By Daniel Dunaief
My five-year-old neighbor Jack keeps me and his parents on our toes, and for that, I am grateful.
In this strange and challenging year, Jack offers a refreshing, clear-eyed and honest assessment of everything he sees. He speaks directly, asks questions and expects people to treat him the way his kind, caring and supportive parents do.
During the spring, at the start of longer walks around the neighborhood with my dog, I started the pattern of wearing sweatpants and sweatshirts during cooler weather. After all, with nowhere else to go, I didn’t feel compelled to put on a collared shirt, to change my outerwear or to put on my dress shoes. Speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve even looked for my shoes in months. The search for those shoes, and the black socks at the bottom of a drawer somewhere, will be a welcome return to a more normal routine some day.
Anyway, back in the first stages of an endless homebound existence, Jack saw me one morning, greeted my dog , who is 30 pounds heavier than he, and asked me one of the many five-year-old questions that he shares.
“Why are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday?” he asked, as if I were somehow on a walk of shame after an evening that stretched into morning in a college dorm.
“Oh, honey, he’s just wearing the same sweatshirt as yesterday. You do that, too,” his mother gently offered.
Then again, Jack was right. I was wearing the same sweatshirt and sweatpants.
Later, when a nephew who tested negative for the virus came to visit and took a walk with me, Jack listened to his mother chat with us. As we were walking away, Jack watched my nephew and me head to my house.
“Dan,” he shouted, “Don’t forget about six feet.”
Again, Jack was right. Comfortable as I was, even outside with my nephew, Jack learned the rules and was encouraging me to follow them.
Recently, Jack delved into the minefield of politics. Without any hesitation, he asked my wife and daughter about their votes for the presidential election.
His mother, once again, tried to provide a filter, suggesting that such a conversation might not be necessary or comfortable.
Our daughter, who has had extensive experience babysitting children of all ages, had no trouble answering the question in a way that wouldn’t upset Jack, regardless of his or, more likely, his parents’ thoughts on the subject.
Cliche as it seems, it occurred to me, listening to my wife recount this conversation, that Jack, and the need to meet his earnestness and honesty, offered a reminder about public discourse.
Five-year-olds may not know everything, but they know when an adult is being condescending or is belittling them. They need the same kind of honesty they give.
At the same time, they need answers that don’t insult them. Even if they, or their parents, have different views, they need to know that others respect them.
Therein, it occurred to me, lies the lesson. We don’t need to avoid conversations with each other about topics on which we disagree. We are guaranteed the freedom to disagree with everyone, from our siblings, to our parents, to the president.
We also might do well to think of others who are speaking to us as Jack. We don’t need to picture others as five-year-olds. We can, and will, engage in more satisfying discourse if we follow some of the same principles when speaking with anyone. With so many challenges ahead, we will accomplish more together, and respectfully, than if we take each other down.