Do you ever stop and really hear the words coming out of your mouth and just cringe? I don’t mean the common, everyday phrases like, “Don’t throw your sister,” or “Please stop chewing on the cat,” or even “Take the elephant out of your ear, please.”
Although the afore mentioned might give us a moment of pause (i.e. Did I really just use those words in the same sentence?), the words I’m referring to are those vague, unthinking, and downright confusing words we expect small people to process, understand, and obey…
Small people who are still at the beginning of the language learning curve.
Small people who are just figuring out how to articulate their own thoughts and feelings.
Small people who are at our mercy if they don’t respond to our satisfaction.
Case in point:
A few months ago my then-five-year-old was dawdling and fiddling with…well, pretty much everything when I was trying to herd everybody into the van and head for an appointment.
I said, “Stop! Go!”
My little funnyface, being as precocious as she is witty, stopped stock-still, grinned, and raised her eyebrows, her eyes dancing in anticipation as she waited for me to hear it.
And then I did.
And grinned back and filled in the blanks, “Please stop fiddling with things, and please go to the van.”
But what if I hadn’t stopped to think? What if I’d expected instant obedience? What if her still-limited grasp of all the ins and outs of human communication had prevented her from being able to quickly fill in all of the blanks I’d left?
In many authoritarian households, my sweet girl would have been the one to suffer for the adult’s lack of clarity. With her limited ability to articulate her confusion, which would have been further inhibited if she’d been faced with a large, angry adult who may have been moving threateningly in her direction, she may well have been physically harmed in the name of ‘discipline.’ (Note: discipline and punishment are not the same, but society tends to use the words interchangeably, unfortunately)
And what of the other euphemisms and idioms and colloquialisms adults throw around like confetti on their own parenting parades? What must a small child think when the person they love deeply and depend on absolutely says, “You’re killing me!” or “You’re driving me up the wall!” or “I’m going to tear my hair out!”
Mommy can die? I can make cars can go up walls? Pulling hair hurts. Why would mommy hurt herself? Am I really that powerful? And dangerous? I must be really bad.
Of course, that’s not even addressing the “I’m going to tear you up!” and “Don’t make me spank you!” and “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” crowd.
I can be torn up? Like trash? Am I trash? If I’m responsible for making you hit me, then are other people responsible if I hit them? I’m crying because I’m hurt and scared, that’s not enough? I must not be worth much.
The point is this: Language is powerful and complex. The words we use often have multiple meanings layered one on top of the other. And the words we don’t use, the blanks we leave for others to fill in, carry many levels and possibilities of meaning.
Adults misunderstand one another on a regular basis, project their own experiences and perceptions into other’s words, and make assumptions based on anything from an eyebrow twitch to a slight quirk of the lips. How can we possibly expect little human beings who have just embarked on their journey in this new world with its nuanced language and often distracted and impatient adults to be able to instantly decode, process, and respond appropriately to our amorphous commands?
How much better, how much more effective, how much just flat out kinder would it be if we were the ones to listen, to pay attention, to slow down and get down and choose our words wisely, carefully, and compassionately?
Isn’t communicating with these precious little sojourners in our homes for such a brief season of our lives worth the effort?