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The Vortex of Language

I. Asserting

After just having read in a parenting book that it’s not fair to use the inclusive “we” regarding tasks only Henri is being asked to perform (e.g. going to bed at 7:30), Henri has taken the initiative himself to begin to make this distinction.  “Not you, mom-mom,” he says in response to my promise of swinging after “we” go potty.  “You’re not going to swing!”  He manages to load nearly all of his toddler angst on the word you’re.

“No, but I’ll push you.  We can potty first, and then go play.”

“Not YOU! – You don’t play!”

It’s true; I don’t really like to play.  Maybe this is how I assert my independence.  I’m not a kid; I’m a mom.  I don’t swing or sail down slides.  I sit.  I watch.  I journal.  Of course, there are moms that play – and they’re damn good at it.  I’m just not one of them.

Until recently, this pact of ours was unspoken.  I never told Henri I wasn’t going to be his playmate at the park; I simply never set up that expectation.  He’s right; “we” are not playing.  “We” never do.  Now, he must say it out loud.  These days, he says practically everything out loud.  He hasn’t yet reached the stage of internal dialoguing when one’s own thoughts take precedence over incessant babbling.  Thus, he narrates our life—no matter how mundane or repetitive—in order to process our life.    But correcting my pronouns comes across more like his own assertion of independence.

“We’re driving in the car.  We’re behind that Big Truck.  We’re not going home! We’re going to the park.”  And later—“We went to the park.  I played and mom-mom went running.  Not you; you didn’t play.  A Big Tractor was at the park.  He goes vroom.  Are we not going home mom-mom?”  Note that he {mostly} uses pronouns correctly.

II. Thinking

Toddlers are concrete thinkers, and egocentric speakers.  To them, language serves one purpose: to express whatever they’re thinking.  We are the ones who teach them that language is powerful and malleable.  Saying “please” and “thank-you” is the only way you’ll get that cup, we teach them.  If you ask a question, you’re more likely to get a response, we reiterate daily.  When these admonitions collide with Henri’s ego, a tantrum ensues.

Maybe that’s why parenting experts have recently condemned the phrase, “Use Your Words, Please!”  Whining or frustrated crying doesn’t have much to do with speaking ability, but with the level of processing required to think one thing and say another.  Later, his friends will teach him how to reconcile this conflict.  Just tell them “okay,” and then say whatever you’re really feeling under your breath as you walk away. Yet another facet of the power of language—withholding truth, to please others.

I’m uncomfortable with this underbelly of language, the murkiness where weapons get lost and shadows follow you around.  Yet, I’m also uncomfortable meeting the demands of a 2-year-old who says exactly what he’s thinking with no consideration of practical limitations.

“I want my brown blankie.”  “I want to watch George.”  “I want fruit snacks.”  “I want to go swimming.”  “I don’t want to eat supper.”  “I don’t want to go potty.”  “I don’t want to go night-night.”  “I want to PLAY.”

I know, buddy.  And I’m listening.  But life just doesn’t work that way. That’s what I want to say, instead of “Can you please ask a question?” or “Do you have a growing-up-voice you could use?”, because language is not the issue here.  Reality has all the power.

III. Listening

In her book, The Mother Dance, Harriet Lerner defines listening as “the art of being fully emotionally present without judgment or distraction.” To demonstrate the concept, she contrasts the typical dialogue between a parent and their child—which she labels “talk-wait-talk”—with a more meaningful way to communicate: Talk-listen-talk.    “Surely, human consciousness would take a big leap forward,” she says, “if our wish to hear and understand our children were as great as our wish to be heard and understand ourselves” (130).

Language is my form of play—from thinking and writing to probing and processing—so I’d much rather sit down next to Henri and discuss the futility in pressing against the boundaries of reality.  Time. Space. Money. Health.  Having a very small bladder.  These aren’t things a good debate can change, usually.  Maybe he would then point out to me that people have and will continue to challenge norms, both structural and societal, personal and political.  Even though parenting gurus advise against it, I do believe in teaching your child the right way to speak their minds—with careful  and logical language—and with the intention to listen when someone wants to say something back.

