Monday, February 07, 2005

The Universality of Counting

I was recently at a coffee shop eavsdropping on a mother overseeing her two young boys. I thought that they were speaking French, but wasn't sure until I heard the mom say

Un!. . . Deux!!. . . Tois!!!. . .

With an increasing sense of purpose and intensity.

My giggle caught her eye and we had a moment of what I perceived as complete comprehension and sympathy.

When you think about it, the counting thing is really strange.

First, it is not associated with any negotiated bribe or demand. Its not (usually):

I'm going to count to three and if I get to three and your coat isn't on and you aren't heading toward the door, I'm gonna beat your %#(*&$!

Unless the lack of negotiation is based on some prior history, it seems to be a universal understanding that counting equals seriousness and is associated with some sort of punishment (perceived or real) at some point in the near (and fast approaching) future.

Even the number itself is not negotiated. Why is it assumed that three is the upper-limit? Why not four, or seven or ten?

Given all of this, why do kids fall for it, and why does it seem to be so universal? Why don't kids take context into consideration:

French kid's should-be rational thought: Dude. I'm in a coffee shop with tons of adults around me working and socializing, there are no other kids, and I know Mom's not ready to go. What's she gonna do? Spank me in public? Drag me to the car? Throw a glass of water at my face? Put me in time-out in the bathroom? Take away my already finished cocoa? What?

Second, the other weird thing about the counting is that it seems to be one of those inherent parenting techniques.

Witness myself. I am not a biological parent, and came on the scene at about 17 months. Out of nowhere, I hear myself saying (in a loud-pitched-demanding that is voice full of expectation and authority):

One!. . . Two!!. . .

It was as if my father had stepped into my body.

Of course, we all get it from our own parents. But I'm just surprised at how universal this strawman of a threat really is. Let's hope the FYO doesn't figure it out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm gonna out myself as retarded mom, because the counting thing--even though my mom did it with me--simply never occured to me. When pseudonymous kid was younger, this was fine: when he started being a snot, I'd tell him he was making me angry, and if he persisted I'd remove him or just be angry (which was itself punishment enough) or whatever. But now he's old enough that that isn't a deterrent any longer, and I was flailing around for ages trying to figure out, how do i make him do something now that he's too big to just force the issue?

And then his dad talked about how at school, they have this three warnings thing, and we started doing that, and man, it works so well. I thought it was b/c the teacher had already taught him that reaching 3=consequences, or b/c I'd always given him consequences before, but now I wonder if maybe it's just, well, the way things are :)