Brain Eggs for Grown-Ups

Susan Phillips
March 5, 2000

When my oldest son was almost four—a difficult time for transitions, the experts say—we transitioned him right out of his country, his culture, and his language. We moved to Macedonia, one of the small uneasy countries produced by the break-up of Yugoslavia. It was a big change. The capital, Skopje, is not one of those European cities where you might as well be home, except the buildings are older and the accents strange. Rich in culture and conflict and poor by every other measure, it's a city where skinny horses graze in the public parks, yogurt is for drinking, grandmothers rule the domestic kingdom, and children have no bedtimes but grown-ups take naps every day.

In the beginning, Nick reeled at the way so much of the comfortable well-worn furniture of his life disappeared overnight. He wept the day I told him it was a 4-hour drive across international borders to the nearest fast-food restaurant. Not so long out of diapers, he was taken aback—way back—by the dreaded "Turkish toilet" found in Macedonia's restaurants, schools, and public places. These porcelained holes in the floor, with a couple of foot-shaped islands for standing on, struck him as perhaps designed for swallowing small children. But the toughest thing for Nick—an early and, once launched, nearly non-stop talker—was the realization that no matter how slowly, loudly, or often he repeated his words in English, none of the children he met understood him.

We had known this would be a stressful move, and so we did what we could to ease the pain. One decision we made was to bring our dog along. A mid-sized yellow mutt from the pound, Watson looks just like the dog you imagine when you think "dog," without thinking about any particular dog. Loyal, brave, and just smart enough, he lives up to his name.

One afternoon a few months after the move, I went in to Nick's room to see what he was up to. He was lying on the floor. So was Watson. Nick had the top of his head pressed to the top of Watson's head, blonde hair to yellow fur. "What are you doing?" I asked him. "I'm putting my brain eggs into Watson's head," Nick told me. "When they hatch, Watson will be able to speak English."

It was one of those moments when I realized that parenthood was going to be a much stranger ride than I expected. Here was my son, telling me with just a few words how much he missed being able to talk freely with those around him. Showing me that he had the tools, in his own imagination, to deal with that loss. And letting me know that of all the things we packed, Watson was the one we would be happiest to have along.

Connecting with Kids
I have been thinking about what it means to really connect for kids. And it seems to me obvious, but worth repeating, that we can't effectively do that, unless we first connect with kids.

Not long ago, I visited a high school here in the District of Columbia. I hadn't been inside a high school in years, and to me, it was as shocking as those Turkish toilets were to Nick. It looked as if it had been designed by someone with long experience building correctional facilities. Inside, there was the metal detector, the security guards, the flicker of fluorescent lights.

Also inside were hundreds of bright young people just bursting with brain eggs. I was there to visit a class that was reviving the school's long-dead newspaper. It was great. The kids were working with Quark Express, they were debating what should go where in the paper. They had a great line-up of stories, from a profile of a senior who was also a single dad, to more typical items about sports and school events. I left energized and hopeful. But when I looked back at that looming, gloomy building, I wondered what message those kids received about their value in the eyes of the powerful, as they streamed through those heavily-guarded doors each morning. I wondered who outside that fortress/prison would read their newspaper, and hear their message.

A lot of you who visit this Web site work hard every day for children. Perhaps there was a moment that triggered your involvement—and at the center of that moment was a child. It's my own theory that staying connected to those moments, putting ourselves in places where we hear the children around us, is how we find the energy to keep going. I'd like to find ways that this Web site can do more to connect with kids, and feature their voices.

Susan Phillips is a journalist and the former managing editor of Connect for Kids.