My son is going through a pedantic phase. It’s a long phase; it’s been going on for over two years now and shows no signs of flagging. I distinctly remember when it started – he about two and a half and we were visiting my in-laws in Alberta and during an after-dinner walk corrected me when I referred to a large metal play structure as a park. “Actually,” he said, “that’s a playground. The park is what the playground is in.” I remember turning to my husband and saying, “Did you hear that? He just CORRECTED me.”
My kid has been well-actually-ing me on a regular basis ever since, which is like medium-funny because I feel like I spend half my life having dudes on the internet WELL ACTUALLY about anything and everything and the other half of my life hearing the same thing from my four year old. I know this probably just sounds like I have an extra sassy four year old and should probably spend more time disciplining him and less time explaining how casual misogyny works to strangers online.
To be fair, my kid is definitely the argumentative type. If I tell him to put on his shoes, he’ll spend about ten minutes coming up a list of solid reasons why he doesn’t need to (“I just need to play with my train first!” “My sock has a wrinkle in it!” “The sky is a funny colour!”). A friend of mine recently joked that he’ll probably have a police record by the time he’s fifteen and a lawyer by the time he’s 25, and I don’t entirely disagree with that. I sometimes worry that people think he’s rude and undisciplined, but I swear that I shut him down any time he’s actually being sassy (for example, the other day I asked him to sing me a particular song he’d learned at school to which he grumpily replied “you sing it if you like it so much” – that kind of shit earns him what we refer to as a consequence, let me tell you). But the thing is that as much as “well, actually” might grate on my nerves, especially when served up by men trying to pull some kind of power trip on me, I’m going to let my kid keep saying it for now. Because I think it’s a normal developmental stage and also a perfectly healthy reaction to how weird and messy reality is.
You probably have a pretty set idea about how the world works. Things behave according to a certain set of rules, some of which are specific to you and your environment, some of which apply to everyone you know. You spend your life working within these rules, and they mostly stay pretty constant. But every once in a while you get learn something new, and the rules change. Sometimes it’s something small, and you can adapt pretty quickly. Other times it’s something huge, something that shakes the foundation of how you understand the world. When that happens, you find yourself making big changes, maybe even feeling like you’re starting again from scratch. Luckily, the latter kind of change doesn’t happen very often. If it did, most of us would have a very, very difficult time functioning because we would always be second-guessing reality.
But for kids, especially young kids, huge sweeping changes in how they perceive the world happen all the time. And while probably on some level they are kind of used to having to rebuild their world view from scratch all the damn time, but on another level it must be terrifying and destabilizing. I’m sure their little brains can handle it because it’s all part and parcel of children develop – they create an understanding of reality based on their lived experience and build onto that as they go. But it still must be scary as fuck to have the rug swept out from under your feet on a near-daily basis.
I think that part of how kids cope with this is by being very specific about language and ideas. It’s both a safety blanket for them and a way of checking in with adults. They’re saying “this is how I understand the world” and at the same time asking “is this what you mean?” They’re not trying to be rude, just accurate.
I know that WELL ACTUALLY sounds like sassing and maybe in older kids it actually is. I’m sure my kid and I will have plenty of conversations about gender, language and how not to be a weird jerk who talks over women. Right now, though, I firmly believe that a lot of the time it’s born out of anxiety. Children know when they’ve said or believed the wrong thing. And just like grownups feel acute anxiety whenever they realize that they’ve been saying/thinking/doing a silly thing for years and years, children feel the same way too. Except they feel it all the time, and then have to hear their mistakes and misunderstandings repeated by the grownups they trust as examples of GOSH DON’T KIDS SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS?
I’m trying to keep this in mind while my son tries to navigate this whole trying-to-figure-out-the-world thing. So when I say something like “vampires eat blood” and he answers back “actually vampires eat AND drink blood,” I’m making a real effort not to be like “yeah sure but you know what I meant.” The truth is he didn’t know what I meant, not for certain. He wanted some clarification, and for now I’m happy to provide it. “Yes,” I told him, “you’re right. Vampires drink AND eat blood. It covers all of their nutritional and hydration needs.” Then we talked about how cool it is that vampires sleep in coffins. Hopefully at some point I remembered to tell him that vampires are imaginary. Probably I did.
If I didn’t, I’m sure I’ll get a WELL ACTUALLY about it soon enough.