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What they’re really saying

April 8, 2013

Our kids talk a lot.  As in, pretty much all the time.  A lot of it is that toddler-ese, in which the child has a monologue containing very few, if any, actual words, but plenty of intonation and meaning (for them).  I love listening to those monologues and watching what they’re narrating:  cooking, assembling objects, running back and forth.

They do have a decent vocabulary, which I can decipher probably 90% of the time.  It’s flattering to hear other people comment on how well they talk, but we can’t really take credit for it–it’s not like we did anything dramatically different from our parenting peers.  We read a lot.  We used baby sign (we got Baby Signing Time DVDs from the library and watched the “cheat sheet” version–not the show meant for kids–and then used those signs with our kids).  They haven’t really had any screen time aside from the Super Bowl and a few other sporting events (and a small amount of The Sound of Music when we were really desperate).  We can’t write a how-to-develop-your-toddler’s-vocabulary book.

Words are funny things, though.  While there is a generally agreed-upon set of meanings for English words and phrases, sometimes the toddler brain is at a different processing point for reality and words.  (My friend Katy sent me this blog–Reasons My Son Is Crying–which is very, very true, and also kind of sad.)

This was the exchange at lunch today, when I entered the dining room after taking care of Audrey in the nursery, and Theresa was crying, hard:

TK:  “More pizza!  More pizza!”

Me:  “You want more pizza?  Do you want to pick or do you want me to dump?”

TK:  “Mommy dump it.”

Me:  [scoop one piece of the kind of pizza she has been devouring for fifteen minutes onto her tray]

TK:  [wailing]  “No!  No!  Nooooooooooooooo!  [beat]  More pizza!”

And on, for each successive piece of pizza until I decided that this game was over.

She also did not want her diaper changed, so I offered her what is usually only reserved for crib time: a binky.  She pushed it away.  Then wailed, “Binkyyyyyy!”  I offered the bowl of binkies; she could have her pick.  She pushed it away and wailed that she wanted one.  After several rounds of this, I left the room for a minute.  She was meanwhile sobbing hysterically.

It occured to me later, after we have snuggled and read some Mother Goose while she hiccupy-breathed against my shoulder, that I was treating her the way most of us adults treat most kids:  taking their words at face value.  For better or for worse, we often read into adults’ words, teasing out the subtext (sometimes getting it wrong, to our embarrassment).  We–or at least I–subconsciously assume that kids do not have such subtleties:  they say what they mean.

But Theresa today passed the point where her vocabulary could convey her meaning.  I think what she was trying to tell me, instead of “more pizza” or “binky,” was:  Mommy, I am so tired.  (She took a 4 hour nap.)  I am getting sick and my head feels stuffy.  And on top of that, I feel like my emotions are out of control, and that scares me.  I’m so upset that I can’t calm down.  Please help me.

I have read a bit of Janet Lansbury’s blog, which inspired me to “hear” what my babies are not saying.  What these parenting “expert” blogs often lack, however, are the reminders to be gentle with ourselves.  There’s lots of (good) advice about alternatives to losing your cool, explanations as to why losing your cool makes matters worse, etc.  I would love not to be exhausted due to sleep regression (that’s for another post), getting another cold, and temperamentally impatient.

But sometimes, as nurturing and comforting as I aspire to be, my reserves of patience run out.  I said something snappish to Theresa as I tossed the binkies into her crib with her, I don’t even remember what but it was certainly in a tone replete with displeasure.  What was I teaching her?  That losing control of her emotions is not okay?  As an adult, I lose control of my emotions too, sometimes–those days when I’m SuperGrouch and don’t even know why.  I should be more empathetic, more present, more understanding of her development.

This is where the parenting “experts” should remind us:  It’s great to have strategies and alternatives and constantly work to improve at this parenting thing.  But we are all human.  We will all lose it.  None of us are infinitely patient or understanding or empathetic.  I can’t use this imperfection as an excuse not to do better next time, but I can stop the guilt train before it takes off.

So this is for other moms too, but mostly for me, as a reminder:  I need to listen to what they’re really saying, not the words coming out of their mouths when they’re upset.  Someday they’ll complain of chronic stomachaches to avoid going to school and encountering a mean classmate or teacher.  Someday they’ll tell me they hate me when they are really wanting to assert their independence and control.  They won’t mean those things either (at least I didn’t when I told my mom).

I need to let them be who they are and experience what they’re experiencing.

And I need to let myself be who I am:  not perfect, not effortless, but striving.  Back to the Middle Way.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Frindell permalink
    April 12, 2013 9:49 pm

    My mom kept telling me that tears and tiffs and struggles with growing kids were all part of the “plan.” Her favorite axiom was:
    If at first you don’t succeed, you’re running about average. More than one pediatrician i answered phones and filed for subscribed to “if at first you don’t succeed, you’re running about average. . . .

  2. Neal & BJ permalink
    April 9, 2013 4:38 pm

    Awesome writing! Another entry for the book – hopefully – that you’re going to write one of these days. Wonderful pics! Love to all!

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