162. “Knock, Knock!”

Knock, knock! Who’s there? Howie. Howie who? Fine, thanks. Howie who? Despite all the new-fangled ways to pass on culture, the oral culture still exists. I used to think my brother Howie made up the tune to the ever-popular “George Washington Bridge.” Later, I learned that he had used the tune to “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Still later, I learned that many people were singing my brother’s song (“George Washington Bridge, George Washington, Washington, Bridge,” etc.). And who knows? Maybe he didn’t even make up the idea of putting those words with that tune.
Here’s a question I really can’t answer confidently: when children ask me a riddle, and I know the answer, should I let on that I know the answer, or should I feign interest, and then laugh? After all, the child went through all the trouble to learn that bit of oral culture. Is my own dedication to honesty so strong that I can’t go along with a harmless little riddle? I remember the times when I let children win in various games. I had to estimate how much effort was enough to give the child the feeling that there was some competition going on. Laughing at vintage riddles may be in the same category; children want to surprise us with their jokes and riddles just as they want to win games. And should we bend our honesty a little and go along with them?
Come to think of it, the issue doesn’t end with childhood. Aren’t there times when an adult friend starts to tell a joke, and you just don’t have the heart to mention that you’ve heard it already? The friend enjoys telling the joke – maybe even tells it better than you’ve ever heard it told. That should be enough. But sometimes, instead of saying, “I like the way you tell it,” don’t you sometimes pretend that you’ve never heard it before?
I can confidently state that we owe it to children to help them believe in themselves. They’re little, and most of us are big. We may try to encourage the playing of games that have no winners. There are many games like that, and more are being created all the time. But sometimes children really want to play competitive games, and they don’t want to lose all the time. And when a child tells a riddle – even the third or fourth time the child tells a riddle – the polite thing to do is listen, with interest, and then laugh.
There may be adults who have strong convictions about this issue. They answer riddles when they know the answers, and when they play soccer, no matter how old their opponents are, they play to win. My own approach is to feign ignorance about the jokes and riddles, and to ask children whether they want me to let them win (or nowadays, to try my hardest, to no avail. Nowadays, sometimes children let me win). Obviously, I lean toward stressing confidence-building over honesty. But I’m honestly not sure.

Comments are closed.