Pseudosemantics: Losing a battle of wits with someone who hasn’t learned any

Arguing with a baby should be ludicrous hyperbole used to show that something is a stupid waste of time because nobody would actually do it. But we’ve all seen parents do it. Sometimes in the mirror. I’ve seen parents waste half an hour debating a mud-smeared girl who just wanted to stay playing in a puddle. They whined and wheedled and offered all kinds of intelligent reasoning. She tried every word in her vocabulary to see which would get them to stop. Everyone involved was playing an old text adventure called “Parent Quest IV” and getting annoyed that none of their words seemed to work. But she was winning, because she was keeping what she wanted with way less effort.

The problem is pseudosemantics, a false feeling of meaning.

Just because something can use words doesn’t mean they understand their implications. I can train a parrot to squawk “quantum mechanics” by giving it food. that doesn’t mean it’ll invent a teleporter when it gets hungry. It just means I’ve Pavloved a pet to annoy Albert Einstein. Kids use words as tools the same way you can technically use a smartphone as a hammer: you’ll get loud short-term results, but don’t expect more complicated communications to work unless you take the time to teach better ways to use them.

Children are still learning how to speak, think, and argue, which means they can’t really do any of those things yet. They don’t get passive aggression. If you tell a kid “FINE, just SIT there and ruin your clothes as long as you want!” they think “YAY!” and wonder why you’re still upset after agreeing with them. They’re not refusing to get out of the mud because they’ve considered and rejected your counter-suggestions in committee, they’re refusing to get out of the mud because they don’t want to and sometimes you need to accept that and/or lift them. 

Just because someone is speaking doesn’t mean they’re thinking. Forget children, you can learn this from most adults. But unlike newspapers and social media, children aren’t screaming keywords to piss you off on  purpose. Children are still learning from you every day, whether they want to or not. They’re not arguing in bad faith. They’re not arguing at all. They’re organic ELIZA programs repeating back words you’ve taught them because it seems to work. Their brain literally isn’t finished yet. That’s why they have parents instead of housemates.

When you plug a cheap USB gadget into your desktop computer and things go wrong it’s not the little gadget which needs to be restarted, reinstalled, and upgraded with new drivers. The little box is fine. Not its problem if the “smarter” system couldn’t handle a bit of direct voltage. Likewise it’s your job as a carer to construct ways of working with the kid. You don’t try to use a new computer you’re building. You watch its inputs and outputs as you add parts and check they’re working right. You don’t argue with it.

Remember that extra scene from Terminator 2 where they flick the switch in its head so it’s able to learn new behaviours? Your kid has that switch on all the time and is even more relentless. In fact Skynet’s a great model. Pretend you’re teaching a cute little AI in a small computer in a lab at the start of the movie. You probably don’t want to teach it angry shouting, because soon it’ll be in control of every speaker in the world and talking ominously through all of them while webcams swivel in your direction.

Which is effectively true, because in twenty years your kid will either be the only one who understands how to program the holophonic neuraltron, or the only one strong enough to fight the barbarian raiders for the wind up music box. Either way you’d better hope their solution strategy isn’t “angrily shout at the person who doesn’t have enough brain to think things through at their current age.”

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