Meghan Cox Gurdon: The flashlights and bowling pins of a youngster's mind

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"Are you a man or a woman?"

"It has to be a yes-or-no question."

"Oh, right. Are you a man?"

"No."

"Aha! You're a woman!"

"Yes."

Outside, rosy-fingered dawn was stretching across the dark Saturday morning sky. Inside, the youngest daughter and I were curled up together playing Botticelli, a guessing game that works a bit like 20 Questions.

It was my turn to pretend that I was any person in history, fiction or of our acquaintance, and her turn to discover who I* was.

"Are you famous?"

"No."

"Are you Jewish?"

I burst out laughing. "That's a funny question, since you don't even know if I am real or historical or someone we know yet!"

"Well, yes or no?"

"No, I'm not Jewish," I said, still smiling, "The person is Catholic."

"Aha!" said my cunning opponent. Now all she needed to do was to narrow down all the women of history, fiction and/or our acquaintance to one religious group, and she was sure to get the answer.

It is not always enjoyable to play with children, as any adult who has ever embarked on the third hour of Monopoly or the second 10 minutes of playing "Barbie" can attest. But when it is -- and our snuggly game of Botticelli was one of those times -- it's possible to catch wonderfully amusing glimpses of the way a young mind operates. You may not understand what, exactly, you are glimpsing, but you are liable to be entertained nonetheless.

A neighbor recently found herself embroiled in a different guessing game with her 5-year-old son. They were driving on the highway, time was stretching out, and he suggested they play a game he had just invented. It was called "Flashlight."

The idea was that he would think of a number between zero and infinity and shout, "Bowling pin!"

That would be her cue to start guessing the number he had in mind. She would know when she got the right number, he assured her, because at that point he would shout, "Flashlight!"

"I tried really hard," she told me afterward. "I said: Seven? 82? 619?"

Like the queen in the fairy tale trying to guess the name of Rumpelstiltskin, my friend kept going. She ran through every number she could imagine: "46? 2500? 8517?"

"Nope, nope, nope."

3 million?"

"Mmm," the boy said, "Flashlight, but with a really dim bulb."

"You mean I'm close?"

"Yes," he said. (But she wasn't, really. The secret number turned out to be 8 million, which is close to 3 million only if you are a kindergartener, or a politician.)

They played another round, after adding a rule to the effect that he must keep the number within limits; between, say, 117 and 151. This worked better.

"118?"

"Nope."

"140?"

"Nope."

"100 and ... 22?

"FLASHLIGHT!" the boy roared.

So caught up in the game had my neighbor become that, before she realized what was happening, she had yelled, "FULLY POWERED FLASHLIGHT WITH RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES!"

It was only later that night that it occurred to my friend to wonder: Why would a number game begin with a bowling pin and end with a flashlight? The answer lay somewhere in her son's 5-year-old psyche, which, unfortunately, was fast asleep.

* In Botticelli, "I" was her teacher.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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