Decoding the Downchucks and White Smiles

Children do not see things like we do. The world is being viewed through eyes that have not seen how a lot of thing work and because they don’t expect certain outcomes form certain events, their wide eyed interest in any given event is honest and open minded. If cars started growing wings and flying around, your average three year old would just roll with it. As far as they know, that sort of thing might happen every day. So what? They might be excited, but they wouldn’t have the mental logic hemorrhage that any adult would experience.

This same, “I guess that’s supposed to happen” view of the world also allows kids to implement their own limited experiences and logic on any given situation. Two of these leaps of logic come to mind from my own childhood. I don’t remember them myself, but the stories have been retold by my parents enough times so that they have become family folklore.

The first involved the clothes dryer. I was a very talkative child and used to enjoy following my Mom and Dad around the house, talking to them until their ears tried to flee their heads and hide in their armpits. On one of these days, I happened to be sitting on the cellar stairs, chatting my Mom down to a nub as she did the laundry. As she transferred the clothes from the washer to the dryer, I reportedly reminded her to check for filt.

“Filt? What’s filt?”, she managed to get in edgewise.
“You know? The filt. You have to get it out before you start the dryer.” I happily burbled.

What I was getting at was that she needed to clean out the filter on the dryer before she left. To a kid’s mind, it made perfect sense. Well, to mine it did, anyway. If that was the filter, what else could it be that was collected? It had to be filt! To a young mind, it only makes sense. To an adult, it’s like a code that needs breaking before you can tell what on earth your child is talking about.


The second kid-encryption that I know of from my own past, was the downchucks. Downchucks scared the hell out of me. This one stumped my folks for a long, long time. I was just old enough to say a word of my own invention clearly enough for others to understand it, but not old enough to explain what they were. All they knew was that the downchucks were in their bed room versus mine and that they worried me enough to keep me out of the place if it was dark or if one of my parents wasn’t with me the whole time.

Normally, this level of kid decoding requires a parent with a lot of personal understanding of what their child tends to see and imagine. In this particular case however, it was my aunt Janet who worked it out. From time to time, she watched me while my folks were out and one day while reading me a book, one line jumped out at her.

“Down, jumped the woodchuck, into his burrow.”

Then it dawned on her.

“Burrow”… “Bureau!”

She asked me if the downchucks were on my parent’s bureau. I replied that, yes, they were. She walked into my folks room and looked that the bureau. Specifically, she looked at the drawer pulls. This being the nineteen seventies in America, everything was required to have a colonial American theme to it. It was the ubiquitous style of the era. The plates on the face of the drawer pulls were American eagles. Not too intimidating… until you looked at the negative space and not the eagle. OH MY! If you ignored the eagle, the dark wood showing through the cut outs under the wings looked like very mean and scary eyes. The dressers in my parent’s room looked like two totem polls of nasty and malevolent gremlins! Those were the downchucks!

Short Stack has naturally come up with a few of his own zingers in his time and I’m sure we’ll be in for plenty more as time goes along. Most seem to come from his ability to “almost” get a long and tough word. He’ll make an admirable stab at it and then, right or wrong, go with it. We’ve figured out some while others have to simply be filed away for decrypting at a later date.

“Henra-ta-denra” was one of the more recent cracks that, having worked out on my own, I’m particularly proud of. He had been saying this for some time now and we always just shrugged our shoulders and smiled. Then, a few weeks ago, I looked in on Short Stack as he happily watched a kid show we have on the computer. In the video, a magician waves his magic wand and says, “Abracadabra!” Short Stack, big smile plastered across his chubby cheeks, immediately retorted, “Henratadenra!” I called Acton Girl right away when I finally had that code cracked!

The one that still has us stumped is “Viveeder”. Apparently, it has something to do with cars and trucks, but what it is exactly, we have no clue. Short Stack will point to some random vehicle and tell us emphatically, “This is a viveeder! It can viveed!”


The one that I worked out tonight was more on par with the downchucks than simply getting a word mixed up.

I had put Short Stack in bed and after the required three books had been read, I tucked him in, turned off the light, turned on the night light, gave him his kisses and headed down stairs. A few minutes later, I thought I heard whimpering. I walked to the foot of the stairs and was proven right. Something was wrong. I headed up and immediately got a big, worried hug as soon as I was safely within launching range of the bed. Then, the explanation.

