From The Mouths Of Babes

“The box says you can’t eat them if the seal is broken. So I’m looking for the seal.” That’s the word from one little guy as he carefully sorts through the contents of his animal crackers. So funny, so dear, and such a clear window into his ability to make sense (or nonsense) of his world.

It’s just this kind of childish response that delights even the toughest curmudgeons among us and truth be told, I’m one of the biggest fans of kid crazy-talk. I could listen to it all day. The stories and phrases of young children often give us a laugh and sometimes make us shake our heads at the wisdom and down-to-earth practicality that seems to come forth so effortlessly.

For example, when an 8-year-old girl was asked about her ideas on what makes a good marriage, she replied, “One of you should be able to write a check. Because even if you have tons of love, there’s still going to be a lot of bills.” Ain’t that the truth.

Why do they talk his way? And why do we seem to lose the whimsical, insightful approach to our words as we age?

To begin with, language development is an ongoing process, and a child’s ability to think and make sense of things develops very gradually as her brain grows and her experiences with people, places and things multiply.

But it doesn’t happen all at once and since young children’s experiences in the world are extremely limited they have very little to draw on as they try to communicate with the big folks. Plus, their vocabularies are very, very small for many years. And it’s not until they are in their teens and beyond that they have a firm grasp on the subtleties of language.

Occasionally, the wee folk misunderstand or misinterpret what we say to them. We throw out a phrase, thinking that it is simple and obvious but they hear something completely different.

“Don’t try to kid me Mommy, I know these are my feet,” a 3-year-old replied to his mom when she told him his shoes were on the wrong feet.

Sometimes they seem so smart and capable, that we assume they are right there on the same page with us. So we explain a situation or try to prepare them for an upcoming experience and don’t stop to consider that they are taking us literally. We forget just how complex our language really is and fail to appreciate how confusing much of what they hear is to them.

When one 6-year-old ran to answer a phone call from his father he gasped “Hello?” into the receiver. His dad said, “Hi Nick. You sound out of breath!” Nick answered back, “No Dad, I have more.” Cute and funny, but a perfect example of the literal interpretation that little boy was giving to his daddy’s words.

Until they are around 11 or 12, they are concrete thinkers and they take the words you use with them at face value. They cannot yet think in an abstract way. Sometimes the results of this are funny and adorable but to them, hey, it is what it is.

Given that, it starts to make sense that another child asked, “How do you put makeup on your mind?” after being told to make up her mind. Many a child has been unfairly punished for being a “smart mouth” when they came out with a response like this. But can you stop for a moment and try to imagine just how out-there we adults must sound to them sometimes?

Another problem that can get in the way is that they often understand that a word has one particular meaning but don’t know that it can be used in other ways, too. Here’s a good example: “Mommy, you told me it would be a shot, but it was a needle,” a little boy was overheard telling his mother in the hospital.

And I love the story about the young boy whose dad was reading Bible stories to him. After the father read the words, “The man named Lot was warned to take his wife and flee from the city, but his wife looked back and was turned to salt.” The wide-eyed child had one concern: “But Dad, what happened to the flea?”

Although they are concrete thinkers, they also have extremely active imaginations and do not clearly and consistently distinguish between fantasy and reality until sometime before five.

So they are busy, busy, busy playing in a serious way that they are doing one thing or another, and sometimes get caught up in the game or fantasy. When a father asked his daughter what she was doing as she pounded away at the typewriter she replied, “Writing a story.” “What’s it about?’ he asked. “How do I know?” she answered, ” I can’t read.”

I loved those years when my children were entertaining me on a daily basis with their funny thoughts and words. And I found that they loved to take a lighthearted look at how words can get mixed up, too.

Some of our favorite children’s books to read out loud were from the Amelia Bedelia series by Peggy Parrish. If you haven’t seen these treasures yet, waste no time in running to the library or the bookstore and snagging a few.

Amelia is a housekeeper who works for the Rogers family. In a great twist that early readers love, it is Amelia, rather than the kids, who is always getting things mixed up – like the time when they were all going camping and Mr. Rogers tells Ameleia it’s time to hit the road.

Amelia, being Amelia, picks up a stick and begins to beat the ground with it. Children in kindergarten and beyond eat this stuff up! And they love to be the one to read it out loud to you, too.

As parents, we get front row seats as our little ones slowly meander towards our way of talking and thinking. But the silly stories and mixed-up logic doesn’t last. Write those amazing one-liners down before they slip away into your own unconscious forever.

I know you think you will never forget them but believe me, you will. This golden time goes by really fast!

And while you’re at it, have some fun with them by playing with words and introducing puns. It’s a great way to help them develop their sense of humor, which will allow them to enjoy life more and help them deal with the ongoing ups and downs of life. Get them to make up silly songs and tape record them for posterity. Years later you will all enjoy watching and listening to these masterpieces.

*All the children’s quotes in this article are from Things People Said: Kid Quotes

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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