A few weeks ago, Lian (my 2.5 year-old son) and I were getting ready for his nap. Lian picked a favorite book for us to read together, a story about a boy who befriends a porcupine, and carried it off to bed. By the time I got there, he was already reading the story to himself. What happened next was a magical experience.
Lian flipped through the pages. On each page, he told himself the story as he remembered it. It went something like this:
Here’s Jake… [flip] Jake is sick… [flip] Through the window… A porcupine! [flip] Come, come. Sniffing his hand! [flip] Smile on his face… [flip] They’re playing together! [flip] Eating raspberries together… [flip] Oh no! They’re stuck on his body! [flip] Pick them off, put on the floor [flip] See you next time!
I was transfixed.
It’s always satisfying to realize how much my son understands and remembers. And there is something very poignant about seeing a child read a bedtime story to himself – a strange mix of being big and being small, like watching him growing up in real time. And beyond all that, I realized I was getting a very special glimpse into his experience of the world, by seeing how he related to the story. Lian’s understanding of the story was fuzzy, with a few pieces of it in sharp focus – the parts we spent more time talking about, of course: The interactions, the emotions, the activities. I imagine this is similar to how Lian experiences life in general: How enormous the world is for Lian, how impossibly full of detail and action it is. How, without yet having words for many of the things and processes he sees, it’s hard to make sense of what he is seeing, and the pieces he does have names for stand out to him, like colorful objects in a black-and-white movie. And although Lian’s vocabulary is exploding, he still doesn’t have words for much of what he sees, and much of it must still feel fuzzy.
All this rushed into my head as I was watching Lian read a story to himself, calling out a few words for every page. It reminded me how, for many years, I liked trying on glasses that my friends wore. I don’t use glasses (yet), so putting on my friends’ glasses would distort my vision, blur the world. I imagined it gave me a sense of how blurry the world seems to them when they’re not wearing glasses. It was a physical exercise in empathy, a way to connect with a very personal and difficult-to-describe experience, a way to get a first-hand experience of what it’s like to be the other person. Rather than walking a mile in their shoes, I would spend a minute looking through their eyes. There is a joy in coming closer to understanding another person, in finding a way to break through the physical barriers that separate us from one another and experiencing someone else’s internal world. Walk a mile in their shoes, spend a minute looking through their glasses, hear them read a story to themselves. Enter their world. There is magic there.