Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Being The Silly Oncle

Posted by Jerry on December 18, 2007

It used to be that every evening when I got home from work, I would make a few perfunctory gestures toward my parents and head straight to my room–my very personal sanctuary that I designed very carefully to suit my tastes. Usually, I would only emerge for dinner, make minimal conversation only if necessary, and then revert back to my room for the rest of the night. Most of my blogging and reading activities (outside of work) would occur at this time in the privacy of my room and the quietness of my mind.

My mornings out in the rest of the house are usually very brief; a few minutes before I leave for work, I step outside my room, head to the kitchen, grab something to eat quickly, and head out the door.

Things have changed recently, however; my sister and her two little kids have moved to India and are living with us now. My little niece–Anushka–is about four years old and acts like a grandma! My little nephew–Abner–has been on this earth for barely a year now–he’ll turn one in January. 🙂

They are such delights to be with! Nowadays, I spend much of my time at home outside my room playing with the kids. Anushka is such an intelligent little brat, she’ll chide me sometimes for being “silly” when I play with her! She’ll say things like “Jerry Oncle [that’s how she pronounces “uncle”] don’t be silly! That’s very silly!”

Little boy Abner is too young at this time to do anything beyond making incoherent noises and inadvertently erratic limb movements. But he’s aware enough to know when to smile or laugh when he sees a familiar face or hears a friendly voice. He loves it when I carry him horizontally and zoom him around the house–like superman flying through the air.

Sometimes I lift him up to give him a unique vantage point from which to view his surroundings; I think he likes that because he looks on with such intent curiosity as I move him along different positions around the same object. I don’t think his mind is developed enough to realize that he’s watching the same object from different angles and heights; his mind probably perceives it as discrete perceptual instances. But the wonder of it all is rather apparent in the way he looks, as if he is examining the object and being perplexed by the similarities. I wonder if this may help develop his faculty of orientation and space perception early on. Also, it seems that even at this early age, he recognizes mirror images as reflections of the self. He glances at his reflection and then at me and my reflection and seems to smile in understanding.

Abner’s older sibling seems to be already beyond her years. She understands the concept of “space” and “property,” and she respects my space, my things, and my room. Once, I told her in a firm but gentle voice that she is should not enter my room when I’m not at home. She wanted to know why. She wants to know why about everything anyone says. “Why should I not go to your room?” “Because it is not good to go into someone’s room when they are not around.”

I don’t think she really understands all aspects of the responses we give to her “why” questions, but we have made it a policy to never discourage her from asking why. All she wants to hear is a response to her question even if she does not entirely understand what we say; and we never deny her that respect. Also, we never respond to her “why” questions with “because I said so” or “don’t ask why, just listen.” This is a conscious policy that everyone at home follows. However, this often means that we have to be exceptionally creative in fabricating a response that makes some sense–however ridiculous or far-fetched the reasons may be! For example, she’ll ask “Jerry Oncle, why do you close the door?” Hmmm… 🙂

But not only does she not enter my room when I’m not home, she actively ensures that no else does, too! I have been told several times that my niece had “scolded” my sister and mom for entering my room: “This is Jerry Oncle’s room! Why are you going in Jerry Oncle’s room?”

The other night, my niece and I were sitting on my bed tucked under my cozy comforter, we were reading Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Suess, which a dear friend of mine gave to me just before I left the United States. My niece can’t read anything as yet; she has not started school and has not learned to read words. However, she has a rather extensive vocabulary for her age, and was able to follow–and gleefully enjoy–the Dr. Suess poem.

At first, I wondered how I would explain the concept of “thinking” and “perseverance” in relation to the idea of pursuing a goal and achieving success and going places in life, which the poem is about. Amazingly, she was able to exactly identify the theme of the story by saying “You use your imagination to go places. And you go here, and here, and here, and you use your brain and go here, and here…” using her hands to point to her head and to pictures of roads and buildings on the page!

I was very surprised that she knew the concept of “imagination”; so, I added to her understanding of that concept by introducing the concept of “thinking” or “reasoning.” I said, “Yes, you use your imagination and your brain… you think and think to find new places to go! And then you go to new places, with your imagination and by thinking, with your brain!” And I gestured to her head to indicate where the thinking occurs.

