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    Entries in communication (4)


    on language

    On Language -- the title of both a Julie Ruin song and a Noam Chomsky book -- was my email address for many years, beginning in, like, 1997, when my family had AOL and I was a teenager trying to figure out the world through punkrock and discussions of semantics. Language and its use (not to mention misuse) fascinate me, so the way my kids communicate is both an endless source of interest and worry of mine. Watching vocabularies develop, seeing conjugation begin to make sense, helping with the sounding-out of words, and noticing colloquialisms creep in are some of my favorite things about parenthood. I've never been concerned that my children won't be able to express themselves, given that their mother is one of the most direct people I know, but this morning while getting ready for preschool, George said he was nervous.

    "What's making you nervous?" I asked.
    "The boys make me be a bad guy, and I'm not a bad guy; I'm just George."
    "Well, do you tell them you don't want to be the bad guy?" I asked.
    "I say honk, but they don't listen!"

    Now. George has a sort of punchline to everything, and it is the word 'honk.' It ends several songs in the way that a knee slap and jazz hands might, and it also serves to express confusion (...honk?), appreciation of something amusing (*satisfied smile* honk!), and punctuate human contact (*poke* HONK!). I'm not sure when or why it started, but it's at once a funny quirk, and not exactly my favorite thing he does.

    "You can't say 'honk' and expect people to understand that you mean, 'I don't want to play like that' or 'please use gentle hands,'" I told him.
    "But mama," he said, plaintively, "if I tell them 'gentle hands' they will feel bad, so I tell them 'honk' but I say it like this, with a sad face: 'ho-onk'."

    I'd just like for you to imagine the sad, sad face of a three year old disappointed in his playmates' misunderstanding of the blow-softening "honk" meant to deter them from pretend-demonizing him. It was so unbearably cute and funny and sad, and awesome to see his understanding of social conventions developing. I understood; we've been working on saying excuse me rather than get out of my way! And I don't care for that rather than this food is yuck. I was heartened that he cared so much for his friends' feelings that he didn't want to upset them even though he felt they were kind of terrorizing him, but passivity is not something I ever expected would come out of my household.

    I gave him some useful phrases like "I don't want to play like that" and "I don't like those touches; do you want a high five instead?" and "I'd rather play on the same team" but he was skeptical. Meanwhile, his sister threw across the room the shoes I'd picked out for her and staggered over to the shoe basket, retrieving her own choice. She thrust them at me, saying firmly, "SHEES." Shoes, these? Who knows, but it certainly wasn't unclear what she wanted.

    These little people are so different: from me, but not me, and that's something I relearn on the daily. I think about my struggle to understand language -- to harness its power -- at seventeen, when Noam Chomsky and Kathleen Hanna felt like they were speaking to my very soul, and I want to do that for my kids. But I know they'll find their own versions of those angry songs and dry, plain reading. Until then, I guess there'll be a lot of honking.


    how to talk so people will listen

    We love George's school. His main teacher is an unexpected gem whose willingness is boundless and who takes pride in her work. The director is a consummate professional which, in the field of early childhood education, encompasses more qualities than I could even begin to list but includes public singing, fundraising, the fielding of complaints both valid and not-so, maintaining accreditation as an honest-to-god school, and being universally beloved by all children ages 2 to 7. There's a giant dirt pit and a lizard and blocks, and George literally has a full-blown tantrum 90 percent of the time when I come to pick him up, he so deplores the idea of returning to his normal, boring, non-school life. 

    Everything is hunky dory, there, mostly, or as close to it as you can get when a dozen or so preschoolers are invloved, and I enjoy fulfilling my obligatory parent hours by helping out in the classroom. The other day, it turned out to be lucky that I'd planned to stay because Teacher 1 was dealing with a family emergency and Teacher 2 was spring breaking in Mexico, leaving Teacher 3 to muddle through with a substitute, the two of them short a set of grown-up eyes. Perfect! I thought. And, well, it was... kind of. 

    It's jarring when you hear adults speak to kids in ways you wouldn't. Ways you find upsetting, even though the adult is clearly loved by the child they're speaking to unkindly. In my time in the classroom that day, I heard Teacher 3 tell a child to "lose the attitude" - a phrase that, in addition to being wholly unhelpful in actually modifying behavior, is, I think, too colloquial for her to even understand. I watched Teacher 3 inattentively blow a kiss to a little boy who approached her with a finger stinging from a berry bush prick, then tell him he was fine despite the tears welling in his eyes. When I offered to take him to find a band-aid, my own hand still smarting from when I'd untangled another kid from the same overgrown bush, she guiltily helped him toward the nearest first aid kit without sympathy. A little girl pushed her way through the pre-recess line up and, after being pulled aside for a chat, was told as she frantically pulled her boots on and fretted that her friends would leave without her, "If you'd been nice, you'd be outside with everyone else right now." When a child's finger found its way under the rockers of the storytime chair, Teacher 3 flat out ignored his wails and tears, saying, without looking, "you're fine." 

    Thankfully, in that case, the substitute pulled him onto her lap, dried his tears and held him, affirming that it fucking hurts when someone rocks a chair onto your fingers. 

