One of my daughter’s first words was “stuck.” She used it to mean “this thing won’t work” or “this block is too big for this box” or “I really want to climb up in this chair and I need your help.” It was particularly helpful for when she accidentally wedged herself between the couch and the wall or couldn’t get the lid off a container. For quite a while it was the cornerstone of her five word vocabulary: “Mama,” Dad-Dad,” “cup,” “this!” and “stuck.” You’d be surprised what you can say with so little.
In recent months her language has exploded. It’s varied and metaphoric. There’s “chooch” (a train or pretty much anything with wheels) “kits” (cats), “Else,” (dog, short for our dog, Elsie), “cake” (anything soft and sweet), “six” (any number or letter), “coat,” (a word that can mean both coat and cold). She’s tackling complete sentences, making it clear that she’s very proud of her independence: “I’m do it!” But as it so often goes with us humans, our brains and our bodies seem woefully out of sync. One morning she was trying so desperately to communicate with me and I just couldn’t make out her request. She slumped over in my lap as if defeated. She paused for a moment, pointed to her mouth and said, “Is stuck.”
I broke out into laughter. Not because what she said was funny, (it was, of course), but because I was so very proud. She had taken her limited language and used it to communicate about the limits of her limited language. That’s brilliant. Not wanting for my laughter to be read as trivialization, I quickly shifted my tone and told her how astute her comment was. I told her how her frustration was a normal human feeling and that in finding a way to name it she had done something quite remarkable. I’m not sure she totally understood, but in any case we hugged and shared a moment. And then we went back to the lovingly labored work of trying to understand one another.
I remember when my twin sons first started doing something similar. I was equally enamored then, and wrote an essay about how they managed to turn the phrase “all done” into an all-purpose expression for all of their needs. Watching them learn how to communicate I quickly realized that one of my most sacred tasks as a caregiver was to provide space and protection for their natural human drive to be resourceful with language. My sons laid the ground work for me knowing to take my daughter’s desire to communicate so seriously — to know when to laugh and to know when to be sincere. Children crave communication, and they’re fearless with it. They’ll likely remain so if we value this fearlessness.
As an adult — and as someone who gives some of my time to community work — I often think about how atrophied adult imaginations can be, my own included. We tend to think that the ways things have always been is the way they must remain. Our sense of fearfulness around our limited language leaves us feeling as if we have few tools to build new ways of being. Put another way, sometimes we can scarcely talk about what it could like to build a more just and loving world, let alone get around to building it.
I often find myself in situations where we adults stumble around language as if to figure out some kind of magic formula for how to bring more justice into this world. We examine our ideas and find them inadequate. We look at our resources and deem them lacking. We hit the limits of our language and get angry. Sometimes we think if we can just find the right analysis we can finally bring about change. I don’t want to oversimplify things, but I do think we need to spend more time watching children learn language.
Kids come into this world knowing how to be resourceful and creative. They aren’t hung up on our boundaries. They can take a box and transform it into a rocket. They can look at their own hands and make them into cheetah paws (a favorite trick of my son’s). In my daughter’s case, they can take a five-word vocabulary and provide astute commentary on their five-word vocabulary. In other words, they work with what they have. Not because they believe they must remain within those limitations, but precisely so they can break out of them. After all, all you can ever do is start exactly where you are. If my toddler can convey vast ideas with a five-word vocabulary, surely we have such capacity within in our own.