Thursday, December 23, 2010

Language and Love

            “I want to watch Dora, Daddy!”
            I looked at my daughter and shook my head. This was starting to become a regular occurrence, and I didn’t like it. Not that I am particularly against Celia watching her favorite cartoon. In fact, I use the show among others as an opportunity to teach her Spanish, by switching the audio option on the DVD menu. But it was starting to become a bit of a bad habit – all this insisting to watch stuff rather than play.
            Celia insisted more loudly, “I want Dora!”
            “How about you play with the puzzles over there?” I asked.
            “No! Dora!”
            “How about we go outside and play in the snow?”
            “No! I want Dora!” She was beginning to pout.
            “How about we not watch Dora?” I schemed to myself that no two-year old was any match for the double-negative.
            “No!” Celia shocked me with her unbelievably apt answer.
            In the end, I did manage to divert her. I pulled the old “nibble on the elbow” routine, which can turn any frowny-face into smiles. But the exchange got me thinking about a couple of things. First, the concern I have that my daughter is going to turn into some sort of slothful mind-drivel creature who’s glued to the screen (like the rest of us?). But second, and directly opposed to the first thought, I was completely awestruck that she could come up with such amazing deductions as understanding how to counter-attack the double-negative.
            That is, she knew that she wanted not to not watch Dora. Wow. Two years old.
            Watching Celia’s language develop is one of the most downright delightful experiences I’ve had as a father. At one point I got to wondering if she’s going to be some utterly brilliant Nobel Prize-winning genius, because she can talk better than some four-year-olds I’ve met. I mentioned this to some folks in their sixties, and they just smiled, patted me on the arm, and began to tell all sorts of stories. Some of the kids they’d seen grow up hadn’t developed much language till five or even six, but turned out to be wonderfully eloquent communicators as adults.
            When I heard the stories it definitely deflated my fatherly pride. If all kids turn out well in the end, what does it matter? But then I was quickly reminded of one of the most important aspects of my daughter’s language development – the benefit to her parents.
            Celia can explain what she wants, what happened in her day, and how she’s feeling. This makes a huge difference when she’s throwing up in the middle of the night, or when we’re trying to piece together why she’s cranky at the end of a long day.
            I’ve seen three-year-olds who are obviously having a bad day, and the lack of language they have to explain themselves doubles the frustration on their faces. I can imagine. A year older than my daughter in their actual maturity, but scant words to describe what’s going on – that must be frustrating indeed.
            Girls do develop quicker than boys, but I also attribute my daughter’s young language skills to some of our parenting decisions. I may be wrong here, but I have a feeling that a few of our practices helped spur the language on at a very young age.
            First, we gave her a lot of spoken attention, even as a baby. None of this “Goo-goo” slush, we spoke to her in complete sentences, and with big words. I know my daughter probably didn’t immediately understand words like “consequences”, but after a few dozen uses, knowing that I’m showing her the outcome of her actions, she’s like any young sponge, she picks it up.
            Another thing that’s most certainly helped is all the reading we do with our kids. Celia has had stories before bed nearly every day of her life, and sometimes hours of reading sessions during the day as well. Books are great, because they show lots of visuals of things we don’t come across in our normal day, and it gives our kids training in numbers and letters.
            But the most important thing that’s helped Celia’s language development, I’m most certain, is that we give our kids a positive environment with lots of affection. Positive attention and affirmation works magically to build a child’s self-esteem, and knowing they’re in a safe environment gives them tremendous initiative to explore and learn about everything around them.
            At the end of the day, that’s the most a parent can really offer. We all bring different parenting styles and gifts to the table. Maybe not everybody loves books the way Michelle and I do. But at the very least, everybody, and I mean everybody, has the ability to withhold their sharp tongues and shower their kids in hugs and I-love-you’s.
            That’s the most important thing any parent can do.

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