The other day I walked into the kitchen and my 4 ½-year-old was at the table, hard at work on an art project. “Oh Mommy, you startled me! I was distracted by the portrait I was drawing.”
Sometimes she speaks and it freaks me out–she sounds like a little grown up. Language can be deceiving, I’ve learned. For me, her language can be especially deceiving.
She’s always been verbally precocious. She began to speak at 9 ½ months, and for those first several months, I compulsively documented every new word added to her vocabulary. At a little over a year old, she was speaking in two word sentences like, “More, Mama.” At 1½ years, she was able to identify letters on a name tag or a sign. Before she was 2, she was speaking in complete sentences. At 2, she narrated everything she did throughout the day, all day, every day. Endlessly. Even in her sleep.
And she’s always been inventive with language. When she was a few months shy of 2, we got caught in a rainstorm and ran under the awning of a building on Fifth Avenue. I explained to her that flowers and trees drink the raindrops but that we should wait for them to finish so we don’t get wet. “Right, Mama,” she said, “we don’t want to get a rain-burn.”
I know that on the mommy chat boards, my reflections on my daughter’s verbal ability would be considered a VBA, “veiled brag alert.” And, if I’m honest with myself, two years ago it might have been. My husband and I are both passionate about language and watching our daughter verbally blossom was breathtaking and a source of deep pride. We believed it might reveal something special about her gifts. At the end of each day we would marvel with each other over her newest verbal accomplishments.
Then she turned 3 and the tantrums began.
Sometimes they were predictable–I’m a working mother, and when I came home at night she would lose it. I think those tantrums were caused by a combination of being angry at me for being away all day, and feeling safe with me to unleash her torrent of emotions. Other times, we could not fathom the source of the tantrums.
She would start with a thunderstorm of whining and we’d try to reason with her, “Sweetie, we can’t communicate with you when you’re like this.” The whirlwind would increase, her face would turn red, and toys would get thrown. We’d respond, our own voices getting tighter, and our own brows becoming furrowed, “You know, we’ll need to start counting down to time-outs.” And then the tantrum would reach its peak. Yelling and slamming doors ensued. My husband and I would hurl accusations at one another. We were all miserable. It was a perfect storm of miscommunication.
Finally, one night after several torturous nights of tantrums, I was standing outside my daughter’s closed door, listening to her abject desolation as she repeatedly screamed the same sentence over and over again. Without thinking, I burst into her room, scooped her up on the bed, and lay with her in a full body hug. I looked her right in the eye and I said, “Peanut, I love you. I will always love you. I will love you when you’re angry. I will love you when you’re happy. I will love you when you’re awake. I will love you when you’re asleep. I don’t love to hear you scream, but I will always always always love you. No matter what you do.”
She immediately went limp in my arms, and after several minutes of lying quietly together, we got up and went on with our evening. The next day, I sought the advice of a family therapist I know. “Well, of course, Ruth, you finally treated her like a 3-year-old. You had been trying to talk with her like an adult, but, for goodness sakes, she’s just 3. You have to remember that and show empathy for her. The last thing she needed was to be alone in a time out. She needed to be closer to you.”
It was a lightning bolt moment. I consider myself a fairly empathic person, but it never dawned on me that in my encouragement of her communication skills, I had forgotten to empathize with my own daughter. When she uses sophisticated words, she’s experimenting and improvising, but she’s still a small child and still needs the world translated for her. Rule number one: she needs to know that the people closest to her will always love her.
I’ve come to realize that because my daughter acquired language very easily, she sounded mature beyond her years. But emotionally, developmentally, she is right on track with her peers. She cannot help her verbal explorations. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, she looks at all the wondrous phenomena around her and she feels compelled to name what she sees. God spoke and the world came into being. My daughter speaks and the world is created anew for her. It must be dazzling and intoxicating and overpowering all at the same time.
And that’s why when she uses advanced words, it’s my job to respond to her age-appropriately. This means that I have to help her discover some boundaries to this endlessly perplexing world she is traversing for the very first time. And it means that when we have our struggles and conflicts, I need to remember that nonverbal communication speaks volumes to her. And when I do speak, no matter how grown up her language may be, I need to try to use simple straightforward sentences. I’ve been keeping these rules in mind. We’ve eliminated time-outs, and things have been a lot calmer in our house.
Still, there are other minefields to navigate. The other day when my daughter realized that she had left a toy outside, she exclaimed, “Damn!” with the same emphatic intonation that I use. I guess there’s one more rule I need to keep in mind: to carefully guard my own language and communication styles. As it says in the Talmud, “What the child says out in the street comes either from his father or his mother.”
I’m still working on that one.