    What struck me as I thought about all of these interactions was not how abominable they were, but how normal they were, in truth. Teacher 3's reactions and communication style wouldn't draw much criticism from most people; she may even be applauded for her non-coddling approach which would surely encourage the kids to self soothe and shake off what were, in actuality, minor injuries. But I couldn't help but think about what kind of response I'd expect from a friend if I said, "I just got stuck by a thorn! My finger is killing me!" Or, even, the inexpressable-by-preschoolers but easy-to-spot, "I stubbed my toe! Man, this whole day has been fucking TERRIBLE." What kind of friend would tell me I was just fine, and to get back to work? What kind of friend would ignore me completely? So why do we do this to kids? 

    I've been trying to decide how to proceed. If I'd like to take it up with Teacher 3 -- a young, inexperienced but enthusiastic woman with undeniably good intentions whom I do not want to bias against my son -- or with her boss. Do I want to suggest some reading material, or offer some facts about development, or suggest that the director give her some leads? Do I assume my son's love for her, which he freely states, will see past what I think is a less than stellar communication style? Do I consider this the first in what will surely be a long line of people speaking to him in ways I wish they wouldn't? 

    And, of course, my delivery matters. Because if I offer my opinion unhelpfully, it could easily come across as "lose the attitude" does to a four year old. Confusing. A nebulous affront. I'll say it straight, too: I could never be a preschool teacher long-term. My patience runs thin with only two. 

    What would you do? What resources might be helpful in reevaluating this widespread dismissive way we talk to kids? Or would you let it go? 


    quick hit: gentle discipline

    Michelle at the Parent Vortex (which you should bookmark post haste) posted this list of useful phrases for gentle discipline.

    For awhile, we've been using (with good results!) variations on this one: “You really want to _____, but you can’t do that right now. I can see how upset you are about that.”  It seems to help minimize the compounded frustration of George not getting what he wants AND thinking he's being misunderstood or his feelings ignored. 

    Happy communicating!


    I Hold It

    Welcome to the January Carnival of Natural Parenting: Learning from children

    This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared the many lessons their children have taught them. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.



    If you would've asked the pre-motherhood-me about how I'd communicate with my future children, I'd have almost certainly said that any kid of mine would be speaking in complete sentences by age one. Like I did. Like my mother loves to recount. There's a cassette tape of my first birthday that features a newly one year-old Stefanie saying things like, "I hold it!" (the microphone) and singing You Are My Sunshine, reciting the ABCs. That same me, pre-George, thought baby sign language was -- you know -- cute, but unnecessary if your hearing-capable child simply got the amount and type of attention required to teach said child to talk. HA HA. I know, I know!

    Fast forward to the first few months after giving birth, when I would've hacked my own arm off ala Aron Ralston just to extricate myself from the frustration of being unable to effectively communicate with the tiny new love of my life. Baby sign language? Hell yes, please. I opened and closed my hand during every hours-long nursing session, hoping that George would pick it up. Hoping that the next time he cried like his heart was broken, a lightbulb would appear over his little head that meant, "HEY WAIT! I can tell you what I need, and what I need is to nurse," and his fist would open and shut, the Halleluia chorus would sound and we would go out for a celebratory drink. Oh. Um, anyway.

    One day, it happened. Five months in, my screechy little grump learned how to talk. Sort of. He was nomming away and reached up to sign right under my nose: Nurse. Milk. Nom nom. In my face, as if to say, "Mama, you better not miss this." I didn't believe it. I took video and posted it on Facebook, hoping for confirmation, which came quickly from other parents, along with hearty congratulations, the likes of which only come from people who know the magic of that Baby-English Dictionary. And with that, the game changed. He told me when he was hungry, which was more often than I'd realized. More often than "they" say babies are "supposed" to eat. I could stop trying everything else before feeding; he just put that little fist to work and I complied. Happily. No -- ecstatically. A month or so later came 'all done,' then 'more.' Like Which way to the train?, Where is the bathroom? and excuse me, the all-purpose phrases of international travel, these three signs covered a multitude of situations (I am all done with this stupid diaper change; More of those sweet tunes! Get out of my face -- you aren't funny [which can be conveyed with surprising unambiguity with 'all done']). We had a different child. The ability to tell us what he wanted made him happy and proud, and our ability to understand him came as such a relief. That crabby, misunderstood little guy was replaced by the communicative George we have now, and my stock in baby sign language went through the roof.

    He began using a verbal vocabulary in what I like to consider a recreational way, because he wasn't forced to hurry up and learn to talk about his needs. Cat, dog and meow were his first words (besides Mama), and continue to be the ones he uses most frequently, almost always while pointing out an animal and grinning a grin that asks if you are getting a load of this(?!). At almost thirteen months, he is definitely nowhere near singing You Are My Sunshine or reciting his ABCs, but what I've learned from parenting my son is something that I've had to learn and relearn many times before this final (I hope) sinking in: everyone goes at their own pace, and intelligence means different things in different situations. If my six month old had been able to do what I (not so) lovingly call baby tricks -- the motions to Itsy Bitsy Spider, "SO big" (which is really freaking cute; don't get me wrong), etc., but didn't have the tools to express his most basic needs and wants, he might still have been considered "smarter" than other kids his age. But would he feel empowered, understood, validated? George won't be a Billy Collins-reading Youtube sensation anytime soon, but I know which is more important to me.  

    If you had asked that pre-kid Stefanie to prioritize feeling validated and the appearance of intelligence, I'm sorry to say that she would've had some difficulty deciding before arriving, in all likelihood, at looking smart being more important. I'm delighted to report, however, that a really, really clever baby has shown her the error of her ways.



    Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

    Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

    (This list will be live and updated by afternoon January 11 with all the carnival links.)