We were walking back from school one day (myself, a colleague, and a group of children). A small group of girls were babbling away nearby, straggling along at the back of the strung-out bunch. One of them smiled and looked up at me. ‘What’s your number, cucumber?’ she said. It wasn’t a question asking me for my number, a number, any number, as far as I could make out. It was more a form of greeting, perhaps, a sort of hello after the event of hello, a kind of nonsensical, sensical conversational gambit!
I make up the word ‘sensical’ here and now, as I write, because children do such things, and I want to try to get into that character. It seems to make perfect sense to them that they should say such things, as it seems to make perfect sense that they sometimes employ rhyme to communicate things that they’re not directly communicating. I walked the route back to the playground with the children that day, and I started thinking about the culture of child-ness. There are people (adults) who see children as just ‘unformed adults’, or adults in the waiting. It isn’t true. Children are people in their own right: they have their own ways of being, culture, quirks and foibles.
It’s this ‘culture’, or collective social behaviours of children — for a crude definition — that is of immediate interest here. Despite children being individuals in their own right, they (like all of us) do get affected by everyone else’s ideas and customs, not least the adults closest to them (parents, other family members, teachers and lunchtime staff, playworkers maybe). We all have the conscious and unconscious power to affect others in our immediate spheres. However, what often gets forgotten in the adult world, I think, is that there is a unique culture of child-ness, of being child, that also seeps through it all: that absorbs and reflects and plays things out in its own fashion. Children operate on levels that, in some way, go a long way to try to retain that culture’s integrity.
What’s your number, cucumber? There are certain laws and lores that have to be upheld, or attempts need to be made at this, at least. Locally, these laws and lores may shift but there are often threads that run through geographies: sturdy or somewhat shaky versions of fairness; the necessity for revenge or the last word; the protection of ‘lucky’ objects; superstitions of touch; the correct use of numbers or rhymes, as if they’re incantations or spells; the important daftness of made-up words; unequivocal instant regeneration in war play; the non-transmutability of living flesh into ghost or zombie (this is the adult position, and must also be adhered to absolutely); the cheating of cheating (where doing it with flair, passion, quick-wittedness and so on, are considered virtues).
As much as some of these social/play behaviours can be seen to be frustrating to some adults (who have their own ideas on what it means to be fair, final, rational, irrational, quasi-religious or mystical, comprehensible, out of the game, playing ‘properly’, and so on), the children’s engagements can be complex mechanisms. It is as if, sometimes, there’s a language beyond the play. Many, many adults see only children playing or interacting or annoying one another, or anything along and beyond that spectrum. What they don’t see is the language communication beyond it all.
What’s your number, cucumber? One of the big things, if not the biggest thing locally, in this particular incarnation of the overall children’s culture, is what’s known as ‘don’t cuss my mum’. A child could have a scrap with his or her mate, chuck a brick at their head, or walk off with their best mate, and still make things up the next day (which, in itself, is another part of the overall culture: flux states of relationships), but cuss his or her mum and the evil eye is placed. Beneath the surface of fierce loyalty are other rumblings: other questionings of loyalties, insecurities, shifting hierarchies, perhaps?
Children’s culture is, to a certain extent, beneath the surface. That is, to the untrained or slow to see eye, children aren’t complex at all and nor is their play, possibly: children are just these smaller creatures who occasionally scream louder than the adults do, or demand, or make us laugh. Actually, there’s a whole stratum of goings-on down there. I’ve often written that ‘play just is’ (meaning it’s of the moment) and I stand by that, but that moment comes together borne of a whole raft of other moments, of agitations and connections, of things copied and things seen, things reflected and refracted, interwoven expressions, experiments and re-experimentations, and so on. The play just is, but it can be just loaded.
All this sits in the children’s culture, beneath the surface of the level of seeing of many, many adults. The high agitations of certain children are the easiest things to spot, and adults can say that this or that affects those children and causes them to play or interact in this or that way. More difficult to see is the thread that seems to run through many, if not all, children: all the ways of communicating, being, seeing, interacting that aren’t exactly, on the face of it, the ways of communicating, being, seeing, interacting that we think they are.
What’s your number, cucumber? This is not a post about disturbed or highly agitated children. This is a post about all children’s interactions. There are themes that seem to run through these interactions. In recent weeks, in simple analysis, I’ve extracted several of these themes in interactions with and observations of various children: the personal emotional pain of feeling a certain play gap, play need; schadenfreude (taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune); the pleasure of destruction; the simplicity and complexity of connection; the rewiring or the replaying of time. There are probably more.
There’s more to see and sense, beneath the level of the eyes, beneath the play and beyond what the children playing around us are directly communicating, being, seeing in all their interactions. What’s your number, cucumber?
To make clear, children’s appropriation of language is a focus of this post and not the language use and culture of adults.