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Certanties and The Lack Thereof

Certanties and The Lack Thereof

3.25 years in, the mysteries of language acquisition continue to be most fascinating aspects of parenting to me. Which, really isn’t all that surprising, I suppose, when you consider who I am, and what I’ve spent most of my life doing, in one form or another.

This past weekend, we went up the coast to see an old friend of mine who had rented a beach house in Solimar, in one of those houses you see in movies sometimes, that are situated right on the ocean hanging off the side of a cliff. It was a celebration of sorts, and we walked into a room full of people, including a new baby, the niece of my friend R (and also, as it happens, the niece of The Buttchecker of Barnard Way). I pointed out the baby to Mini, who said, “Yes, him has a toy.”

I felt compelled to explain, then, to the entire room, that for Mini, “him” is an all-purpose pronoun — something completely divorced from gender distinctions or niceties of tense. It was important to me, I suppose, that these people understand that he wasn’t confused about the gender of the baby, lest the new mother be insulted. More important, really, than explaining why he doesn’t use the correct part of speech to conjugate the verb, which might really bother other parents, but for me that is far less of a concern for some reason. Mr. Right-Click, for example, will correct Mini every time he says something like this, “She has a toy,” or even, “He has a toy,” he will say, just to encourage him to get the part of speech correct. But I let him say it wrong, only feeling compelled to explain to avoid hurt feelings if it comes up.

Mini, if anything, is hyper aware of demarcations of gender, even if we have tried to push the idea that things like princesses and trucks are gender neutral objects, there are clearly forces much larger than parents at work that program these things into children. Somewhere. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, I just know it happens. Because I know that Mini will lecture you about what is “for girls” and what is “for boys” for hours if you let him, in an almost mortifyingly authoritative tone, in fact. And I also know he didn’t get that shit from me.

So there is no question that Mini knew, given her pink sweater, and the barette in her hair, that the baby was a girl. He just refuses to learn? or acknowledge? the different pronouns commonly used in the English language to distinguish these boys from girls and verbs from nouns.

In Mini’s mind, “him” works in all cases — boy or girl, action, person, place, thing, whathaveyou — if one word will do, why use another? Mini is efficient — let’s not forget. He may or may not be suffering from a case of The Knack.

And it’s not just with the pronoun thing, either. Mini’s also got this thing going on with designation of future times. While he clearly understands the concept of tomorrow versus, say, Saturday, he has taken to referring to all future times, regardless of how close or how far they are from us, chronologically speaking, as “next week.” So, for example, he will say, “Mommy, I want to get some crazy string.” And I will say, “You have to poop on the potty to get some crazy string.” (More on the continuing negotiations of that deal later, friends — so, so much more on that later.) And he will then say, “OK, mommy, I will poop on the potty. Next week.”

Which is reasonable, in his mind, because he totally will poop on the potty next week. Given that next week could be any time in the future.

At 3.25, Mini is reasonably comfortable with uncertanties, at least in some aspects of his life. In language, he seems to have no problem, anyway. He knows that if he says “Mayigagar,” and Mr. Right-Click looks at me strangely for a translation, that I’ll say, “He wants to watch Madagascar.” At 3.25, the world adapts to your linguistic peccadilloes. The world, such as you know it, really has no choice. You will throw a tantrum, refuse to take a nap. Poop on the floor.

At some point, we become a little bit more uncomfortable with uncertainty. We want to know exactly what it was — was the baby a girl or a boy? When are you going to reliably start pooping on the potty, and please do not just say “next week” because that could mean anything, given the fact that we don’t know if you’re defining the week on a Sunday or a Monday start to begin with, and besides, you’ve got a track record that suggests that “next week” could mean fifteen minutes from now? When am I going to get a promotion? When are you going to propose? Am I going to be a good parent? What is the best career path to take? Who is the best person from whom to take advice? Am I a good person? Does my life have meaning?

Maybe Mini has it right with delaying the certainty. I think I will put off the correcting him a bit longer.

Comments (9)

  1. Jul 20, 2010

    My cousin, a grown ass woman in her 30s, refers to anything beyond yesterday as “last week.” The event could have taken place six months or six years ago, but in casual conversation, she will call it last week. Drives me insane. I trust your little guy will outgrow it and when he does, do me a favor and send him to my cousin to explain…

  2. Jul 20, 2010

    According to my linguistics prof, correcting a kid’s grammar as he/she acquires language has no effect whatsoever. I don’t really buy that though. My mom never let us get away with so much as a dangling modifier, and as a result, I speak very slowly and carefully, and cringe when someone else makes a grammatical gaffe.

  3. Jul 21, 2010

    Elizabeth refers to everyone as “she” or “her” and she’s almost 4. We gently say “him” or “he” when necessary but she looks at us as if to say “that’s what I said, duh!”.

    Time for her is also relative. Unless I specifically give her a day “we are going to the park on Tuesday” it’s all “yeserday”. If I say “we are going swimming tomorrow” she’ll repeat that for a while and then when the time comes to get ready she’ll proudly announce “we are going swimming yeserday”.

    If she can’t remember a name she’ll just call the person “she” or “her” regardless of gender.

    I don’t feel the need to explain to people. She’s 4, she’s learning and she’ll get there. 🙂

    Joey was always very eloquent in his speaking. Even at 3 and 4 he knew the difference between boys and girls in the pronoun sense.

    Elizabeth also played with trucks and tools for the first 2.5 years of her life. She was ALL boy. She’d play in the dirt. She didn’t want a pink Barbie Corvette to drive around, she wanted a “truck”. She has a John Deere Gator. I was really bummed for a while because I’d had dreams of tea parties and babies. Then I realized trucks are just as fun. About the time I did., she realized babies and kitchens, and all of that are fun and now the trucks are at the consignment store because she hasn’t played with them in months.

    It’s funny how they go round and round.

  4. Jul 21, 2010

    I say, delay away. They only get to be…well, not wrong, but OFF a few times in their life, and if childhood isn’t one of those times, I don’t what is. Which explains why I almost find myself encouraging my 3.5 daughter to say “benember” (remember) and “preposed to” (supposed to). Once she starts saying those words the correct way, it shall be clear that I also am older than I used to be. Sigh. Delayed fatalism is usually my best approach.

    Also, I saw a boy in a pink sweater the other day. So Mini knows emerging gender trends.

  5. Jul 21, 2010

    So, mini has figured out the offender time line! Good Job!! To him next week could mean anytime sooner or later. To an offender a ‘minute’ could be 60 seconds from now or 40 years from now, lol! He makes me want another baby more often than not, you’re so lucky he is still so small, it makes me miss those days with the Princess Fairy.

  6. Jul 21, 2010

    If the word ‘ebonics’ exists to describe, ummm… what it describes, then there should totally be an umbrella word for how preschool kids talk. “Wha? oh yeah, err-uh-play-yang. that’s kidgin for airplane. And pissget? Spaghetti.”

    And no, they don’t serve pissget on the erruhplayyang any more.

  7. Jul 21, 2010

    I like it. Uncertainty breeds excitement and the older we get the more set in our ways we are, and the less receptive we become to change, or to unexpected things happening to us. I think you’ve made a good case here for making an effort to detach ourselves from our obsession with these certainties, and I think I’m going to make a conscious effort to try doing just that myself… I’ll start next week.

  8. Jul 21, 2010

    It sucks that we lose that comfort with uncertainty. It’s not like life ever becomes certain, the time we spend stressing about it is kind of wasted.

  9. Jul 22, 2010

    Mini is a righteous dude.

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