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.