The boy pushed himself and his chair away from the table, folding his arms. He was still holding the last card he had flipped, and he was moving his annoyed gaze between the card and the rest of the game on the table. It was pointless, he knew, but he was still trying to figure out a way to win. With a sigh he tossed the card onto the table, his arms still folded.
“This solitaire was sly!”
The father, who was putting the table in order for dinner, had placed plates, glass, and cutlery away from the card game while it was unfolding. He smiled at the choice of words.
Some children are interested in mathematics. Others are interested in words. And some, like the eight-year-old boy of our story, are interested in both. He has a vast vocabulary with many synonyms and a rich mix of simple and advanced words and expressions. He tends his vocabulary meticulously, sorting and categorising his beloved words. He is honing his sense of their shapes and boundaries, figuring out where they slip in hand-to-glove, when and how some effort can make them fit, and in what situations they can’t even be pried into place.
He knew these things because he had the courage to experiment with words. On a daily basis he would bring them to, and past, their confines, in an unspoken call to his family – to his little sister and his mother and father – to help him find out what happens if you say this or that, if you can use this particular word in this particular way.
This time it was his mother who was the quickest to pick up his request.
“What was sly about the solitaire?”
The father found himself stopped, waiting with great curiosity for what the boy would say.
“All the time it seemed that I would easily succeed. Then it turned out to be impossible.”
The solitaire had lured him into thinking it would be an easy opponent. Then it had revealed itself as being really hard, even impossible, to win against. It was sly. This was not at the limits of the word, this was a bullseye. A lot of people wouldn’t know to pick that particular word in that situation. His mother confirmed:
“Yes, that is exactly what sly means.”
The father started to think about how lucky the boy was, because he had so many who could read aloud to him. It was uncommon for a day to end without him having heard some chapters read from a book, often stories written for children a little older. Apparently the boy’s mother was thinking the same:
“Maybe it is because you read so much that you know so many words?”
The boy had a more complete theory:
“I think it is also because we always eat together and stay long at the table and talk after dinner.”
The father immediately realised that the boy was right about this. Those kitchen table conversations were a boon for the whole family. Enjoyable conversations enable children to stock up on words for their vocabularies, as they do for us adults. We learn a lot about each other’s days and what currently is engaging us the most. Important things get said. You just never know where conversations with children will go, which turns they will take. The family in our story relished their dinner and after-dinner conversation family time, and many beautiful memories were created.
Another habit the family had was to walk to school together instead of driving. Walking together offers fantastic opportunities to have conversations, clarify concepts and try to answer questions that children are eager to discuss, and convivial talking while walking can be particularly enjoyable.
On the chilly early autumn morning after the solitaire had proven itself to be so shrewd, sneaky, and sly, three members of the family – the boy, his little sister and their father – were walking to school together. The trees were still green, while the sun was noticeably lower on the horizon than it had been just a few weeks before.
As they walked, they took deep breaths of the fresh and slightly chilly air, and started talking about birds. The boy asked:
“Do we have those French doves in Sweden?”
They had visited Provence the previous summer, where they had seen a kind of dove they had never seen at home in Sweden. The birds were pale red-brownish with a neck ring that didn’t quite close at the throat. And the males made a peculiar sound when they flew in, approaching their mate. A sound they had never heard ‘Swedish’ doves make.
The father replied that he thought those doves very seldom visit Sweden.
“It is probably too cold and those kinds of doves wouldn’t like the Swedish spring, winter and autumn, and maybe not even most of our summers.”
“Doves are sedentary, aren’t they?” said the son.
“Do you mean that that is why we do not see these French doves here even in the summer?” the father wondered.
The boy nodded. The father challenged this with another observation:
“But they can fly very, very far, and are good at finding their way home.”
“Carrier pigeons,” said Little Sister.
”Like Hedwig,” said her brother.
The father objected, saying, “Harry Potter is just a fairy tale, and you can’t use owls as carrier pigeons!”
“Why not?” the boy asked.
“Partly because you can’t tame them, I think.”
