So, my son really loves a book right now called “Little Brown Hen’s Shower” which is about a little hen who overhears talk of a shower. She's due at the farmer’s house that afternoon, and so she carefully totes both her precious egg and her umbrella, determined to keep her baby-to-be dry in the face of the rain. But it’s a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in sight. The ‘shower’ in question turns out to be a surprise baby shower for the hen herself and the book concludes by explaining, “sometimes words sound the same but they mean different things.”
All this is to say that right now, my son is intrigued by homonyms. (No, he doesn’t know that word yet; c’mon, he’s barely three!) We talk about lots of words that mean different things. Sun in the sky and son like him. Ate like dinner and eight the number. But recently he gave me as an example chicken the food, and chicken the animal.
Um, those are really the same thing, I told him. “No,” he answered, laughing. “That’s crazy.” And he went running off, having lost interest in the game for the moment.
When my daughter was about the same age, we had a virtually identical conversation. I vividly remember when her mouth dropped open at the thought that chicken, the farm animal, bore any relation to the chicken that she ate at dinner (preferably nuggets, if she had her druthers).
I remember a sinking feeling in my chest, as I proceeded to explain that the food ‘chicken’ in fact came from the animal. Was she about to go vegetarian on me? She wasn’t a big eater in the first place, and that would have made feeding her even more complicated. . . . But the conversation took a turn I never would have expected.
“How does chicken the food come from chicken the animal?” she asked.
“Well, after a chicken has died, then it can be cleaned, and then cooked, and then it’s the chicken that you can eat.” (Yes, I admit it: I completely papered over the fact that the chicken probably didn’t just happen to die of natural causes after a long and happy free-range life. Forgive me.)
“Hmm.” She considered what I had said. “I get it. So what other animals can we eat?”
“Well, cow. Pig. Various fish. Lamb.”
“Have I eaten those?”
“You’ve definitely eaten cow, pig and fish. I’m not sure about lamb.”
“What others, mommy?”
“Um, deer. Lobster. Rabbit.”
At that she lit up. “OH, I like rabbits. I like rabbits a lot.”
Uh oh, I thought. The vegetarian conversion moment is about to happen. Bracing myself:
“Yes, sweetie, I know you like rabbits.”
“Have I ever eaten a rabbit?”
“No, I don’t think that you have.”
“Oh. Well I really like rabbits.” She paused thoughtfully. “Could I eat one sometime?”
I’d just assumed that she would be horrified at the thought of eating a creature for which she felt affection. But instead, she wanted to absorb the creature that she liked. She wanted to make it part of her.
It’s one of my favorite parts of parenting (and, for that matter, teaching): when what goes on inside their heads really, really surprises you.