WASHINGTON — My friend Margaret Baxter recently took in an exchange student from Germany. The arrival of this exotic visitor enthralled Margaret's children, particularly the littlest, Caroline. Caroline is 5.
Early the next morning, Caroline bounded into the young woman's bedroom and woke her with an urgent question:
"Do they have dogs on your planet?"
Hearing about this filled me with sweet nostalgia. Remember when kids said the darndest things? No more. It's been a long time since children's unscripted, unaffected, naive, eccentric, blurt-the-truth adorableness was a staple of books and TV. We're left today with the smug "I like turtles" zombie-boy whose brief Internet fame delivered only snotty, ironic detachment. Last October, a fourth-grader promisingly asked President Obama why people hated him, only to follow it up with a tedious disquisition on the need for God's love in a hostile world.
Don't get me wrong, young parents of today! I love your kids! They are more sophisticated and knowledgeable than kids ever were. They're just not as cute.
There's simply too much information out there, available on multiple platforms and troweled into children's brains almost from birth. I trace the beginning of this to as far back as when my kids were small and Sesame Street turned everything — even fun — into an academic lesson. Cautionary tales abounded. Children became little scolds and know-it-alls.
Once when my daughter was 3, we stopped at a convenience store, where I bought a box o' juice for her and a large cherry Slurpee for me. As I pulled out of the parking space, sucking on the straw, a squeaky, self-righteous voice came from the back seat: "Drink, drive, die!"
But hearing Caroline Baxter's question to the exchange student filled me with hope. Could it be that children's spontaneity and imagination are returning? I decided to go out to a shopping center and question children the way Art Linkletter used to on TV in the 1950s and 1960s. There's plenty of Linkletter video around: In one, he asks a little girl what would be the first thing she'd do if she were president. She says: "The husbands would have to kiss their wives a hundred times."
In the shopping center, I tried the same question on a 7-year-old named Alyssa. As her mom beamed approvingly, Alyssa said, "I would say no fighting in wars, and all the children would have food." I stopped her before she could add that she'd also lobby for the acceptance of the Kyoto Protocol.
When Linkletter asked a 5-year-old boy what germs looked like, he said, "like people but smaller." When I asked, a 6-year-old named Tadeus showed me what a germ looked like by drawing it. It looked exactly like a protozoan. It even had a nucleus.
When Linkletter asked a little boy to define a politician, the boy puzzlingly said, "It's something flat, like an alligator." This brought down the house. A little girl named Olivia told me a politician was "a person on TV." When her mom pressed her for more information, she said, "Hillary Rodham Clinton." Yes, she said "Rodham."
I came back to the house depressed. I decided that we don't have children anymore; we have little adults.
But at least there's sweet Caroline. Right?
I got in touch with Margaret and asked her to ask Caroline a question, the toughest one I could think of: "What is the meaning of life?"
Caroline knew that one. She answered right away.
Okay, not just little adults. Little existentialist adults.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chat with him online at noon Jan. 26 at www. washingtonpost.com.