Children and the Theory of Relativity

February 7th, 2016

I arrived home from work the other day to find my son and oldest daughter huddled together at the kitchen table. They had a piece of paper between them and were writing names on it, discussing each addition animatedly. It turned out that they were crafting an invitation list for my son’s birthday party.

My son was born in September.

I gently pointed out to him that birthday preparations might be a trifle premature at this time, but he was undeterred. Plans needed to be made. There wasn’t a moment to lose!  They worked for another fifteen minutes or so, then presented me with the master plan. The party would take place on a Sunday afternoon and be held at KC Gymnastics. Cake would of course be mandatory and should reflect a super hero theme, befitting his own heroic nature. My son left me with the list, trusting that I would take the necessary steps to inform his friends of the impending festivities.

Kids have such a different relationship with time than adults do. By the time you’re a grownup, it’s all but impossible to remember what the world was like before concepts like days and weeks and years had solidified in your mind. To my son, September is right around the corner. To me, it’s so far away I can hardly bear to utter the syllables aloud, much less think about party invitations. I need to survive the rest of winter first.

As a parent, I often wait to tell my kids about forthcoming plans until the date is looming near, because it’s so hard for them to process the idea that an exciting expedition won’t be happening right away. My son had trouble with ‘today’ versus ‘tomorrow’ for a while, which caused no small amount of misunderstandings.Kentucky Countdown

When our family relocated from Pittsburgh to Kentucky, my kids were 3 and 18 months. I had to loop my daughter in on the plan pretty far in advance because there were immediate implications for her world. Moving boxes started appearing and belongings started disappearing and it was impossible to keep her in the dark without causing a lot of stress.

We created a paper chain countdown and strung it over a doorway in the living room. Each loop of the chain had a date written on it, and we ceremoniously removed one each day. The physical representation of time seemed to help – at first she could see that there were a lot of loops, meaning that the move wasn’t happening for a while. Then, as we got closer to the end of the chain, she could see that we were getting closer to departure.

I also used physical representations to help my kids keep track of my absence when I participated in a two-week mission trip in 2014. I felt bad about being away so long and they made out like bandits because I carefully wrapped a small gift for each day I was away. Nothing lavish – a new box of crayons, a book, a set of glow bracelets – but something for them to look forward to each day. The gifts were numbered so they could see the progression of time.

Physical countdowns are all well and good but somehow starting a birthday countdown eight months before the event seemed like overkill, so I simply filed the invitation list away for future use. Half the fun of an event is planning it, and I’m sure we’ll revisit the issue more than once between now and September.

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