Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Spies Like Us

When in Maine, we spend a lot of time on our camp's screened porch. We eat there, sleep there, sit in rocking chairs and look down at the water, and if people are staying at the camp next door about 100 feet away, yes, we sometimes politely "spy" on what they happen to be doing.

I've always been a people watcher, and I hate to admit I've always been nosy. This must run in the family. My mom, grandmother and I used to love to take drives or walks around dinnertime when it was getting dark, before people drew their blinds, so we could get peeks inside and see what their homes looked like. I used to make up stories about what they were doing in there. I love to see who's having a party, who's gathered in the dining room for dinner.

The camp next door, which is the taj mahal compared to our humble cabin, has a steady stream of people staying from Pennsylvania or Maine. I love to try to figure out the family dynamics. I catch bits of conversation as they dine on their porch, just as I'm sure they hear (probably quite clearly) the screeching of my kids' arguments. This week I noted that whoever was next door liked to go down to the lake and swim at all the wrong times...just before the skies opened into a downpour; around lunchtime before the sun hit the water and warmed it up; right after the sun disappeared behind a thick mass of clouds.

The thing is, I thought these things. I had an internal dialogue about what I was seeing.

Ethan, however, approached the presence of neighbors in a different way...closer to a  radio announcer doing play-by-play of the ballgame.

"Hey, why are they swimming now?!" he'd yell from the porch, watching the neighbors trudge down the hill with their towels.

Or, gleefully, "They're all done. We're going to swim longer than they are!"

Or maybe, "Hey, they are making a campfire over there!"

All announced at such a high volume most likely the people across the lake could hear.

I should mention that these pronunciations from Ethan are becoming more and more common. And as he tries out new words in a sometimes inappropriate context, they become more cringe-inducing. Twice now lately he's announced about passing strangers, "Look at that cute lady!" or "I see that cute boy over there!" Yikes.

Again and again, Ethan helps me see that speaking a language, that being verbal, is so much more than just having words. I never would have realized how many subtle rules there are, how many nuances. And beyond that, I never realized how hard it is to actually explain why some of these rules exist.

"Ethan, use your quiet voice," I hissed, embarrassed, the first few times he started up with his exuberant commentary.

"I can't use my quiet voice!" he insisted in a tone just as loud as before. While he has learned to whisper, I can't say that he's mastered the skill.

The bigger question I could see looming in his eyes was, "Why?" Every other time he is encouraged to comment on the world around him. What's wrong with simply stating what we see another person doing?

As I sat there, I myself began fumbling for answers.

"It's not good manners," I whispered, a perfunctory cliche that I knew he'd heard before but didn't quite understand except to know not having good manners was, well, bad.

My mom was there. "Just tell him it's not nice to talk loudly about people we don't know," she said.

That went into a little more detail and explanation, but still seemed lacking. Sometimes we talk loudly about people we don't know, like the person performing at a show or a firefighter or policeman, someone cool who really grabs our interest.

The real issue came down to the intrusion of privacy, something I happened to be doing myself, albeit quietly. But how to explain: we shouldn't be watching what our neighbors are doing all the time (particularly when I was doing the same thing, and actually, so was Anna)? How to explain the word privacy? Ethan understood the concept in one context -- the bathroom, as in "Close the door, I need my privacy!"

I just couldn't figure out how to explain that in four-year-old terms. I thought of Anna at that age, at the way she must have just learned through osmosis, taking in the entire picture of her surroundings, sucking it in, translating it for future use. Maybe one day she noticed us speaking in low tones about the neighbors, doing our best not to stare or look obvious, and she effortlessly observed and began to apply that herself ("We don't stare. We speak quietly when talking about the neighbors. We don't want them to hear us. That would be rude.").

I know we'll get this thing down at some point. Ethan will learn in his own way. My guess is someday he'll be able to explain his own ways he's come up with teaching himself social rules, and they'll most likely seem a little humorous while still making a whole lot of sense.

For now, well, let's just say we had no good answers. So when we heard something like, "They're getting in their car now!" We just said, "Ethan!" with a warning look that meant, well, something. And he maybe he quieted his voice by about five percent for, well, some reason, for two seconds.

We'll get this. Someday. But I'm ashamed to admit -- I'm probably still going to keep peering curiously (yet subtly) into people's windows. There are just so many good stories out there.


Floortime Lite Mama said...

me too
I love little scraps of people's lives
Of course I am an optiist and I just LOVE Ethan's interest and his use of declarative language
Its amazing!!

Anonymous said...

this is quite interesting to me, and it's so true about all the social rules of language!

but i'm thinking it would be SO fun to be your camp neighbors.

Deb said...

I shudder to think what our neighbors might have seen and heard! :) Particularly the major meltdowns...eek! We probably provide lots of amusement. And that's a good point -- it's true that just his interest is developmental progress.

GirlWithTheCane said...

My family and I always provided lots of amusement for the neighbours as well when we camped. And if we'd had someone like your son making comments about our actions...we probably would have found it hilarious (or mortifying, depending on the context!), honestly.

Your post made me smile. :)