The National Catholic Review
Before my sister’s son, Charles, was born four years ago, I found it difficult to understand why people found their children’s comments so amusing. Certainly I had friends and relatives with young and often precocious children, but when they repeated their supposedly hilarious comments to me I usually found them only mildly amusing.

But with my nephew’s birth I finally began to see the humor in it all. For while it is one thing to hear a non sequitur or chance remark repeated by an adult, it’s quite another to hear it coming directly from, as the Bible would have it, the mouths of little children. It makes one wonder: Did he really just say that? And: Wherever did that come from?

Last month I was having dinner with my sister and her son in a local restaurant. Before the meal, we were chatting about my nephew’s favorite topic: “Star Wars.” (At last count Charles has seen “The Phantom Menace” 68,000 times.) In any event, it dawned on me that perhaps this fascination with light sabers and droids might prefigure a career in, say, engineering or astrophysics. So I asked him, “What would you like to do when you grow up?”

Now I suppose I should have said, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” But since, like many children, Charles is a literalist, he answered with what he knows is something only adults can do. Nonetheless, it was surprising to hear my nephew declare his life’s ambition.

“Touch knives!” he said gleefully.

“Only grown-ups are allowed to do that,” my sister explained.

“And drink soda, too!” added my nephew.

Would that we all had such reasonable goals.

Children are also adept, of course, at finding the well-placed word that, to quote Scripture again, silences the haughty or at the very least brings a smile to the hearer’s lips. My cousin told me of taking her then two-year-old daughter on a tour of Villanova University, outside of Philadelphia. “This is where Mommy went to school,” she said.

“Oh,” said Emily, who had apparently just discovered sarcasm, “congratulations.”

As an uncle I am also fortunate that I can enjoy these experiences and stories without having to put up with what one might call the downside. For example, never having to touch a diaper, which I like to think of as an unexpected perk of the celibate life. (And for those religious and priests who have consciously chosen to help out with diapering responsibilities, I can say only: Are you crazy?)

To that end, my brother-in-law related a story that occurred while he was with his family in church. At a recent Mass, the presider spoke of a parishioner who had just passed away, a generous man who each year donated enough money to provide a scholarship for a student at the parish school. The man, however, had no family, and after his announcement the priest made an impassioned plea for parishioners to attend the man’s funeral. Members of the congregation were evidently deeply moved, and the church fell into total silence. My brother-in-law stressed this: total silence.

Until my nephew shouted out: “Who let the dogs out! Who! Who! Who!” (If you are familiar with this little ditty, you know there is no way of singing it without shouting it.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, my desire for news about my nephew currently focuses on what funny things he has said lately. But it is a bittersweet pleasure, because I know it won’t last forever: soon he’ll be a schoolboy more conscious of what he says, then a more serious pre-teen and finally a sullen adolescent who may seem far from the toddler I now know. But I know that if teenage Charles gives us any trouble, I can just show him this article to remind him of how much fun he once was.

And if he continues to give us trouble, I’m sure that all it will take for him to become a model teenager is reminding him how much all of his friends might enjoy hearing these stories as well.

James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

Comments

Joan Burke | 9/30/2002 - 6:08pm
As a mother and grandmother, I can certainly appreciate what James Martin,S.J. wrote in OF MANY THINGS 9/23/02. I will share a recent similar event: a divorced father went (with his 8 yr old boy) to his doctor to get a prescription for allergy medicine, since what he was taking was not helping. Later, father and son were on a slow-moving line at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for ALLEGRA. The father started a conversation with a young woman standing behind them in line. At some point the outgoing and loquacious youngster piped up with "We're here to pick up my dad's VIAGRA." His father tried to make light of it, laughingly saying, "You watch too much TV, son." But the child was not to be contradicted, and said even more insistently, "No Dad, I heard the doctor say he was giving you a prescription for VIAGRA!" With that his father gave up; he laughed nervously and went back to silently waiting on line. This is a true story but I have not used names to protect the innocent. :)

Joan Burke | 9/30/2002 - 6:08pm
As a mother and grandmother, I can certainly appreciate what James Martin,S.J. wrote in OF MANY THINGS 9/23/02. I will share a recent similar event: a divorced father went (with his 8 yr old boy) to his doctor to get a prescription for allergy medicine, since what he was taking was not helping. Later, father and son were on a slow-moving line at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for ALLEGRA. The father started a conversation with a young woman standing behind them in line. At some point the outgoing and loquacious youngster piped up with "We're here to pick up my dad's VIAGRA." His father tried to make light of it, laughingly saying, "You watch too much TV, son." But the child was not to be contradicted, and said even more insistently, "No Dad, I heard the doctor say he was giving you a prescription for VIAGRA!" With that his father gave up; he laughed nervously and went back to silently waiting on line. This is a true story but I have not used names to protect the innocent. :)

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