She had enjoyed this reading of Dr. Suess with me so much that the next day, while I was at work, I got a call from my sister saying that my niece was insisting on wanting to read some book “about the brain. Some brain book she wants to read.”

My sister had no knowledge of our activity and so she had no clue what book Anushka was referring to. I told my sister that the book is in my room and that when I get home in the evening, I would take the book out and read the poem again with her. But my sister said that Anushka was insisting on wanting that book now. I told her, tell Anu that she must wait for me to get home in the evening because she will not get that book now. She must not get everything the moment she demands for them.

That evening, when I got home, my little neice happily came up to my room, stood by the door, stuck her head in to look at me lying on my bed, and said: “I miss you Jerry Oncle. Why do you have to go to office?” I’m so often surprised by the things she says, but I try not to make my surprise obvious; I continue as if the conversation were between adults and therefore there’s no expectation of anything less.

When I asked my sister where or how did Anu learn the word “imagination,” she said “from Disney’s world of imagination.” Ah! It made sense, of course! Children can absorb so much knowledge–even implicitly–from attractive artistic and creative works. 

We sat together again that night and read through the poem. That particular poem is an excellent medium of conveying some very crucial developmental ideas to a young child–of the need to perservere on the path to one’s goals, the need to use your mind and imagination to think, the need to make the most of your life’s moments, and so much more.

Sometimes I simply like to observe the two kids and watch how they interact with their environment. I wonder what’s going on in their brains: how does their consciousness develop from the perceptual to the conceptual; how and when do they begin to observe relationships between cause and effects, do they reason about simple processes and try to make simple sense of them?

One day, I decided to pester my little niece because I wanted to investigate the manner in which she learned and structured her concepts. I noticed that she was playing with her Island Princess Barbie. I sat down next to her, picked up the Barbie doll, and asked her:

“Is this is a girl or a doll?”
“It’s Barbie!” She responded immediately.

Okay, so hmmm… I thought. Well, let’s try this once more. I persisted:

“But is Barbie a girl or a doll?”
“It’s Barbie, Jerry Oncle.”
“Yes, But is it a doll?”
“It’s Barbie! You’re being silly, Jerry Oncle.”

Okay. Ya, I was being silly! I mean, hell, why would she care? It’s Barbie!

Anyway, I decided to let that rest and leave her alone to play in peace with her Barbie.

My nephew, now–the little toddler–can’t seem to control his limbs. They fling around all over the place erratically, like a bulldozer gone berserk! And he loves grabbing, touching, or holding on to anything he can get his hands on. It’s almost as if he is learning of his surroundings through his sense of touch. It’s fascinating, but we have to always keep a careful eye on him.

One Sunday evening, after a long and tiring day of shopping and eating out with the kids and family, my nephew fell asleep on my chest during our drive home–his tiny arms spread on either side of my torso (we don’t use a car seat for him). I literally froze myself in the seat so that I barely moved so as to not disturb his sleep. But he was too fast asleep to really care, notice, or be disturbed by any of it.

I thought it was one of the most beautiful experiences to have a toddler sprawled across your chest, fast asleep, with all the trust and not a care in the world.

Having said all of this, I realize that having a child is one of the biggest responsibilities you can undertake–it is the task of bringing a human being into this world, making him capable of functioning in reality, equipping him mentally and physically with the task of efficient and competent survival, imbibing in him the virtues he will require in life, and pointing him toward the rational way to achieving joy, happiness, success, and a productive life.  It is no easy feat, and demands a parent’s long-term and voluntary committment to their choice of parenthood.

Given what I currently forsee in the future for myself and the values that I wish to pursue, having and raising children are not an optional task I wish to undertake. I am content with having the pleasure of watching and being involved in the mental growth of my little niece and nephew.

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10 Responses to “Being The Silly Oncle”

  1. Avadhut said

    Couldn’t ever imagine you like this. 🙂

    But some parts of your post reminded me of this paper that investigated the factors determining the success of the Polgar sisters—the three chess prodigies. Background: You must’ve already heard about the seven units of working memory. Of how, at any given time, a human brain can store seven patterns/object/things/stuff in it’s operant/immediate memory for ready access. Kind of like RAM in a computer. Biologically, it is extrememly difficult to surpass this limit of seven. In fact, most of us can never/do not ever even utilize this limit to it’s full capacity. But when it comes to activities demanding exceptional memory, for example, chess (where fast pattern recognition is important to guestimate an opponent’s next move), this limit of seven is often what distinguishes the normal from the extraordinary.

