Hal is now three years and nine months and has bits of his favourite stories word perfect. His father, Roger Mills, explains.
A month or so ago we went to stay with some friends who live just outside Cambridge. We took some of Hal’s current favourite reads with us, and in the evening he asked if he could have ‘Monkey see, monkey do’, a relatively new arrival in Hal’s top ten. The story, from an anthology of tales from around the world, is charming: an Indian hat seller is wheeling his barrow laden with hats through the jungle. The barrow hits a pot-hole, the hats go flying, and before the hapless hat seller can recover them they have been pinched by the local monkeys who retreat into the trees with their prizes.
The hat seller is furious. He shouts at the monkeys but ‘what monkey see, monkey do’ and so the monkeys all shout back. The seller brandishes a stick at them and the monkeys all break off sticks and brandish them too. The seller weeps and they weep. Finally, in a rage, the hat seller hurls his own hat on to the ground. The mimicking monkeys of course do likewise, and surprised and overjoyed, the hat seller is able to retrieve his precious stock.
When I was reading the book to Hal two of the pages stuck together, leaving me stranded mid-way through a sentence. While I struggled to turn the page Hal quietly completed the rest of the words. He seemed to know it by heart. The pushy, ambitious parent bit of me that I lamented in the September diary got very excited at this and I immediately began to fantasise about having a genius on my hands. I tried him out with other lines, starting the sentence and getting him to complete it. Most of the time he was word perfect or close. His strike rate did decline a bit towards the end of the story, but that didn’t matter much to me. I knew that Hal had only heard it seven or eight times and I convinced myself something highly unusual was happening.
The following day, on a walk with David one of our hosts, I casually introduced Hal’s astonishing memory into the conversation. But to my considerable disappointment David wasn’t impressed. ‘Our two were like that,’ he said. ‘They knew stories by heart; if you got a word wrong they would correct you.’ I quizzed him a little more and asked other friends later in the week. It soon became clear that fantastically absorbent memories are not unusual in the under tens.
But it is memory of a particular kind, a memory for sounds rather than meanings. One of the bits of the story Hal had word perfect was a list of the hats the hat seller had. It included bobble hats and bowlers, billy-cocks and balaclavas. I am all but certain Hal doesn’t know what any of them are, but he remembered the sounds of the words all right and could reproduce them perfectly.
But why do children have this astonishing capacity for remembering the sounds and rhythms of words? Perhaps it is because, for a young child like Hal, language is still a relatively new discovery. He is still hearing new words all the time, still listening for and learning their sounds. But perhaps too, it is because children are powerfully affected by repeated sounds. The impact of nursery rhymes, I would argue, is because of this. It is often pointed out how much violence is contained in nursery rhymes. ‘Rub a dub dub’, ‘Rock a bye baby’, ‘Three blind mice’ are typical of the nastiness of the genre. Some people argue (Kleinian analysts particularly) that the rhymes work for children because they reflect their aggression. But that would suppose that children knew at the outset what the words mean. I wonder if the real power of rhymes is that their sounds and rhythms set up feelings of calm and security, the repetition setting up a sense of something reliable and always there. The child comes to understand the words later it is true. But by that time they are freighted with comfort, not aggression. Children seek to make their worlds safe. And perhaps their amazing capacity for soaking up and learning new sounds is driven by this need. Children latch on to repeated sounds. And they want them again and again.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.