They started talking about how some birds are easily domesticated and tamed, while others are not.
”Falcons can, with a lot of effort and skilful training, get convinced into returning to their falconeer,” the father noted.
None of the three believed that falcons could really be fully tamed.
“This varies a lot between all kinds of animals,” he continued. “For example, you can tame dogs, but you can’t fully tame cats. Horses can be tamed, but not zebras. And so on.”
“Can’t you mate horses with zebras, then?” asked the boy.
“Well, you can – they can have young together – but the offspring are not fertile.
“Yes, they can’t reproduce. The ability to produce offspring is called ‘fertile’, and fertility is about whether or not they are able to produce offspring.”
The father saw the boy thinking about this, and imagined him inserting the word ‘fertile’ into his ever-growing vocabulary. And he smiled, guessing that that word would soon be featuring in a dinner conversation.
The boy asked if donkeys can be tamed.
“They certainly can.”
The father added:
“Horses and donkeys can produce offspring, but they too turn out sterile.”
The boy didn’t ask about ‘sterile’, either because he already knew what it meant or he deduced it from the context. Antonyms are fun!
The conversation returned to dogs and how they had been bred from wolves, which should mean that wolves could be tamed.
“Maybe not all of them?” the boy suggested.
They agreed about this after having reasoned around it for a while: To produce dogs that are easily tamed, it probably doesn’t cut it to start with just any wolf. It will vary depending upon the individual wolves you start with, as well as among those in each generation that you breed. The breeders have intentionally bred for that tameable characteristic, or the dogs wouldn’t function as pets.
“How about humans?” the boy enquired.
“If we can be tamed?” the father asked, half jokingly.
“No, does it vary between us how easily tamed we are?”
The father thought it was interesting that his son was assuming humans are a tameable species.
“Yes, I think it varies a lot. It seems to me that at least in some senses, most people are all too easy to tame, but there are those who are more like cats, falcons, zebras, and owls, or the wildest of the wolves.”
“What is a wild human like?”
The father replied that such a person can’t be willingly made to do something he really does not want to do – that it would always take threats and violence to keep such a person in check.
The boy’s face turned determined and at the same time he looked quite horrified. He anxiously caught his father’s eye.
“Could you be tamed, Daddy?”
As the father thought about how to answer the question, he felt his young daughter’s hand squeeze his. It surprised him that she was following the conversation that intently. She had been busily collecting leaves, stones, pine cones and twigs along their route, and now had such a bulging bag and pockets that she was starting to have trouble collecting more. The father had assumed she had been so fully occupied with her collecting that she might not have been paying attention to the conversation between her father and brother.
After a long pause the father said:
“I don’t think I can. Not really. The State obviously can get me to follow its various decrees. But it can’t make me do it willingly. I only do as they say either because I agree that it is the right thing to do, or because they otherwise have the power to throw me behind bars, where I can’t be with my family.”
The eyes of the boy, big, brown, and full of intense curiosity, teared up, while at the same time they smiled.
“Do you think I can be tamed?”
“No, don’t worry about that!” replied the father. “You will remain wild your whole life.”
The boy squeezed his father’s hand hard. Then wrapped his arms around his father’s leg. The image of his father in jail was tough on him. His dad squatted down and little sister joined him in wrapping their arms around the boy, and they stayed in that embrace for a long while. Then they continued on their way to school.
When they reached the boy’s school, the boy stopped and looked at his father, holding his gaze.
“We are rebels, Dad.”
He raised both his hands, palms facing his father and sister expectantly, his eyes twinkling.
“Rebels!” repeated the father as both he and Little Sister high-fived the boy.
“But we have to be a bit sly about it,” he added with a giggle.
When the boy walked away, greeting his schoolmates, Little Sister and Father stayed a while, holding hands, just following him with their eyes. He was walking with his back straight and his head high. There was determination in his steps. They could leave the schoolyard confident that he was ready to refuse being tamed.
Peter Strömberg, 2023, ‘The boy who would not be tamed’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/the-boy-who-would-not-be-tamed