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We have a rude neighbor across the street who habitually parks his enormous red pickup truck at the mouth of our driveway. Not actually blocking the driveway — it’s just parked in a way that suggests that the owner is triple-dog-daring us to hit the thing while we’re backing out.
This afternoon I was complaining under my breath about the presence of said truck after yet another near miss backing out of the driveway. At least, I thought it was under my breath. My 4-year-old son must’ve heard me, because the conversation that followed went something like this:
Him: Mommy, I know what we can do about that truck to make it go away.
Me: Oh? Well, I’d love to hear your thoughts, bud, because I’m out of ideas.
Him: All we need to do is get a bomb. And then we could just blow it up.
I mean, I’m not alone here, right? I know other people’s kids have said stuff that can go toe-to-toe with that and then some. Kids are creepy that way. But there was just something that was equal parts hilarious and horrifying about the matter-of-fact way that idea slipped out of his mouth — Wow, here’s a small human being who doesn’t know the first thing about why it wouldn’t be perfectly reasonable to just go find some spare explosives and light that truck up right now.
Suddenly I felt a crushing weight bearing down on me, something to the tune of “I need to do more than what I’m doing right now to instill in these ridiculous small humans I produced a sense of law and order and respect for personal property, or else I’m probably going to be spending a lot of time visiting them in jail someday.” I quietly cursed my husband for buying a Nintendo Wii the weekend before. As Mario and Luigi, my sons had been spending a considerable amount of time carving swaths of fiery destruction throughout the gameworld as they picked off Koopa Troopas and goombas left and right. Easy scapegoat. Video games were clearly ruining everything for everyone. Clearly.
“Mommy, I know what we can do about that truck to make it go away.”
Fortunately, the dim recollection of a grad school class I’d taken in child psychological development resurfaced that prevented me from calling ahead to the state penitentiary and reserving my kids’ spots in advance. Kids between 2 and 7 years old are in the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, according to the iconic developmental psychologistJean Piaget‘s theory. During this stage, kids are doing anincredible amount of pretend playing. And fantasizing. And immersing themselves in symbolism. And asking questions.
There is very little, if any, cause-and-effect reasoning taking place between these ages; that stuff begins to solidify between ages 7 and 11 during the concrete operational stage. Of course my 4-year-old would nonchalantly suggest blowing up our neighbor’s truck. He knows that bombs cause things to explode, and he is not yet capable of understanding or anticipating the catastrophic consequences of doing such a thing.
So, armed with this knowledge, I decided to have some fun:
Me: Gee, bud. I think a lot of bad things would happen if we blew up that truck.
Him: What bad things would happen?
Me: Well, for starters, the police would come and take us away to jail, because blowing up trucks breaks lots and lots of very serious rules.
Him: What’s jail?
Me: It’s really cold and dark there, and there are no goldfish crackers, ever. And I wouldn’t be there.
Him: (crying a little) No, I — no. I don’t want to go.
Me: Okay, good, me either. It’s really important to follow big rules like that, because they’re there to keep us safe. If people went around blowing up trucks all the time, our lives would be really scary and dangerous. People might get hurt.
I don’t expect him to understand right now. He’s 4. It made me feel better to say it anyway. If we can plant the seeds of abstract reasoning — actions against a number of potential outcomes (this doesn’t come into play until the teenage years, by the way) — there’s hope for our little sociopaths yet.
And for the record, I’d love to blow up that truck, too.
Julie Ann Exter is a therapist and publishing liasion. Topics she has written about include politics, health, and parenting. You can find more of her Quora posts here: