Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Child’s View of Time in Months, Minutes... and Seconds

Trying to make sense of time, space, and seasons with my five-year-old daughter...
“Am I 5,000 days old yet?,” Clara inquires. She easily swaps days for minutes for years in her head, not paying much mind to what the different words mean as long as she can speak in big numbers.
 After slowly doing the math in my head, I tell her that she’s not there yet. She will have to wait until she is thirteen years old to experience that many days on earth.

We are driving in the car. Clara asks how long it will be until our destination. 
“One hour,” I say.  
“Is that a long time?” she asks with resignation.
Clara doesn’t like long drives, and we have had many long drives this summer. She starts counting from 0 to 100 to the highest numbers she can figure out. Her slow and steady voice provides the hypnotic soundtrack for our summer travel, as she moves methodically through the numbers.
She is disappointed that she can’t yet count high enough to fill an hour with just counting, and so then she asks how many more minutes it will take. “Ten more minutes,” I tell her. “10…9….8…7," her little voice continues hopefully in the backseat.
Clara seems to think that time moves faster by counting down rather than counting up. Her ability to count down is a newish skill, and perhaps she think it has magical qualities like the countdown to the ball dropping in Times Square, that her ten seconds of counting will magically make the ten minutes of driving disappear into a big poof of arrival. 

I think for many children the wait for Christmas or their birthday feels intolerable. I remember even the twelve hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning seemed like years to me as a child. Clara, however, begins to think about these special dates many months in advance. 
“How much longer until Christmas?” she asks in March.
“How much longer until my birthday?” she asks in June even though we just celebrated her birthday in May.
She counts down to the seasons, too, asking several times a week when it will be spring or summer or fall. 

I imagine that time must feel big and unknowable to a small child. Clara is proud of herself that she can count to 100+ and knows the days of the week and the names of the months. She has the pieces that help to define time and place and season but not all the knowledge to put it together in a meaningful way.

Like Clara, I am entranced by time. I have always been fascinated by other cultures’ views of time, particularly the idea of dreamtime from  the aboriginal people of Australia. Scientists, philosophers, and others have debated the true nature of time since, well, the beginning of time as we know it.  Clara’s questions help me to re-examine what is fact, fiction, or perhaps just popular belief about time.

Sure, it is frustrating to have to answer Clara’s question, “How much longer until nighttime?” for the tenth time. Most of the time, though, I feel grateful for a little girl who keeps me thinking about time in new ways. Without Clara’s regular questions about time, I might have missed out on the second chance to count down to Christmas with childlike anticipation and the mathematical challenge of keeping track of our ages in days, minutes, and seconds.

As one of my favorite authors reminds me, "The days are long, but the years are short." I'm glad that Clara keeps me in the moment by reminding me that each second with her is worth counting.

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