In Margaret Donaldson's quintessential 'Children's Minds,' she discusses the importance of 'decentering' in the language we use with children. Teachers know more than students, and thus often make false assumptions about shared knowledge: 'The better you know something, the more risk there is of behaving egocentrically in relation to your knowledge.'
Donaldson finds an example of such egocentric behavior in a story from Laurie Lee's autobiography 'Cider with Rosie.' After his first day at school, Lee furiously tells his mother that he had been cheated. He was told to 'sit there for the present.' Yet he never received his present. 'I sat there all day but I never got it. I ain't going back there again.'
Where Piaget claims young children's inability to communicate well is a result of their inability to decenter, Donaldson turns that premise around in citing Lee. We sometimes miss children's true potential because we assume they understand our language. We could get better responses and better learning if we really listened and thought about how we are saying what we are saying.
Donaldson's use of Laurie Lee's anecdote had a powerful effect on me. Then, at a talk by Marcia Henry, the author of the indispensable 'Unlocking Literacy,' Henry brought up the impact Donaldson's citing of 'Cider with Rosie' had on her.
Donaldson, Henry and I could have found the same example of egocentric language in Beverly Cleary's 'Ramona the Pest,' in which Miss Binney tells Ramona on her first day of kindergarten to 'sit here for the present.' The difference is that Miss Binney realizes the source of confusion, and shocks Ramona by apologizing to her in front of the class: 'I'm sorry....It's all my fault. I should have used different words.'
Miss Binney is a cool teacher, unlike Laurie Lee's, and for that matter Ramona's first grade teacher, Mrs. Griggs, whom we meet in 'Ramona the Brave.'
All of the above leads to my conclusion that the Ramona books, which follow Ramona Quimby from preschool into fourth grade, are just as valuable as texts for early education and child psychology as any other work. Cleary lets us in on the way children think and how their thinking develops with great insight, and of course, great humor.
Consider Cleary's treatment of this novel's eponymous moniker, despised by Ramona: '...Ramona did not consider herself a pest. People who called her a pest did not understand that a littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little bit more stubborn in order to be noticed at all.'