Tuesday, July 03, 2007

“Use your words.”

You may have heard caregivers, parents, or teachers patiently offer this advice to the stomping toddler whose toy has just been stolen or who's beet red, fists balled up in a yet undefined rage.

Far be it from me to point out the limitations of language as a creative tool of communication, but I'm beginning to question the “use your words” approach in certain instances.

The truth is, I started to pitch this line myself (limited resources and brainpower, just like our kids, we absorb what we hear). It does seem mostly appropriate at those times, for example, when Isaac has jumped straight to whine without asking outright for what he wants, assuming parental resistance and digging in with impatient demands.

But the other day, I caught myself saying the “words” deal when my obviously overtired baby reached up for me, ignoring my request that he pick out a book. What a stupid thing of me to say. First of all, Isaac only has just so many words, and most of those sound strikingly similar. What did I think he was going to say? His message was crystal clear: “Rock me the hell to sleep, Mom.”

I stopped myself in the very moment and began to wonder what message we might be leaving with children on this point. Are we teaching them that nuance or body language is unimportant or not worthy of our attention? Listening demands something of the listener and should be done with more than the ears. It is not the passive skill it is sometimes billed as .(Nor is reading the passive opposite of writing and the idea that it is contributes to students and citizens without the ability to predict or read critically.)

I witnessed and studied many exchanges as a grad student and teacher of ESL where the breakdown in communication had much less to do with the language ability of the non-native speaker and much more to do with attitudes of the person they were speaking to – someone who assumed no responsibility for the success of the interaction, deciding even before they began that their partner's accent was too unfamiliar or their English too “broken.”

Words are a ridiculously small part of how we move in and understand the world. I'd hate to give my boy only letters in his life portfolio.

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