the child already knows and not attempt to put something there.

Children pick up ways to manipulate situations fairly early: Although Piaget wrote about self-centred nature of children’s thoughts, others have debated that children are acutely aware of others as we mentioned earlier. The pleading three-year-old in the last post who mimics and adult repeating “Please, please, please” in public to get his way has learnt that this is a successful way to get the parents to do what he wants. Although the full-fledged understanding may not yet have been accessed, intuitively, children are quite aware of social dynamics. They learn from the social exchanges how best to get what they want.

Children can also misunderstand events they experience: On account of the rather precocious access to language exchanges and sensitivity to social relations, children can often misunderstand events. Let us look at the example of the young girl who assumes that the fact that she, her mother and father live separately from the large, bustling joint family that she loves to be with, it must have been on account of them being deliberately separated, perhaps even asked to leave. Why else would they live separately, she imagines.

This is just a brief list of some of the observations that emerge from the previous posts, developmental psychologists have written volumes about the fascinating world of the child’s mind, and this is only a small taste of that magic.

Additionally, there are a couple of other issues that arise when we discuss children and family life, and this relates to the sharing of personal information on social media. Our blog features children, parents and events that may sometimes be identifiable. For this reason, we wanted to bring up the following issues for discussion and debate.

Something like an autobiography: The why and how about sharing personal experiences

Our posts like ‘Conversations’ refer to intimate exchanges between adults and children, and in doing so, we realize that our contributors open themselves to us with spontaneity and sincerity. In some spaces in academic writing, personal experiences are dismissed on the grounds of being subjective and unscientific. When the same experience is sanitized by the application of categories and codes and then passed through mysterious purification rituals (aka Statistics), conclusions are believed to become authenticated. My concern has always been that if a researcher wants to lie, isn’t it actually much easier to lie with statistics?? Doesn’t one anyway have to trust the scientist? For my part, I do believe that I can spot a fake claim much more easily when it concerns direct descriptions. Numbers make it harder to see through findings. I recall an eminent social scientist once commenting how he found a presentation we made about Indian mothers as encouraging ‘elective interdependence’[5] based on ethnographic observations as very interesting but “seductive”, implying how such an approach would be enticing but not believable and not scientific! Our discomfort with this position in much of mainstream psychology was an important reason for starting Masala Chai, a forum where we could write what we experienced, what we believed to be meaningful, and where the adjective “seductive” if ever used, would perhaps only mean ‘attractive’!

 We are acutely aware that every time we open up to being read, we make ourselves and others whom we inevitably include, vulnerable to public gaze, to evaluations, to being potentially misunderstood and misrepresented. In ‘Something like an autobiography’, renowned filmmaker Akira Kurosawa explains with reference to the title, that “no acceptable account of oneself can be fully truthful because in doing so, one would compromise others”. In all honesty, he wrote, he could not write an autobiography. “If I were to write a full autobiography, embarrassment and resentment would be an inevitable result” for some who are still around and some who are gone, who’s dignity we need to preserve.

In writing about children and family life, we open up a private space. For that reason, we remain hugely grateful to our generous community of contributors, as well as our children who may not even have agreed to share these details because they cannot understand or do not know.

My Daughter’s Mum: A precious resource for discussions about family life

I agree fully with columnist Natasha Badhwar when she writes in one of her essays in the Mint Lounge, “Vulnerability is not weakness”[6], in fact, as she argues further that “Raising children and being in love make me vulnerable. I have learnt that vulnerability is not weakness. Recognizing one’s vulnerability is pure courage. It gives me the will to stand up to oppression—to be honest, to confront. It makes me see things with clarity.” A collection of her essays can be found in ‘My Daughter’s Mum’[7], and her blog[8], both a must read for those who are interested in childhood. From another of her essays: “Writing a personal essay drawn from the stream of one’s own life as it is being lived, is a process with its own unique protocol. What may seem like a breezy, seamless retelling, are often paragraphs that have come together very reluctantly, with grave doubt and with a helpful, terrorizing nudge from being nose to nose with the deadline for submission. There is the vulnerability of exposing a personal story to the public glare and the fear of being dismissed or ignored that never really goes away for good.”[9]

At Masala Chai, we are well aware that posts such as these open up personal worlds to public gaze, and I want to end with gratitude to our contributors for their generous submissions. We hope to continue to bring to you more personal stories that will make attempts to fulfil Laing’s suggestion of how the presence of children in our lives nourishes our own. We recall the wise words of a public installation in Mumbai that we referred to in an earlier post “Every child gives birth to a mother”. Inspired by this we can say that “Every reader gives birth to a blog”, many thanks to all of you for your audience.

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