The children attended a well-run chess day camp this summer. Good people running things; a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Lots of varied activities to keep kids’ bodies engaged as well as their minds.
Sadly, this takes place on the complete opposite end of the Metro area from where we live. We had to drive all the way across St Paul, Minneapolis and deep into St Louis Park during rush hour. Ugh.
This led, one day, to my trying to find a topic of conversation to keep at least one of the children occupied while we drove home. I recount for you this conversation below.
Me: Tabitha. Can I ask you a question?
Tabitha (7 years old): Sure.
Me: What letter comes before I in the alphabet?
T: H. That was kind of an easy question.
I love that she has turned into a critic. If I am not challenging her, she calls me on it.
What she has not seemed to notice yet is that these questions she deems easy are just my openers for the good stuff.
Me: Yeah. Here’s a harder one. What letter comes two letters before S?
There is a fairly long pause here. This is a harder question because of how most of us know the alphabet—forwards. If we want to know what is 2 less than 71, it is not so hard to count backwards. We have lots of experience counting backwards. But we don’t have so much experience saying the alphabet backwards, so we need to make up a strategy.
T: Q and R.
Me: Q is two letters before S, yes. Now you ask me one.
T: What letter comes after Z?
Brilliant. What a great question. I wish I had thought of it myself.
Me: Oooooo. Good one. I say A. I say it starts over.
Griffin has been listening in but not participating. He sees his chance to get in on the action.
Griffin (9 years old): Negative A.
Me: Wouldn’t that be what comes before A?
G: No. It comes after Z. It’s negative A.
T: Nope. Not that either.
Me: OK, then. I am stumped.
T: Nothing. No letter comes after Z.
So what do we learn?
This is a more sophisticated version of another mathy letters conversation I had with Tabitha a while back. Back then, we were trying to figure out which of two letters comes first in the alphabet. Here, we are more paying careful attention to precise placement (two letters before, not just before).
The other interesting thing going on is our three different ideas about what comes after the end.
My idea: After the end, we go back to the beginning, like the days of the week.
Tabitha’s idea: There is nothing after the end. It just ends.
Griffin’s idea: The end is like zero. When you get to the end, you repeat what you already had, only using negatives.
It is OK that we didn’t resolve who is right.
Starting the conversation
About a year ago, I started making a habit of having the kids ask me the next question. I highly recommend it.
You know how your children are always testing the limits of rules in everyday life? Like you say, “Do not touch” and they see how close they can get their finger to the forbidden object without actually touching it? That is normal and necessary behavior on the part of children.
They will do it in the world of ideas, too. Tabitha did not choose “What letter comes after Z” at random. She chose it because she knew it would be interesting to talk about. It probably would not have occurred to me to ask it. Our conversation was richer because she did.