The Language Arts of Childhood

kid art 4In nine years of working with families with small kids, the most common complaint I’ve heard is “He/She doesn’t listen to me/us.”  As a parent myself, I often screech things like “Are you listening? Did you hear me?”   I have determined that listening isn’t really the issue.  The little buggers are actually very attentive.  You see, inherent in the relationship between young children and the adults in their lives is a language barrier.  What follows is a breakdown of a couple of common parental statements and how children actually hear them.

Parent says: “I will be happy to get you a drink in just a minute.”

Child hears: “Go ahead and get yourself some dark purple grape juice.  While you’re at it, be sure to cover every surface in the kitchen with it and some other unidentifiable goo that looks a lot like poo but is hopefully just chocolate cookie.”

Parent says: “Please pick up your toys.”

Child hears: “Please throw yourself on the floor, cry and whine about how tired you are and how much your leg/tummy/elbow/pancreas hurts, and don’t worry, I’ll be happy to pick up those toys for you.”

Parent says: “Please use your indoor voice, the baby is sleeping.”

Child hears: “I don’t need any downtime ever and I especially enjoy crabby babies who haven’t had a nap, so feel free to shout at the top of your lungs and slam doors repeatedly until your baby sister wakes up.”

Parent says: “Good night baby, sleep well.”

Child hears: “Feel free to get out of your bed fifteen to twenty times in the next two hours.  Ask for a drink, to go potty, for a story, and another hug.  Tell me your tummy hurts or that you have a question you won’t be able to remember once you leave your room.  Ask me to tuck you in again even though I’m doing that right now, as we speak.  Have a tantrum when I am firm and send you back to your bed for the ninth time.  And by all means, dear, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep.”

Parent says: “Watch your mouth!”

Child hears: “Shave the dog!”

Parent says: “Sweetheart, please take that out of your mouth.”

Child hears: “Putting all of the toys in your mouth at least once is the path to nirvana.  It wouldn’t hurt if you licked as many surfaces as you can reach as I believe you’ll really like that.”

Parent says: “Don’t bother your sister please.”

Child hears: “I need you to put my watch and the whole box of Cheerios in the toilet.”

Parent says: “Please be quiet while I’m on the phone.”

Child hears: “While I’m on the phone, I would really love it if you would take that toy from your brother and then scream at the top of your lungs after he punches you in the face.  After that, as you run down the hall crying, I would like it if you would knock over the floor lamp.  And please, be sure it makes a lot of noise and is irreparably broken when it hits the ground.  Thanks so much!”

Parent says: “Please don’t jump on the couch.”

Child hears: “I bet you can’t put the cat in the fish tank.”

Parent says: “You need to stay in the shopping cart.”

Child hears: “It would fill my heart with joy if you would climb in and out of the shopping cart, knocking things off the shelf, and occasionally slamming into other shoppers, causing them to glare at me and silently judge my ability to parent you.  I’ll be disappointed if a jar of spaghetti sauce doesn’t hit the floor and splatter far and wide before we reach the checkout.  Golly gee, would that be swell.”

This list is but a snapshot of the language barrier between little kids and their adults.  I have a hunch that the communication gap widens even further as we approach adolescence.  But in the end, there is really only one statement that must be interpreted exactly as it is said…

Parent says: “I love you.”

Child hears: “I love you.”






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