I HAVE lost count of how many times it has happened. It may be while visiting friends, or while we are in a shop or at a market stall. Once it was in a bank.
“We” means my children and I. And what happens is that the children—all very young, the oldest being 7—break out in animated conversations among themselves talking about everything imaginable: stuff in the shop, their toys, sometimes even a bit of gossip about “Dada” (that’s me).
The boy does his macho routines to show he’s a man of the world. He approaches sales clerks and asks, alternating between English and Filipino, “What’s this?” and “What’s that?” and “How much is this?” Once in a shop selling mattresses he settled into one of the beds, pulled up the comforter and told the clerks, “This is really cool. How much is this?” The clerks laughed and told me, “Mahal ang taste ng anak mo.” (Your son has expensive tastes.) It cost P240,000. When he heard the price, he looked at me and asked, “Is it almost one billion?”
You can imagine how people react to my pediatric typhoons. The P64 million question usually comes from the women as they watch the kids, or after they have been bombarded with questions.
“Sir, talino naman nila…anong vitamins ang binibigay ninyo?” (Sir they’re so bright. What vitamins do you give them?)
The first times I got the question I would be startled and tongue-tied, but now I have learned to anticipate it. With as straight a face as I can muster, I tell them, “Toki toki.”
“Ay, Tiki-tiki?” they sometimes ask, thinking I mispronounced the famous and time-honored vitamin brand. Often there’s a tinge of disappointment in their voices, because Tiki-tiki is one of the lower-priced vitamin preparations. It is almost like they expected to hear some expensive or imported brand.
I explain that I’m joking about “Toki toki” and tell them the kids only seem more intelligent because they are so articulate, and that they are that way because I constantly talk with (and not just to) them. I tell them vitamins don’t boost children’s intelligence, notwithstanding some of the deceptive marketing tactics that make such claims. I remember from years back one vitamin pack showing a kid in a toga!
We overrate vitamins, attributing to it all kinds of properties that are non-existent. The most dangerous is that vitamins provide nutrition like proteins and carbohydrates. Another widespread misconception is that vitamins boost a child’s appetite. Then there’s this intelligence-enhancing expectation.
I try to explain that vitamins and minerals help to regulate many of the body’s important functions, from strengthening the immune system to having stronger bones, teeth and hair. (My mention of hair always perks up people’s attention, hair being so important in our culture. It helps when one of my daughters is around, because she really has thick hair, like the girls in shampoo ads.)
Until a few years back, I used to think vitamin preparations were a waste of money. I served in one of the Department of Health’s committees that reviewed drugs in the market and determine which ones were essential, meaning those reimbursable by PhilHealth. Among the members of the committee were venerable pharmacologists who were cynical about vitamins, insisting if you had a balanced diet you didn’t need vitamins.
Over the years though, I have come to accept that vitamins can play a role for people with hectic lifestyles, involving skipped meals or fast foods. My own needs come from being a vegetarian, more so because there are few places that offer palatable vegetable dishes so there are times, at parties or in restaurants, when I can only take a few bites for lunch or dinner.
As my parents aged, I began to see different kinds of deficiencies, anemia, for example. It’s easy to say that you can prepare foods to meet those deficiencies but you also have to deal with the elderly’s decreased sense of taste, and the moods that make them eat less. I am a firm believer in “senior” formulations, which take into consideration the very different needs of an older “silver” population, myself included.
Then the children came along, with the never-ending battles over meals, including saying no as they pull you toward one of the fast-food restaurants. I know they get their way with other relatives, especially when they have no appetite during a home meal. Dream on, I tell myself when I think of balanced meals for kids.
So yes, vitamins do help, but like I said earlier, they can’t replace good nutrition. And they don’t boost appetites or intelligence.
“Toki toki” can’t be emphasized enough especially in the Philippines, where people still think that very young children are not capable of thinking. You hear descriptions like “walang muwang,” “walang alam,” “walang malay,” all boiling down to a lack of “consciousness” or “awareness” that they presume is needed for conversations.
This problem is aggravated by the rather long period children are considered almost to be dumb and not worth engaging intellectually. Until about the age of 5, Filipino children are still referred to as a baby. (Why do you think we have so many women named Baby, all the way up to becoming Lola Baby.) We almost seem to want to keep our kids in babyhood, cute and cuddly and not much more.
Kids need to be stimulated intellectually from their first day in the world. I don’t mean reading Plato to them, or playing those Baby Einstein tapes. Infants and toddlers are constantly exploring new things, new people around them, and language provides an important bridge to help them make sense of this wild exciting world. We help when we ask them to identify, to label the world, friends, feelings. Soon they are the ones bombarding us with questions. Very soon, too, they begin to give their opinions, their insights.
What I find most fascinating about language is the role it plays on building attachments between parents and children. Even before they can talk, children are constantly trying to communicate, to respond to our verbal language. It can be vocal or it can be a reassuring silence, that the child is comfortable and secure, content with listening to your voice.
When children feel secure, they become more daring in their explorations, and that includes the use of language. So if my kids are more engaged with people, it is not because of vitamins, it is not because of my being a professor (much less a UP professor). It is because of talking. With time, you realize too that all their talking comes from a growing ability to listen.
In the occasional quiet private moments I have, I find myself missing not so much their chattering away than what goes with the talking: the way they sit with you or climb up to be carried for a storytelling or reading session, the way they hold your hands, or whisper into your ears. Walang malay? Far from it, talking emboldens them to live the present to the fullest, to meet tomorrows with a sense of adventure. So, maybe, that is a kind of intelligence, too, a variation on being smart.
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