Context and understanding

geeseAlmost every day, our dog Mac gets taken for a walk in the park, and aside from someone knocking at the door, it is pretty much the most exciting thing in his life. While on his journey, squirrels are of the utmost interest to Mac–you could offer him the tastiest treat ever and he would ignore it if a squirrel was nearby. Kentucky dog Mac knows about squirrels, and can spot them 12 feet overhead completely disguised by foliage.

He knows about other dogs–he knows they smell interesting but are potentially dangerous. He keeps a good eye on them, and if one of them barks as he is walking by, he will defiantly water a shrub to show that HE is not at ALL worried. Cats are riveting to Mac. They are terrifying and delicious-smelling. We do not let Mac get too close to cats usually. Kids are a little worrisome to Mac, and he has been known to hide under a table when they are around.

The geese at the park ought to be terrifying to Mac, especially this time of year when they might have a nest nearby that they are protecting. They make scary noises, and they have flappy wings, and sometimes they are only a few feet away, and yet Mac appears to barely even see them. I mean he literally seems not to perceive that they are there, unless they move, and even then, there is no defiant watering of trees or barking or hiding. He doesn’t respond. Same with ducks. What ducks?

I think kids are the same way. It’s hard for them to even perceive stuff that is completely outside of their experience.  It doesn’t click.  I remember so vividly as a child hearing people talk about things that made absolutely no sense to me. For instance, in Girl Scouts the scout leader would start talking about what we were doing and I had no idea what she was talking about or even what the word was that she was saying. She would be two minutes into her explanation of what we were supposed to do with some pieces of plastic to turn them into a lanyard, and I would be utterly baffled because I had no idea what a lanyard was. It was not a word I had ever heard before, it had no context in the church basement where we were meeting, and I didn’t take in any of the directions because I stopped listening. Spoiler alert: I never did make a lanyard.

Context means everything. I get the impression that Mac just doesn’t even know where to file those big birds away in his brain, so he just chooses to ignore them. If I didn’t know what a lanyard was, what it looked like, or why I might need it, I had nowhere to attach the subsequent instructions about how to make it. That is a recurring story from my childhood, where people were talking over my head and didn’t stop and explain so I could make sense of it all. Frustrating!

So I make a point when working with kids to make sure that whatever I’m talking about with them makes enough sense that they will bother listening. You can lose a group of kids on a very short book if you never got them interested in it in the first place, and you can use a long, old-fashioned or complicated book with them and have a fully engaged group so long as you take the step of explaining things to them that they might need to know for it to make sense. Nothing is more boring than grownups yacking about stuff you don’t understand, and once you’ve checked out, you have pretty much lost the chance to understand later.

If people would just spend a little more time giving kids the context they need to understand what you’re talking about, everyone would be happier. It’s what Mister Rogers was so good at–making sense of the world to kids who are so young that most adults don’t bother to try. And by the way, it is also a great idea with adults to make sure they have a context for what you’re trying to talk about, too. It’s really easy to lose people with jargon or failing to explain first why you’re talking about whatever it is you’re talking about.

As for Mac, it is probably just as well that he is oblivious to the ducks and geese at the park. It would probably not go well for him if he tried to get close enough to smell them anyway.

These ducks were very near. Did Mac notice? No.

These ducks were very near. Did Mac notice? No.


Can you spot the squirrel? Mac can!

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6 Responses to Context and understanding

  1. Melissa H (children's librarian) says:

    Perceptive post, Susan. And the need for context continues beyond early childhood. When serving patrons from different cultures, newcomers to the community, and kids who simply may have had a different growing-up experience. One of my particular context-related topics relates to parents who want their children to read “classics.” I make a point to remind them that this is not historical fiction, rather contemporary fiction written during another time. They may want to explain to the reader(s) that certain groups of people (POC, women, working class, etc) were treated differently and depicted differently. BTW, I never made a lanyard, either.

    • sdlempke says:

      Great point, Melissa! We get a lot of those requests, too–often from Russian families–and while admire their urge to make sure their kids are well-educated, I can only imagine that the contextual issues from being both in another language and written in another time are huge. But it had not occurred to me to point out the very fundamental idea that they don’t represent the country now, and I certainly will in future.

  2. Jan Murphy says:

    This is excellent, and will be filed under “Things I’ve Learned from Susan Lempke”.

  3. Nancy Dove says:

    I’m not sure how this fits into a discussion of context, but as an adult (who has voluntarily undertaken various career changes just for fun), I have a very hard time when people teach me new skills with a series of “do this, do that” details without explaining the big picture. It’s like spending weeks bashing nails into planks and suddenly realizing we’re building a house–if only someone had told me–I would have been more enthusiastic about the work and could have done a better job. Perhaps you should roast a goose and present it to Mac on a platter. Maybe he’s a big picture guy too.

    • sdlempke says:

      That makes complete sense–nobody likes working without having a clear picture of where they are going. I like the idea that Mac is a big picture guy! I think he is mostly a squirrel picture guy, but maybe you are right.

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