Words, Words, Words
being an essay on parents, children, and powerful words
One of a child's best tools is to learn to ask "What's that?" It's one of a baby's keys to knowledge. "Sa-sat?" said one of my kids. Hundreds of times, pointing. "Sa-sat?" Another said, "Aht-dat?"
With names for things, categories form. Some small furry animals ARE "dog" and others are not. "Not" needs another name.
On naming, a researcher named J. Doug McGlothlin wrote, "A child possesses a natural desire to call an object by its name, and he uses that natural desire to help him learn the language. He receives real joy from just pointing out something and calling it by name. He never thinks it is stupid or silly to say something that others might consider obvious. For him, it is delightful. When Colin learned the words for star and moon, he would point them out to us at every opportunity. He could not play with them or eat them, but he loved to call them by name."
Is naming a game or is it the most profound learning of all? It's both!
One day when Kirby was a toddler, his dad said carefully and clearly, "Kirby, close the cabinet." Kirby gazed back with no understanding. Keith tried again sweetly: "Close the cabinet!" Nothing. I saw the impasse, and said quickly, "Kirby, shut the door." He lit up with recognition and SLAM, it was done.
That day, I decided to try to use more than one word when I communicated with my kids. I knew that in England, after the Norman conquest, simple legal matters had been be stated in English and French both, and some of those phrases still exist, like "will and testament," "aid and abet," "give and bequeath," and "null and void." So for the sake of my children understanding both my child-of-Texans self AND my child-of-Bostonians husband (Boston and Michigan and Canada, but NOT Texas), I began to paraphrase. "Kirby, can you hand me that blue cup? The plastic mug that's on the counter?" Or "Let's go to the park, okay? We'll walk down to the swings and picnic tables."
I didn't realize how much I was doing it, and how naturally, until I started doing it in adult conversations. So I backed off, because by then my youngest was five anyway.
When these bigger, stronger kids were playing with balls, bicycles, ramps, puzzles, building sets, tools, trees, ropes, their own gymnastic abilities, there wasn't so much to talk about. "What's that?" wasn't their first question, but "Can I go try?"
In reviews or analysis of those projects, new words certainly came up. The great thing was we were naming things they had already mastered or begun to understand, in discussing why something worked well, or didn't, or why a ball thrown fast against the wall could come back and hit you really hard. And so we came to words about physics, and force, and vectors, pulleys, gears, and materials. Anatomy lessons came free with sprains, scrapes and bruises. Biology just bubbled up when stickers or insects or rusty nails punctured skin. In the course of answering questions and trying to explain what went wrong or what might work better, we used new words. Science lessons for their own sake, or vocabulary lists, would have done little good (and some harm) but naming what they had already done, felt, tried and accomplished was just a bigger-kid's "What's that?"
As they got older, and war games, movies about history, and international celebrities came over their intellectual horizon, so did trivia about the borders of countries. What's with Tibet? Taiwan? When did Italy and France settle into their current borders? Why does Monaco have royalty? The Vatican really has cash machines in Latin? What's the difference between UK and Great Britain? Is Mexico in north or central America? Were Americans REALLY that afraid of and ignorant about the Soviet Union in the 60's? In answering those questions, the terms and trivia of history, geography, philosophy, religion and political science come out. The words are immediately useful, and tied to ideas and pictures and knowledge the child has already absorbed, awaiting just the name, or the definitions, or the categories.
"Grasp the subject, the words will follow," said Cato the Elder (234 AD - 149 BC), who wouldn't have been able to use the cash machines at the Vatican even though Latin was his native language. My kids could show him by gestures how to use the terminal, though, while he read the choices, if he showed up today with an ATM card.
The tests homeschoolers sometimes worry about are given in words: GED, ACT, SAT—all vocabulary. Even the math section is done largely in words. So realizing that words are the everyday tools we use to discuss swordmaking and sourdough starter and torque wrenches, our quickest path to a rich vocabulary and all the concepts that go with that might be to discuss history, make bread and fix our cars with our children.
I'm happy to know I'm not the sole source of information for my kids. Last night I came to use my computer and there was a dialog on the desktop, a leftover instant message between my thirteen-year-old son Marty and an older homeschooler. This was the entirety of that dialog:
Now I will never have to explain to Marty that Canada has a prime minister. I don't know why he cared, on a Friday night in New Mexico, but it doesn't matter.
The playground of words is humor. I don't discourage my children from Monty Python, George Carlin, Weird Al Yankovic, and other linguistic athletes of that ilk. Laughter and commentary about people doing circus tricks with words is a world above and beyond vocabulary lists. I do recall, though, my friends and I made even vocabulary lists fun when I was in school by trying to put all the words in one or two sentences, or by using the words as words, like "The word 'obfuscate' is rarely used," or "'Discrete' is a homonym of 'discreet'," without any hint we knew how to use the words in context (which we usually did).
One of those schoolfriends from that same English class is one of the best dads I know. His name is Frank Aon, and he lives in Santa Fe. I was asking him one day about having young children when many of our friends are grandparents. Frank waited even longer than I did to have children. He said, "I wanted to wait until I felt [I was] safe to have kids—to be a father with presence, mindful in word and action. I get to watch them change from being tiny little beings to adults, if I survive and if they survive, so each moment of interaction is precious."
"Mindful in word," he had said, which reminds me that words have the liberating power to bring order to the universe, but they also have the power to harm, to limit and to sadden. So be careful with words. Use the good ones, the happy ones. Play safely out there!
Now I will document the name of this little word-frolic. It is from a sort of instant message between Hamlet and Polonius, who might have been his father-in-law if things had gone differently:
Mel Gibson did that scene on Sesame Street a few years ago, with Elmo. My kids got the joke, which was proof they knew something of Shakespeare. One of the greatest benefits of knowledge is that one gets jokes.
And so having already quoted a Roman historian and William Shakespeare, let me close with a Greek wordsmith who loaned his name to a Simpsons character:
when Kirby was 16, Marty was 13, and Holly was 11.