“Little Pitchers Have Big Ears”: The Intricate World of Children and Proverbs

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Wolfgang Mieder


The titular proverb from the 16th century, not particularly current these days, used to be employed by parents to signal each other that their little children (pitchers) were listening in on something that was not meant for their ears (handles on the pitchers). The assumption was that children could not possibly understand this metaphorical message and, judging by some experiments I have conducted with youngsters as well as my university students, it is indeed a proverb whose hidden meaning is difficult to comprehend. But the proverb also implies that the children are good and keen listeners to what adults are saying, and sooner or later they will catch on at decoding the metaphors of proverbs whose imagery is less obscure. This begs the question at what age children become comfortable in processing proverbs in their mind, whether it is worthwhile to teach them some of the most popular proverbs, and what educational tools exist in addition to normal discourse to aid in this developmental process. Once children are introduced to metaphorical proverbs that relate to their very existence, their interest in dealing with this type of indirect language is awakened. There is no doubt that children can handle proverbs at an earlier age than has long been thought possible, but much more study needs to be undertaken on how children employ proverbs once they have become part of their natural vocabulary.


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