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JACK SMITH

Kids' Sayings Are the Darndest Things : Imagine How a Second-Grader Would Complete the Adage 'An Elephant Never . . .'

August 16, 1987|JACK SMITH

Most of the precepts we live by are folk sayings, anonymous in origin, of doubtful veracity and suspiciously simplistic.

There are thousands of them, in every language. They guide us; they restrain us; they reassure us; they instruct and rebuke us.

They may be found by the dozen in any dictionary of quotations. They are identified as an "old saying" or an "old German saying" or an "old Yiddish saying."

Those that occur in one language are often found almost intact in other languages. They are sometimes called "old saws," a saw being described in the dictionary as "an old saying, often repeated; maxim; proverb."

Some of them are matched by others that prescribe exactly the opposite counsel.

For example, on the one hand we are told, "he who hesitates is lost," and on the other, to "look before you leap."

Many are ancient. From Latin we get " caveat emptor , " or "let the buyer beware." And who has not heard that "one picture is worth more than a thousand words," a statement of extremely dubious truth, which is of Chinese origin?

Children pick up these sayings as they pick up the language. Adages become a part of their knowledge and their moral fiber. But until they actually learn them, children may have peculiar ideas about what it is, for example, that "nothing succeeds like."

Vicki Wheeler, who teaches second grade at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach, had the ingenious idea of giving her pupils the first parts of many famous sayings and seeing how they finished them.

The results were sent to me by Judy Bauer, a parent. I agree with her that they are "innocent and straightforward."

Asked to finish the adage "what's good for the goose is . . ." they answered, variously, "goose food; worms; lots of sunshine; snakes; to lay eggs; exercise."

We see at once that our old maxims are no more logical than many other conclusions that can be drawn from the same premises.

Asked to finish "the best things in life are . . ." they answered: "going to school and learning; my parents; the movies; Disneyland; people and animals; home and friends; love and school."

To 7- and 8-year-olds, almost everything is "free," even though their parents have to pay. But they sensed pretty well that the best things are those that come with being human.

I was surprised by the variety of answers to "when the cat's away . . . ." A sample: "I don't have to feed it; it's boring--you feel sad; I miss it; my birds are sleeping; there's no hair on the furniture; the dog is sad."

Several philosophical responses were inspired by "a penny saved . . . ." The children's conclusions: "helps a lot; is just 1 cent; is not as good as a dollar; won't get anything; is great; is for a gum ball; is better than no penny; is all you need."

They pretty well got the idea of what "all work and no play" would make of them: ". . . is not for me; is boring, is not allowed; makes a very rotten day; is the only thing we do in here."

To Franklin D. Roosevelt's assurance that "there is nothing to fear . . ." they found a variety of reasonable conclusions: "I'm here; in the cave; when my parents are here; when you're at school; when policemen are near; there's no monster in your closet; because love is here."

"All the world loves . . ." brought several acceptable answers, though no one hit on "a lover." Their conclusions: "each other; our President; a million dollars; chocolate cake; peace; thank-you notes; us; freedom; soccer games; their mom; to eat; to be gentle to each other; the city; God and George Washington."

Some vague reflection of feminist influence is seen in their answers to "a miss is as good as . . . ." Instead of "a mile," they said: "a mister; a Mrs. or a Mr.; a person; a hit on the target."

Being children of our materialistic society, they didn't come close to the moral of "money is the root of . . . ." They saw money as the root of "happiness; wealth; your whole life; pennies and nickels; success, buying things; new clothes."

You can't say that their answers to "an elephant never . . ." weren't right: "wears earrings; rides a bike; gets ironed; wears perfume; goes bananas; goes in the house; stops eating peanuts; gets in the door; takes a bath with you."

"A bird in the hand" was a concept they could understand, even though they didn't guess the correct conclusion. They came up with: "is better than a rat in the hand; may peck you; can't walk; hurts; will squeak; gets pretty messy; is a great way to catch it; is always fun to have; needs a bird cage; won't lay an egg."

Every one of those answers is indisputable.

Their way of completing "the best way to a man's heart . ." may have betrayed some innocence--as well as morbidity--but you can't say the children's responses weren't imaginative: "a woman; stomach; to like him; a house; through tubes; to operate; to crawl through the mouth; surgery; to make him happy; love; to sneak in; give him candy."

You will have noticed that one of the answers was correct. But, of course, correctness wasn't the teacher's goal.

If nothing else, the exercise proved that a thousand words are sometimes worth a picture.

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