I've learned something amazing, recently. It probably isn't anything novel to people who spend a lot of time around young 'uns, but despite the fact I am one of those people, I'm still surprised. My contention is simple: kids have the capacity to be goddamn brilliant.
Yes, I'm fully aware that this isn't anything special, as far as revelations go. But as a loosely-defined "adult", a label that is wantonly discarded whenever my parents declare that "the children get first choice of dessert", I spend a lot of time chatting to kids on their own level. I've au paired in France, worked as a Disney Princess for birthday parties, and grown up in an eclectic Italian-Maltese family with cousins out the wazoo. I am perfectly comfortable talking with children on their developmental level.
But when a child talks to me on mine... well, frankly, I get a little giddy with excitement.
Let me set the scene. Chilly morning, caught in the lull between Autumn's descent and Winter's rise. Sheepskin moccasins, as ugly as they are comfortable. A newspaper article that states, much to my surprise, that Chelsea Manning, still known to the world back then as Bradley, is being brought to trial leaking classified military documents to Wikileaks. Manning is a divisive figure for many, particularly on my most beloved cesspool of Reddit, where many left-wing Americans still fire up with fury at the mention of her name.
To set the scene further, let me introduce my cousin: a beautiful, doe-eyed little dreamer, who sits beside me on our dimpled, brown leather couch that can be found in virtually everybody's home, and asks me about the person in the picture.
I'm a firm believer that children can ask no question undeserving of an answer, though admittedly this might just be borne of my stamina in not being around them the full, exhausting 24/7. I did my best to explain the nuts and bolts of the case, without insinuating my own stance on it. Given my passion for social justice and international politics, it probably comes as a shock to many that I managed to have such a conversation without preaching.
It would have been easy to detail why I had come to the conclusions that I had, but it was a deliberate decision to refrain that saw me listing nothing but a general summary of the facts, in a manner palatable for a young person to digest. I wanted to use this opportunity to teach her how to think, not what to think. And it was so much more rewarding than preaching my own ideas. She sifted through all the information in her sharp little mind, and developed her own unique opinion... and it made perfect sense, because it was steeped in fact, not hyperbole and a desire to please me.
Her questions became increasingly complex, and soon I was explaining a litany of other factors involved in Manning's case. Before long, I found myself explaining the purpose of Wikileaks, the relevance of Julian Assange, how embassies operate, the basics of extradition, and the ethics of releasing military information to the public at large. Question by question, she unravelled everything I knew about the issue, and even cautiously queried about America's allies. Yes, she knew the word "ally".
After a long pause, she tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and turned to me.
"Why didn't she send the information to America's allies, so they could tell America to stop doing whatever bad things they were doing? Then the information wouldn't be given to everyone, and they couldn't say she was giving it to America's enemies."
My answer was less sophisticated, by way of a dropped jaw. At age ten, my cousin had independently developed her own interpretation of international diplomatic pressure.
And then, because apparently she hadn't boggled my mind enough, she stumped me double by asking what I knew about "Israel's war".
I suppose it's the ultimate human vanity to want to have kids just to make them into miniature versions of you. I've always raised eyebrows when people talk of their excitement to have a little person moulded in their likeness. Yet as I was being challenged by her thoughtful, interested questions, it was tempting to tumble headfirst into such a trap. The world didn't need it, but if I had wanted, I could have begun a campaign to mould her into a tiny Scarlett, equal parts social justice-mad and tempered by logic.
But I resisted the urge. I gave her the facts, and when she wanted to know my opinions, I made it clear that there was no right answer, and I could easily be wrong.
When the conversation concluded, she gave me a huge hug and said, "Thank you so much for helping me understand. I want to know all about this stuff when I grow up, like you. I really loved learning about all this."
I guess have it both ways. I took such great pains not to convert her into a mini-me, but by virtue of being the only person in the extended family with an all-consuming passion for this stuff, I guess the decision wasn't mine to make. Because she is like me. She's better than me. And it would be the utmost vanity to think I had a single thing to do with it.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.