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Saturday
Apr232011

Subject to Interpretation: Why You Can Understand What the Heck Your Kid is Saying but Nobody Else Can

It's something you just don't get until you have kids of your own. How in the hell do parents understand what their kids are saying, because it all sounds like mumbled, garbled gibberish to you? You try to talk to your two-year-old niece and she speaks so softly, and quickly, that you need a degree in toddler-ese to keep up. She talks and you nod your head as if you understand, but you haven't a clue as to what the heck she's talking about, only to find out that you promised to come to her tea party a week from Thursday. She talks, you listen, but there is an apparent language barrier that you can't overcome. Hell, even Noam Chompsky himself couldn't help you figure out the complex chatter of this child, but somehow her parents hear every word; like it's crystal clear. You play along, as best you can, until you get so lost in the conversation that you finally have to ask: "what did she say?" "She says you're not listening carefully enough," says your brother. And it's a fair assessment, because it's not your kid, and it's not critical for you to comprehend her. But, if you're her parent, it is. If you're the one responsible for her needs it is.

"Use your words," parents say to their kids. "Use your words" so you don't have to scream it, wail it or whine it anymore. You don't have to enunciate and you don't have to string more than two or three words together, but use your words. Use your words so you can tell me if you're hungry, or sick, or in pain, or simply amazed by something new. It's what separates us from the animals... So use your words. They don't have to even be actual words. They can be cute words that Mommy made up, or short forms of real words you can't pronounce, or words with dropped letters that you can't fully say yet but are close enough to be discernible. Use YOUR words parents will say... YOUR WORDS... As made up or ridiculous as they may be.

Hence why you haven't a clue as to what your niece is saying; why you don't follow along when your friend's kids ask you to play; and why you look stupid every time you get conned into tea time. You're not supposed to get it. It's not your language. You're not meant to be down with the lingo. It's syllabic shorthand you're hearing- between the individual parent and child- not comprehensive communication. If you don't have the secret decoder ring, it's not your fault: you're just not a member of the club. You're not an immediate care-giver, so your understanding is not of the utmost importance.

But, that's not to say that parents always get it either. It took me a week to clue in to why my daughter kept saying "Dee-Dee." It wasn't until my wife clued me in that her friend taught our daughter to refer to herself by her initials (D.D.) that I finally realized she was actually answering me when I was trying to ask her where "Dylan" was. I didn't know? But everything in context, I guess.

So, no, you're not supposed to understand what the hell your friend's kids are saying, and your nieces and nephews only really care that you understand their succinct birthday present requests. It's not embarrassing to admit that you need an interpreter to talk to someone else's kids, and no one should feel embarrassed to ask you to interpret your own kids for them. After all, who would have understood Mush Mouth had it not been for Fat Albert?

Only his mother, I guess. Only his mother.

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