“The best arguments refute their opposition,” I try to convince my Comp I students, “and refuting dictates that you first acknowledge your opponent is actually saying something.”  This isn’t to say that there aren’t successful people who talk more than they listen, but listening is the one absolute of language, which makes it the most powerful.  We listen to ourselves.  We listen to others—experts, our parents, teachers, friends.  We can choose when to listen, but not whether to listen.  We can stubbornly listen instead of actively listening.  But we are always listening.

But what if your opposition is a 2-year-old who’s sleepy, hungry and completely insane?  Beth A. Grosshans, author of Beyond Time-Out—the same book that {rightly} advised against using plural pronouns for singular activities—offers a practical tip.  She instructs that “whispering is extremely effective in prompting someone to want to hear what you are saying.”  Your child, even when screaming or crying, will “be able to hear you…[to] focus in on your whisper.”  She even argues that a child who refuses to look at you or acknowledge they’ve heard you is still listening, still taking in every single word you’ve said.  The key is a parent’s “tone and calm demeanor,” which let the child know “that his big loud demonstration of protest simply doesn’t have any real impact or power over you” (118).  Later, these same children will repeat word for the word the most recent unkind thing you’ve said, or will parrot your curse words at the most inconvenient times.  Yes, they remind you, though not exactly when you want them to, we are listening.

IV. Processing

The responsibility of absorbing everything around you, deciding how it makes you feel, and then voicing that feeling using a lexicon you are unfamiliar with would be daunting, if you stopped living long enough to reflect on that.  Luckily, toddlers—even verbal gurus like my son—don’t have the cognitive functioning to overanalyze themselves, much less the world around them.  Still, becoming your own person takes strength.  Growth is exhausting.

Outside of sleeping nearly 12 hours in a 24-hour-period, Henri survives this arduous task by spending long periods of intense concentration independently, also known as playing by himself, and inflicting verbal attacks or commands on those closest to him, better known as being in his “terrible 2’s.”  Each activity fuels the other.  I often overhear him working out difficult situations while playing a seemingly innocent game of cars and trucks.  “Are you going?” says the blue race car to the tow truck.  “Oh, I’m just going to work right now,” replies the tow truck, in the sweetest high-pitched voice a mother has ever heard.  Occasionally, these two parts of his expanding brain unite to create a suddenly more impulsive, yet understanding and articulate “growing-up” boy, like when he forcefully reminds me that I don’t play.

Too often, I demand or expect action of Henri without paying attention to what’s undulating through his oceanic protests.  I rarely acknowledge that, in a very concrete way, he is actually smarter than I am.  I also don’t spend a lot of time figuring out what I’m really trying to say.  Even during a summer of doing nothing, there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to just sit down and process what’s being said.  But if I’m not listening to myself, how can I be expected to listen to others?

Lerner also said, “Our kids are the major benefactors of the work we do on our own selves” (149).  This is the reason I read parenting books.  I know there’s not a magic formula that will make two very strong-willed people like my son and me get along perfectly every single day.  In fact, that’d probably be quite boring.  However, that doesn’t mean I can’t keep improving.  Hell, I thought using a word like “we,” would instill camaraderie: we’re in this together; I’m right here with you, kid.  But that isn’t true—not literally—and not from a toddler’s point of view.  Instead of feeling like we’ll never agree on anything, understanding this makes it easier to “hear” my son.  Being able to adjust my language, to both say what I mean and what he expects to hear, gets him that much closer to actually hearing me.

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llxtm About llxtm

LLXTM is the Head Dreamer of this publication and various other projects, including Needle-Movers.com, The Perpetual You, and Ladymade. She has no spare time and yet eeks out moments to spend with her two {human} boys and two {puppy} boys. She can’t wait for spring, aka Covid Gardening, Part II. Follow her @wordsbyleelee on Instagram, or find her on her front porch in Hamden, CT.

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