Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
One of the interesting parts of parenting my second child is observing how differently my two girls approach the world around them. I could say they have the same parents, but I doubt very much that they experience us, or that we respond to them, in ways they would someday interpret as the same. Both of my girls are chatterboxes at home, but my toddler’s language development reflects her own viewpoint as well as her position in the family. I’m certain her elder sister didn’t say “MY OWN” at this age, because there was no competition then for that most valuable resource—parental attention. And the little sister went through an early phase of being obsessed with prepositions, illustrating her interest in spatial and mechanical relationships that never attracted my elder child.
Especially when children are first acquiring and practicing language, it’s a glimpse into their interests, their obsessions, in a way that first serves to differentiate them from parents. I once spent most of a hike discussing horses with my toddler. She would say “Neigh neigh?” and I would say “no, no neigh neighs here.” And repeat. I couldn’t satisfy her tremendous longing for sighting a horse, but it sure clued me in to what was on her mind. For her, that hike was all about horses, and in a way, it was, even though we never saw one. In that way, language both reflects and shapes our experiences.
My children’s speech shows me what is important to them and changes the way that I look at the world. Never before had I seen that forest as lacking because it didn’t contain horses. I also hear my own words, my own intonations, often accompanied by my gestures and expressions, issuing forth from my children. It’s a delight when my elder daughter calls her baby sister “honey” and treats her gently; it’s an indictment when she turns my bossy face on her sibling or friends and I’m forced to reflect on how well I’m balancing the authority of parenting with the kind speech to which I am called. Whether I orient my language around possession or prepositions or ponies, my speech is meant to glorify God.
As a parent, it’s part of my responsibility to teach my children not just the words they need, but the meaning of words. So when my older daughter picked up the phrase “Oh my God,” I tried to explain what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain, and why we treat God’s name with special respect. When she told me that she “hates” a toy that frustrates her, I talked to her about the difference between hatred and irritation at things not going our way. These conversations need to be tailored to the context and my children’s ages, of course, but I think they need to begin as early as language itself, which is to say at the very beginning, by honestly evaluating my own speech and how it resonates in my household.
There’s a reason so many Scriptures about speech and tongues—exhorting us to honesty and kindness and gentleness and praise, to wisdom and restraint—because our words frame the world around us. Just as an afternoon with my toddler makes me see how many spatial relationships she’s mastered with her prepositions, an afternoon spent with someone who curses and complains makes me see how speech acts can conjure negativity and misery. Life and death are in our tongues, so let us speak words of life and love, words that uplift and edify, words that frame our children’s worldviews as holy and pleasing to God. And let all the forests be filled with ponies, or the longing sound of toddler neighing.