THE BLOG
09/30/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Taller, Faster, Stronger: Little Boys Love Hierarchies

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Last night my wife, Caroline, had to fight her way out of the boys' room. She'd sung them their songs, given them their three hugs, but still, the questions came.

"Can ice break metal?" Wally, 3, asked.

"What if the ice is really thick?" Jay, 5, followed up.

Caroline closed the door and left them to puzzle out these mysteries on their own.

For a while now, the boys have had hierarchies on their minds: faster, stronger, taller, sharper. They're trying to order the world within the very most important categories they can think of.

This summer, that meant horsepower. "What has more horsepower, a dinghy or a sailboat?" Jay asked me more than once. Wally, who got the form of the conversation more than the substance, developed a perfect unwitting parody of his older brother. "What has more horsepower, a dinghy or a motorcycle?" he'd ask, tilting his head quizzically to the side, and throwing up his palms in perfect "on the one hand, on the other" fashion.

Eventually, we established that broad generalizations don't work well with something like horsepower, so we got down to the details. Papa's motorboat had 115 horsepower. His sailboat had 2.5 horsepower. His dinghy had 6 horsepower. None, Jay was sure, were faster than Opa's boat, which we we all remembered as having 215 horsepower. Later, in August, we boarded Opa-boat and learned it actually only had 190 horsepower. Jay's disappointment was palpable.

All summer, the boys operated under the assumption that more horsepower meant more speed. Then we boarded a car ferry, which seemed powerful, but not swift. I told Wally I couldn't even begin to guess how many horsepower it had. A few days later, we were licking ice cream cones on the docks when we met an old salt who seemed sure to know the answer to our question. "You know how many horsepower that boat has?" I asked casually, gesturing to the docked ferry with my cookies 'n cream.

He thought on it for a second, then said, "2,000." Jay's eyes went as wide as a lobster pot.

Since returning home the boys have had other hierarchies on their minds. They want to know how fast I can run and how that compares to how fast Opa can run, and Laurie can run, and how fast the fastest person in the world can run.

Recently, we spent the entire eight-minute drive to pick up Caroline talking about how tall giants are. Are they taller than a car, or a house, or a tree, or a skyscraper? My head was about to split when Wally saved the day. "But giants aren't real, right?" he said. "Right," I said.

Nothing makes for a good hierarchy like predators. The boys intuit that taller, faster, stronger -- it's all window-dressing if another animal can eat you. Last summer we were at the aquarium in Charleston, watching a presentation on owls. The guide asked the kids, "What's the number one threat to owls?" and Jay's hand shot up. "Cheetahs," he exclaimed, as surely as he knows his own name. (The actual answer was automobiles.)

We've established that on land, nothing can really touch a lion, and in the sea, Great Whites rule. Then last night, before all the questions about ice and metal, we were reading a book about dinosaurs. A page on "marine reptiles" included a section on the fearsome Mosasaurs, a "giant swimming lizard" that could be up to 56-feet long (yes that's longer than our car, maybe it's about as long as our house).

I was reading along without thinking too much about the words, when I came to the line, "They ate just about anything, from ammonites to sharks to plesiosaurs."

Both boys gasped. "Sharks?! They could eat sharks?!"

And that's the danger of hierarchies, I didn't tell them. Just when you think you know something, everything changes.

This post originally appeared on Growing Sideways.

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