Vizzini and Fezzik guard the Princess Bride in the bow of the ship. Inigo, standing in the stern, watches intently as the Dread Pirate Roberts’s vessel, silhouetted against the full moon, draws closer and closer.
“Inconceivable!” Says Vizzini.
“You keep using that word,” replies Inigo. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Impossibly, as the kidnappers approach the Cliffs of Insanity, the Dread Pirate Roberts continues to narrow the gap between the schooners. Inigo asks, “Is he using the same wind as us?”
Similarly, I was pretty convinced that my buddy and I were not walking in the same high desert in Utah recently. I was having a pleasant enough time as I like taking a stroll now and again. Sand, rocks, bushes. Sand, rocks, bushes. Rinse and repeat. Two hours into our hike, Shane pointed out some hitherto unnoticed plants that I was about to trod on obliviously. “You can’t eat those,” he began. “You can eat these.”
Staring determinedly at the two groups of indistinguishable flora for some time, I spoke up: “Uh, they look kinda exactly the same.”
“Those over there have a serrated edge near the bottom of the smallest stalk and a bulb under the ground that is a survival food. The other ones have a flat edge and will make you sick if you eat them,” Shane explained.
Having finished the last of the PBJs, I dug determinedly into the sand for a few minutes with a piece of something and sure enough, uncovered a scallion-like bulb, which I ate and, as predicted, did not die. Not bad, really. Tasty. Shane pointed out that the piece of something with which I had been digging was, in fact, a shard of pottery from an indigenous tribe who had lived thereabouts some 800 years previously. “See the pattern in the glaze?” he asked.
I felt that a remark of the form, “Still looks like a non-descript flat piece of rock to me” would be impolite, so I went on staring at the cliff formations. I was about to mention my annoyance with the local kids who had defaced the canyon with graffiti when Shane went on.
“You can tell a lot about these folks from the pictographs here,” he said. “These concentric circles mean that there was a water source over that ravine in the valley to the southwest.”
“Ah,” I said. “Of course.” I was about to ask what the Anasazi woman was wearing when she etched the pictograph on the rock, but I had the uneasy feeling that Shane might know not only know her wardrobe but also how many children she had and whether or not she was left-handed and I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed. So we continued our hike, me thinking of lines from “The Princess Bride,” Shane noticing each and every plant, bug, rock, and shard of pottery from a millennia ago. We were in the same desert. But we were attending to completely different stimuli.
Meanwhile in cities and suburbs across our nation, bewildered parents bemoan their children’s inability to notice that the trash buckets need to be taken out to the street.
OMG! Who would have thought that Thursday would once again follow Wednesday this week and that the trash buckets–the magic brooms from Fantasia notwithstanding–aren’t going to trot out to the curb unaided?
Because a parent perceives a different stimulus: “Look, an overflowing, fetid trash bucket filled with smelly garbage, a gleaming-flashing-neon-throbbing indication that my feckless 17 year-old-son has no indication of ever accepting responsibility and will live in my metaphorical basement forever because I have asked him a Brazillion times to please just be accountable for this one task, is that too much to ask? and no one will have the sense or ability to pick out a good nursing home for me and we’re all going to die sad and poor because who in his right mind could fail to notice this flaming trash bucket.” Whereas your son may see the trash bucket and think, “Green. The trash bucket is green. I wonder if Susie will be wearing her green sweatshirt in algebra class today.”
Shane’s ability to discern every aspect of desert life was built on his predilections, his experience, and his knowledge. Could it be that your children’s seeming incapacity to remember this simple chore are constructed from their focusing on the stimuli that are important to them? If your children’s relationship to social media, for example, is more salient than their affiliation with responsibilities, in a very real sense, they may not SEE the trash buckets. Just like I see scenes from “The Princess Bride” in my head while Shane sees and interprets the markings on the rocks.
You COULD just up the ante: reward bigger, punish harder. “Take the trash buckets out to the street and you can marry the princess or, as the case may be, get left in the Fire Swamp.”
Or you could acknowledge that your kids aren’t living in the same desert as you. They process information differently: they perceive the world though a different lens.
Shane didn’t leave me in the desert to die; don’t stab your children just because they don’t perceive the world the same way you do. Because “Is he using the same wind as us?” applies to trash buckets as well as to pirate ships.