Kids say (and think) the darndest things. Where have I heard that before? It’s sooooo true. Kids brains aren’t just smaller and less developed than an adult brain. I think they are wired completely different. Where my brain might have a connection between making a mess and cleaning it, there is no such connection for anyone under the age of 18. In fact, their brain apparently connects from making a mess directly to making a bigger one.
It’s common for adults to refer to two very different actions by the same term. For instance, what do you think of the term “put to sleep”? If you are a people doctor, you probably think of anesthesia…you know, “put to sleep” for surgery. If you’re an animal doctor, “put to sleep” means the exact opposite, as in not going to wake up ever. This difference in interpretation became painfully obvious to me when my 5 yod required emergency elbow surgery after a tragic game of horsey with her older sister.
Just prior to this accident, we put to sleep one of our dogs due to advanced age, painful arthritis, and pronounced dementia, not to mention just plain orneryness (not normally a criteria for euthanasia, but my husband would have made an exception for this particular dog). Our vet friend came to our house to perform the procedure. All the girls said their goodbyes and went to their room. I laid next to him while he slipped painlessly away, then the girls came out again and gave him a last pet. As they stood there, with the two older girls (and me) crying, the 5 yod said very bluntly, “he looks like he’s dead.” We all looked at each other, and I said, “um, he is.” I briefly wondered how she had missed the obvious, but didn’t think much about it.
A few months later, as we’re sitting in the orthopedic surgeon’s office and talking about the procedure needed to repair her broken (in three places) elbow, the doctor is explaining how she will “put her to sleep” so she won’t feel anything. I nod knowingly, understanding exactly what’s she’s talking about. My 5yod just sits in stunned silence. The day had been a blur of x-rays, multiple doctor appointments, and pain, so I assumed she had reached the point where she was just tuning everything out. I certainly would have, if I could.
We left the doctor’s office to drive to the hospital next door for the surgery, and my 5 yod finally breaks down and starts crying. Like any mother, I hugged her close and told her it would all be okay. Then, she choked out the question that had been bouncing around in her brain for an hour, “will they put me in the ground?” I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about, and she repeated her question again. In horror, I realized that the only thing she knew about being put to sleep involved a very dead dog. I quickly assured her this was different. She would wake up from surgery and go home with us to sleep in her bed. Her dad drove up about then, and she jumped into his arms and fell into an exhausted sleep.
For the rest of our surgery preparation, I quickly informed every medical personnel that walked through the door that she was going to take a nap for surgery, not be put to sleep. The obvious confusion on each face was replaced with the same look of amazement when I explained the reason for differentiating between the same term with different outcomes. One nurse assured me she would change the way she explained anesthesia to future patients.
Now, I’m careful about assuming a child understands what is perfectly obvious to me. Because I don’t think like a child, and she doesn’t think like an adult.