    Laszlo Polgar used this foundation and conducted an experiment—an experiment in which he set out to prove that geniuses are not born but made. What he essentially did was started hard wiring Chess patterns (by the means of playing chess) into his daughters—Judit, Susan, & Sofia—brains at a very early age. This resulted in these patterns being embedded in their brain, along with childhood memories, concepts such as water quenches thirst, flame is hot, etc. In crux, his experiment proved to be a success and all three daughters went on to become Chess GMs! Years later, when scientists decided to analyze how Judit Polgar could take such split second decisions, they came across an interesting find. Most of the times, she calculated her next move “instinctively,” just as one would instinctively avoid red hot metal. A cat scan of her brain had led to the hypothesis that several new synapses had been forged newly that fired when she played chess. And just as in a fuzzy network, she did not even have to send certain patterns to her brain (central processing unit) for recognition—they were easily recognized by the individual nodes in her neural network, thereby making pattern-based decisions so fast.

    I had read this paper on the theoretical constructs of human memory where this example was cited as a case study. I will search for the link and forward it to you.

    Bottomline: adults can, and do, influence an infants development process not only emotionally but also biologically. Firing of synapses, forging of new ones, all happens during the early years of an infant’s brain development process, and the way these are stimulated affects them significantly.

  2. I, for one, would like to know why…. “Jerry Oncle, why do you close the door?” LOL What an awkward situation! And what a revealing post about your life over there at this time.

  3. Monica said

    What a great story. Thanks for telling it.

  4. I think it’s wonderful that you are enjoying your niece and nephew so much. It’s obvious they enjoy you, too.

    I’m in complete agreement with you about not using the phrase “because I said so.” It does take some quick creative thinking to answer some of their questions!

    As for your toddler with the touching, I once read in a book that a toddler’s brain tells his hands “fill me with touches” because that is how they learn. That’s the way they learn at this age, and it can be a challenge to fulfill that genuine need yet keep them (and your belongings) safe.

    They sound like such adorable bright children! And you sound like such a proud happy Oncle. I’m happy for you!

  5. Ergo said

    Avs,

    I am aware of that study; in fact, I think Dr. Peikoff mentions either the same study or a similar one on one of his early radio addresses. Also, I believe the study shows not only that infants can forge new synapses, but anyone–adults included–can forge new synapses through habituated behaviors. Learning is one method of creating new synaptic connections and occurs everytime we learn and repeat new information. This also demonstrates that thinking has strong and direct survival value: the kinds of behavior patterns, ideas, and thoughts you automatize into new synapses determines–to some extent–your future actions and responses. Habitually irrational people, therefore, have literally transformed their brains into repeating irrational responses and ideas in the face of various situations.

    This connects well with my posts “Feeling Your Philosophy” and “Moral Dilemmas”, where I argued that rationality should be habituated–rational thinking and rational premises should be forged into your brain in such a way that life as a rational being comes naturally to you–or to phrase it paradoxically: you can train yourself to be instinctively rational!

    L’Innommable,

    The reasons for “why I close the door” are occassionally NC-17-rated reasons; totally inappropriate for my little neice or even for this “family” blog. 🙂

    Monica and Rational Jenn,
    Thanks! Yeap, I’m indeed a proud and happy Oncle!

  6. Charl said

    The post was a much detailed version of what you’ve already told me; I enjoyed it muchly.

    PS: I love love love this aspect of you.

  7. Ergo said

    Oh, did I tell you a version of all this already?? Hmm. Okay. 🙂

  8. Sinus said

    oh my! yes, you told me too. at landmark…lovely lovely post

  9. Freeda said

    I am going to keep this copy in Anushka’s baby book. You are a very gifted writer and I am so proud that you are my brother.

  10. Maria said

    Njoyed reading every bit of it, ur such a proud sis 😉 Freeda, trying 2remembr ur lil bro during church/school days they grow up so fast n he is the star oncle 🙂 God bless him

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