“It’s a big, white smile! Who’s dat big, white smile? He has no legs and he’s peeking at me!”

This is the sort of thing that as a parent, you need to solve and solve fast. I looked around the room and could see nothing that looked even remotely like a “big, white, legless smile”. Hmmm. As soon as Short Stack was calm and sure that he was safe, I asked him to show me where the smile was. I picked him up and with him clinging to me like a baby monkey; we walked to the open doorway to his room. He thrust his round finger out accusingly at the wall.

“Dare it is. Dat’s the big, white smile!”

He clung on even harder. I still didn’t see it, but I had the idea. Taking him back to his little toddler sized bed, I lay down next to him. As I looked at the open door way, I tried to see things like my son did. I defocused and I looked at the doorway in front of me… and then I saw it. The big, white smile.

Well, to be honest, it was hard to see it as he described it, but to be fair, he was using the only words he had access to. What it turned out to be was a pool of light being thrown on the stairway wall by his night light. In the middle of the pool, was a series of knots in the wood planking that covers that section of wall. If looked at from his pillow, it looked kind of like a goofy smile. To him, it was like being watched while he was alone in his room. I understood immediately from my own childhood experiences with drawer pulls. Some time spent explaining what he was seeing on the wall and a quick relocation of the nightlight fixed the problem. The “big, white smile” was gone from view and he felt as though things were safe enough to fall asleep.

I don’t know if I can always decode the fears of my children on the fly like that, but I’ll sure as heck try. There’s a lot that catches you unaware when you’re a small child. The experiences of life have yet to come down your road and the things that are safe versus the things that are not, are easily confused. While my children are with me, I will do what I can to call them as I see them, and if I’m very lucky, I might even learn a few things from them as well.

I just wish he’d tell me what the heck a “viveeder” is.

5 Responses

  1. Great story. I always think of “The World According to Garp” and the undertoads: the under tow that the children are warned about.

    Viveeders: maybe the horns are honking on the cars and they are going “beepbeep”.

    “Beep Beep” is as good a guess as any! I did it to ma aging last night as he scooted along on a toy truck of his. “It viveeds!” AGRH! Ah, the mysteries of childhood.

  2. Mostly, getting to see the world through the eyes of a child is a gift. There is joy and wonder and beauty in everything from the bugs on the ground to the sun, moon, and stars. Other times we see their fear.

    I’m amazed when I get a glimpse of how my kids minds work.

    Maybe viveeders are the cars vrooming and speeding off.

    Call it a gift or simply being mentally stunted, but I just never really lost the mindset of seeing things like a kid. It’s one of the reasons I was so happy to have some of my own. Finally, I’d have someone who’d want to play legos with me or spend a day at the beach making sand castles. Though Action Girl is often happy to join in, she is far easier to embarrass than either a child or I and so, often passes on “silly” public behavior. An afternoon spent building forts on the lawn is still my idea of a good time. 😉

  3. I hate little kids coming out with new words – I never know whether my English is up to snuff or if they are shitting me!

    When I was a really little kid, my grandmother always had a bunch of friends around her. I used to call them weird names. It took a while for my mom to realize that I had renamed all of them after Polomoche and the Gogottes monsters from a Babar the Elephant book. Not a very nice thing to do but it seems all of the ladies had a kick out of it!

    I never really thought of the ramifications of being a non-native speaker surrounded by little kids making up words and worlds. Being about to reading Dr. Seuss must be really advanced for someone not 100% familiar with English!

  4. Addendum: my cousin and I, respectively Elliot Ness and Al Capone, had “Al” names for everybody. My brother was Al Le Kape, my other cousin Al Bodoy. We even had renamed my cousin’s dad: Al Le Cul… which translates as Al the Ass. We were precocious. 🙂

    Precocious is one word for that. Yah…. 😉

  5. Nice post.

    I’m with Planetross on this one, in that I immediately thought about the “undertoad”.

    On a side note about how kids talk, I once met a woman called Omani and I asked her about her name and it’s origins. I was told that her mother had met a lovely little girl when she was pregnant, who when asked what her name was, replied, “Omani”. The pregnant mother thought it was a nice name and decided to name her own child after the lovely little girl.

    Years later they found out the girl’s name was Naomi and she couldn’t pronounce it properly when she was little.

    That is 100%, pure fantastic!

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